MILAN (VN) — Since his retirement in 2008, Paolo Bettini has gone from back-to-back world champion to the director of Italy’s national team program. Bettini has faced adversity during his tenure, failing to place a rider on the worlds or Olympic road race podium, but a return to the site of his first elite world championships next week in the Netherlands sees “The Cricket” with his best chance yet to deliver a medal to the Italian federation with Vincenzo Nibali.
Bettini is hard to track down ahead of the world championships. The Olympic and world champ has been rushing race-to-race around Italy to ready his team for the hilly Limburg worlds. The national coach finalized his nine-man team Tuesday for the race next Sunday in the southeastern corner of the Netherlands.
Bettini overlooked Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) and Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing), riders involved in doping investigations and off limits for the Squadra Azzurra. He instead banked on youth — the team’s average age is 27.2 years — and a red-hot Nibali. Bettini believes he selected well based on experience. Fourteen years ago, he made his own elite worlds debut in Limburg and the first steps towards two titles. He hopes for his first as manager in 10 days.
VeloNews: Your first worlds as a pro was in 1998, in Limburg. What do you remember?
Paolo Bettini: The circuit is slightly shorter, because in 1998, after the finish line, you descended all the way down to the main roundabout leading to the stadium. Instead, this year, you turn left into the countryside 500 meters earlier. It changes little, but the circuit is just a little shorter. This year, there is also the 100km piece to start with from Maastricht, which lessens the overall climbing meters. However, the fact remains that the Cauberg ends the race… I don’t think we are going to see the race arrive in a big group.
VN: Unlike the Amstel Gold, this finish line is on the slight downhill. How will it change the outcome?
PB: It changes a lot. With the line on the top of the Cauberg, like in Amstel, whoever has the legs and arrives first, wins. But with 1.5km, someone may be able to close any sort of gap [to the lead rider].
VN: How do you go about winning on this course?
PB: If someone wants to take advantage of the Cauberg, he needs to stay put all day and wait [until the last time up]. However, it’s a risk. Maybe 15 riders ride free and the group can’t close it. Whoever doesn’t have the legs to make the difference on the Cauberg certainly has to attack earlier.
VN: Italy has Nibali, who almost won Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, placed third in the Tour de France and recently won the Giro di Padania. What does the team have to do to win with him?
PB: If he is going well on race day, he can be one of the ones who waits until the Cauberg on the last lap. We may move earlier because he’s not a fast finisher and risks ending the race in a group of five or six, and maybe without any teammates.
VN: Will racing the team time trial be a disadvantage for Nibali?
PB: I don’t think it will compromise the run-up of the road race. Also, because Vincenzo is working on a specific program leading to the worlds, he’s training to be ready.
VN: In April, you mentioned Giovanni Visconti and Damiano Cunego as possible leaders. Cunego is not going well, but Visconti is. Is the Italian Federation’s decision to leave those involved in investigations and who served suspensions hurting or helping?
PB: Above all, to make the team, you have to show you deserve your selection in the races. Unfortunately, this year it’s not as if I’ve had strong signals from those riders who would potentially be forced to stay home. Some yes, like Alessandro Ballan.
VN: Alejandro Valverde, Philippe Gilbert, Simon Gerrans, Peter Sagan, Eddy Boasson Hagen… Are these are favorites?
PB: Australia, with Gerrans, will be a strong team. Gilbert came out of the Vuelta well and started the season relaxed.
VN: Does the race change without Cadel Evans, Fabian Cancellara and Thor Hushovd?
PB: Not really, because there will still be strong nations like Spain with a lot of options. Belgium is practically racing on home roads and will have a team to take responsibility.