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Italy’s Bettini under pressure to deliver strong worlds ride for home team

FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Without a single medal and on home roads, the pressure is building for Italian director Paolo Bettini. The two-time world champion leads the squadra azzurra to Sunday’s elite men’s world road race championship with high hopes.

Since taking over in 2010, the best Bettini has to show is fourth place with Filippo Pozzato in 2010. It is hardly the glory of Alfredo Martini’s days or even the four wins under Franco Ballerini’s direction.

“There’s more pressure with this ‘home’ worlds,” Bettini told VeloNews. His voice rang slightly lower than normal, having suffered a fever for two days last week. “It’s not as if someone is putting the pressure on me, but it’s just that I can feel it with the worlds in Tuscany. This worlds will be special, for many reasons. There’s no reason to deny it.”

Bettini spends his time at Italy’s base in Montecatini Terme this week. His home is just a short 50-minute drive to the coast. He trained as a professional on these Tuscan roads during a career that included wins in the 2006 and 2007 worlds. Bettini retired in 2008 and, two years later, became the director of the Italian National Team.

Ballerini died in a rally car race in February 2010. The Italian cycling federation (FCI) asked Bettini to direct for his friend and former teammate at that year’s worlds in Geelong, Australia. Three years later, he is still at the helm, but without a medal.

Italian journalists have speculated that the federation might be at a crossroads. If its team closes Sunday’s race without a medal, changes could be made. Earlier this year, Max Sciandri briefly considered the job before turning it down. Bettini, following the worlds, could take on a manager’s role similar to David Brailsford’s position at British Cycling, or he could leave the federation completely.

Italian media can be one-sided and supportive for its team, but it can also turn nasty when results are lacking. Bettini said that he would not dare open up the newspapers Monday morning.

“Look, there’s always something to criticize. Only if you win, do you have absolute reason. That’s just part of the game,” said Bettini. “I’m not going to sit around and look at what the newspapers write. The Italian team and organization has to stay united. Sunday night, we need to be able to look each other in the eyes and be confident in our work.”

Italy has a lot of work to do if it wants to win, at least according to the oddsmakers. Bet365.com, listed Vincenzo Nibali’s odds at 12:1 on Thursday afternoon; Filippo Pozzato remained a longshot at 50:1. Swiss Fabian Cancellara was the favorite, at 13:4, with Slovak Peter Sagan at 9:2. To win, grand tour riders like Nibali need to go solo or in a small group from one of the Florence circuits two climbs. The Giro d’Italia champion has few options because he lacks a quick finish in sprints. Pozzato is the better one-day racer, having won GP Plouay recently, but is unreliable and not as fast as Sagan, defending world champ Philippe Gilbert (Belgium), Joaquím Rodríguez (Spain), and many others.

“They have to rise to the occasion,” Bettini said. “Everyone wants to win. I’ve done it, and I know how hard it is to do. If someone does better, we can’t do anything but applaud him. However, the marching orders are to race well and as a team, one that shows it can interpret its home race.”