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News feature , October 1, 2007

Out of the eye of the Storm

Anger spurs Bettini on to second rainbow jersey

By Shane Stokes in Stuttgart

Paolo Bettini (Italy)
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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It's been a difficult, demanding week for the entire Squadra Azzura but the Italian riders proved their focus with two big wins at these world road race championships. After Marta Bastianelli's victory in the elite women's road race on Saturday, Paolo Bettini equalled the feat in the men's version one day later and thus defended the rainbow jersey he took in Salzburg a year ago.

The feat is notable for two reasons. The first is the pressure that Bettini has been under, initially over the disclosure that he had refused to sign the full UCI Riders' Committment for a Clean Cycling charter [agreeing to provide DNA but not to pay a year's salary in the event of a failed test], and drawing considerable flak as a result. He then also faced allegations in the German media that Patrik Sinkewitz had named him as a supplier of doping products, something both he and Sinkewitz have vigorously denied.

The second notable factor about his victory is the fact that only four other riders in history had achieved back-to-back championship wins. Belgians Georges Ronsse (1928/1929), Rik Van Steenbergen (1956/1957), Rik Van Looy (1960/1961) and Bettini's fellow Italian Gianni Bugno (1991/1992) are the others in that rare club. Coincidentally, one of Bugno's wins also came in Stuttgart.

Paolo Bettini (Italy)
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Sunday's triumph was built through the efforts of a strong national team, which controlled things during the race and then fired off Davide Rebellin in order to put the pressure on their rivals. After his recapture, Bettini started to turn the screw on the final lap, going clear in a large move and then further thinning this down with several sharp accelerations.

When he crossed the line he made a shooting gesture, and a mix of triumph and rage was clearly on his face. "I felt angry, just the same way I did before the start of the race," he told reporters at the post-presentation press conference. "This week some declarations were made against myself so I cannot be happy with that, of course."

Echoing what Bastianelli said yesterday, he stated that the Squadra Azzurra had to regain focus after the high media attention on Bettini and Danilo di Luca. "Despite all the pressure, we tried during the week to work with tranquility, even if it was not easy. We decided in our team to transform all that happened in a wish to show how you must work in cycling.

"I will not let anybody damage my career, to damage myself, and all the sacrifices that I made until now. We, the cyclists, learned in the last years that those who have made a mistake have to pay for it. It's the same for people [in general]. If people have some proof, they must show it. If not, they will have to pay for that.

"Now I will take my time to think about that with more tranquility, so that I can see what can be done against the people who try to damage my career."

Prior to the press conference UCI President Pat McQuaid said that Bettini was a worth champion, given that he had endured after all the pressure. This was an attempt to diffuse the tension first raised when McQuaid highlighted that Bettini had not signed the agreement; the subsequent handshake between them showed that both were willing to move on.

Defending champ Paolo Bettini
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
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In truth, the Italian was under fire from several different quarters. The German media wanted him out of the race and so too the organisers. Then, earlier this week, the television channel ZDF broadcast the allegations linked to Sinkewitz, since denied by both riders. Bettini is believed to be initiating legal action over the claims.

"So many people shot at me this week that I wanted to do the same when I crossed the line," he said, explaining his gesture. "So I was shooting at everybody. It was not to anyone in particular but if anybody had a feeling that it was directed at himself, maybe he had a reason."

He then clarified further. "It was not directed to Pat McQuaid. When we have things to say, we do that between us. This was something that I did with my own instinct. It was directed to people who made declarations against me but know nothing about cycling. They are appearing sometimes in cycling solely for economical reasons."

It was proposed to him that a gesture would be made if he retired from the sport in protest, taking the rainbow jersey out of the peloton. But he said that this was not an option. "Of course, I am very angry but this week taught me that I have to go on and to fight. So I think that I will still be here for one more year, at least."

Thanks to the team

A minute before the start,
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

The Squadra Azzurra has been accused of disharmony or a downright lack of co-operation in the past, but the boys in blue pulled together magnificently in the race. He was keen to highlight the work that was done, stressing that everyone had a share in the win.

"Everybody could see today how strong our team was. For example, we saw Cunego who really sacrificed his own possibilities to work for the team. Rebellin had a positive experience. He tried to go himself but at the same time he worked for the team. Behind myself and Pozatto decided everything we had to do in the race together.

"As for all the other riders, Tonti, Tosatto, Bruseghin, Ballan, Bertolini, they really did a great job today. And also Di Luca - he was not in the race today but he was in the hotel and was also very important to have with us during the week. So too the two reserves, Nibali and Visconti - they are two young riders who have a great future in the sport.

"The team had such bad moments during the week but this means that next year should be much easier. I want to thank the national coach Ballerini because he really trusts me - that is very important. I want to thank not just one or two riders, but the whole team."

Last season Bettini showed huge determination in winning the Tour of Lombardy, despite the sudden death of his brother. He used that same unwavering focus this week and suggested that it could be part of the national psyche.

Nothing but hugs for the Italians
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"Italian people in general are very proud people," he explained. "When we leave a difficult situation, we are able to transform the pressure into a real desire to win. Maybe when things are easier it is not so easy to triumph. I think that something like what happened this week to us, the pressure gave us more courage to fight and to be at the highest level. To express all our potential."

Bettini has been regarded as one of the world's best one-day riders for many years, taking several big victories. His Olympic crown in 2004 was followed by victory in Salzburg twelve months ago; now he's done that rare world championship double. How did he explain the consecutive victories?

"Well, before I had won so many races in my career but the fact that I could not win the world championship really became an obsession for me," he stated. "I really wanted to get it. Finally last year it happened. After the first title in Salzburg, it was of course not going to be easy to repeat it. But maybe I just became used to these colours and wanted to continue with them.

"You can ask that when an athlete has already won so many races, where does he find his motivation? Well, the motivation came this week with all that happened. Even if I hoped to win and I was determined to do so, all of the events of the week meant that I started this morning even more motivated."

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