Just as we are all naturally drawn towards an underdog, we are equally enamoured by a result that makes a mockery of pre-event predictions. It is why, therefore, Alberto Bettiol’s 2019 Tour of Flanders victory had the characteristics of a modern cycling classic; a heist, if you will. A glorious steal of a victory that dumbfounded not just all race previews, but the man responsible for the race.
Wouter Vandenhaute, owner of race organisers Flanders Classics, was asked by a local newspaper in the days before Ronde if a smaller team could win. He said the parcours didn’t suit such an eventuality. Almost prophetically, it was suggested that Bettiol could win. “They are not going to win,” he remarked, referring to the Italian and other outsiders. Oh, poetic.
On the penultimate climb of the race, the Oude Kwaremont, with a sizeable group of favourites including Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan present, Bettiol made his move. He looked back to find just space and no rivals, and over the ensuing 17km soloed towards not just his first Monument victory, but his first ever triumph as a professional cyclist aged 25.
“I never won a race. Why should I win the Tour of Flanders?” Those were his disbelieving words after he had stunned the cycling world last April. Seventeen months on, the world a more sheltered and fearful place craving hope and positivity, the kind Bettiol delivered under the spring clouds without a mask in sight, he will line up in Flanders on October 18 with race number one.
Can he believe it now? “Now, yes, but at the beginning it was all shock and it took a long time to get used to. The following month it was not easy to understand. But then gradually it became normal to live with.”
Bettiol was a protected rider for EF Education First, who also counted Sep Vanmarcke and Sebastian Langeveld in their team, but he did not feature in the race’s previews. His little billing was not lost on him. “My win was amplified because it was my first victory and nobody expected it,” the Italian tells Cycling Weekly. “Nobody pointed to me as a probable winner.” Quite.
Though he had shown promise in one-day races, in 315 race days as a professional, he had only finished in the top-three on four previous occasions, two of which had come in the preceding month at Tirreno-Adriatico.
To claim that his obscurity was the deciding factor in his shock win would be to discount his strengths – Van Avermaet and Wout van Aert both said that Bettiol was the strongest and made his move at exactly the right juncture. It would also disregard the plan and the work of his team, but equally his anonymity cannot be forgotten. “I had no expectation. I was free to make mistakes, free to drop, free to win – nobody expected me.”
EF Education First had devised their strategy in the weeks before the race: Bettiol would make his move early, and it was anticipated that he would be joined by a small group, which would then favour Langeveld being able to counter-attack. “The last time up the Kwaremont, Sep was doing a great job and it was clear to us that he had sacrificed himself for me and Sebastian,” Bettiol remembers. “I was the better climber so I had to try something there.
“To drop everyone on the Kwaremont though, that was not in the plan. Even I was not sure! From the team car, all I heard was ‘try now, otherwise it’s too late.’ I’d hope to bring two to four others with me, hang on in on the Paterberg and anticipate the sprint depending on who would be with me. But I’d dropped everyone.” He was aided by the work of Langeveld who prevented Van Avermaet from attacking, and relayed valuable information to Bettiol about the deteriorating state of the fatigued chase.
The likeable Bettiol remarked in the immediate aftermath of his victory that the “last 14 kilometres were the longest of my life. I kept thinking, ‘what am I doing? I am winning Ronde van Vlaanderen.”
He had raced Ronde four times previously and thought he could appreciate the race’s mythology and its setting. “But then to be the prime actor in that show…” he tails off. “And to win in such an attacking way, at the key point of the race – on the Kwaremont! I was going through with 15km to go, probably at 10-15kmh and then a second later I felt like I was going 100kmh. Racing in Flanders is different to other places in the world.
“You have to understand what Flanders is, what cycling means for Flemish people in Belgium. When you finally have the opportunity to race there, to breathe the air of cycling, only then do you understand. It’s not just a Monument, a one-day race, like Liège-Bastogne-Liège, for example; it’s a holy week for these people.”
Bettiol remains a rider with a paucity of victories: in February, he won the individual time trial at Etoile de Bessèges, his only win since the win. But his face is more respected in the peloton – feared, even – and since racing’s return has finished fourth at both Strade Bianche and Ghent-Wevelgem.
“Huge. It is huge,” he says in response to being asked about the impact of his Flanders win. “The respect I have in the peloton… respect is not the right word, but people find me in the final of a race and they say ‘f**k, Bettiol is with me, I have to do something otherwise he kicks me’. I am a more considered rider by others.”
Perhaps more than anything, it helped to settle a few personal demons and doubts. He had always had a positive support base trusting and backing him, but he was sceptic of their belief. “I never believed it,” he says. But he continued to apply pressure on himself.
“The win helped me – it took away that pressure,” he reveals. “For me, every race was an exam: every race, it was like I was participating in the Tour de France. I had this pressure to show everyone how strong I was. I won Flanders, one of the hardest of races, and this means I now don’t have to show everyone every day. I finally paid back everyone who had believed in me.”