Analysis: How Bettiol’s bravado upended favorites at Flanders

With a long list of contenders, a tough ride over the Muur that split the peloton, and an uncooperative chase, Alberto Bettiol seized the moment — and the victory.

Photo: Getty Images

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Alberto Bettiol’s surprise victory continues to resonate across the peloton in the wake of Sunday’s hard-fought Ronde van Vlaanderen.

The unsung Bettiol made the cover of La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy on Monday and his weary rivals tried to turn the page on Flanders to look ahead to Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix.

Nearly everyone agreed that the Italian’s well-timed attack on the final passage over Oude Kwaremont came just as the pre-race favorites were on their collective limit.

“The strongest attacked at the right moment,” said Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), who admitted he didn’t have the legs to follow. “I was on my limit on the Kwaremont and didn’t have the legs to follow.”

Though Bettiol had never won a professional race until Sunday, no one was calling him an unworthy winner. Flanders is so hard and so demanding that anyone who arrives alone to the finish line in Oudenaarde deserves it.

Kapelmuur chaos

Former Tour of Flanders winner Philippe Gilbert made his way up the iconic climb. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

How did Bettiol pull off the heist? And how come he had the legs to attack while the pre-race favorites couldn’t respond?

There were a few key factors that stacked up in his favor. First off, the entire race was very hard from start to finish. With a deep field and no clear favorite, dozens of riders lined up in Antwerp believing they could reach the finale.

A critical moment came early in the race when the peloton broke up on the Kapelmuur with about 100km to go. The emblematic climb typically marks the opening salvos of the real aggression in Flanders, but this year, it was more than just a few flares to test the legs. The main pack fractured in two, with many of the top favorites riding into the front group.

That meant the next 50km were raced much more intensely than usual. Instead of having a relatively small group of riders attacking off the front, on Sunday, there were many of the top favorites with just a few teammates to work. The leading group was pushing the pace to try to make the move stick, and the chasing group was pouring on the gas to bring it back.

That mid-race tug-of-war would later mark the dynamics in the closing salvos, and help open the door for Bettiol.

“This was one of the hardest Flanders ever,” said Bora-Hansgrohe’s Daniel Oss. “It was a strange race. After the Muur, there was a small group and we tried to anticipate the group. The speed was so high and the power was so hard. In the end, we just stayed there. Everyone was tired and on the limit. I saw a lot of tired faces.

“We sent so hard in the middle of the race,” Oss explained. “That means the power goes lower, but steady, so that means that more guys can stay there. The leaders look at each other.”

That Kapelmuur effort meant that many contenders were on their knees when the race turned into the final loop over Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg.

EF Education First, in contrast, raced in full defensive mode until the final hour of the race. The team wanted to follow the wheels and keep its leaders as fresh as possible for the most explosive moments.

“We have a very clear team tactic,” said EF Education First sport director Andreas Klier. “We wanted to be defensive until the Muur, be aware of what would happen on the Muur, and then from there be offensive. Whenever someone moves, we move with them.”

EF tactics first

Coming back from a knee injury, Sep Vanmarcke devoted himself to supporting his EF teammate Bettiol. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Bettiol certainly wasn’t at the top of the list of favorites on Sunday, but his victory didn’t come without a clear tactical plan for the beginning. EF Education First wasn’t just blindly throwing darts at the dartboard. A hobbled Sep Vanmarcke was a surprise starter, and would eventually play a decisive role, but his injuries reshuffled the deck. The team started with two leaders — Sebastian Langeveld and Bettiol — and everyone else rode in support.

Bettiol, who shed weight and put renewed focus on his training coming into the classics period, was already showing hints of brilliance ahead of Flanders. As a protected rider Sunday, he held back while other rivals were trying to force the race. Surges by Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus), who spent matches chasing back from an earlier crash, and Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) on the Kruisberg pushed everyone into the red. Bettiol was showing he had the legs for something when he kept bobbing near the front of the action.

At that point, Vanmarcke was already up the road and later helped catapult Bettiol when the Italian surged clear near the top of the final passage up the Kwaremont.

Now was the time to move, and Bettiol bounded free without hesitation.

“Andreas said from the car, ‘If you can go, just,’” Bettiol recounted. “And I closed my eyes and went. I looked over the top and I had a gap. From the car, they said to keep pushing, keep pushing on.”

Bettiol had been marking the wheels all day while many of the others were trying to force the race or were having trouble hanging on. Pre-race favorites Deceuninck-Quick-Step lost Stybar at the Kruisberg, meaning they shed much of their typical numerical advantage. Other favorites such as Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) admitted they didn’t have the legs to follow when Bettiol surged clear.

“Bettiol went at the right moment. I certainly couldn’t follow him,” Van Avermaet said. “I had hoped to pull away with a small group on the Paterberg, and we might have been able to move. But with such a large group, it was very difficult.”

EF Education First’s Langeveld was also doing what he could from behind to block the race. At the decisive moment of the race, Bettiol had an opening and he had the legs to execute. From there, it was a drag race to the line.

One versus many

Bettiol did the time trial of his life on the flat final kilometers to Oudenaarde. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

On paper, one against many is usually a losing battle. In bike racing, however, when different team loyalties and rival interests butt heads, an individual rider can often fend off a weary and non-committed group. It happened last year at the Giro d’Italia when Chris Froome (Sky) attacked solo over the Colle delle Finestre, and it happened again Sunday at Flanders.

After a dangerous chase group featuring Van Avermaet, van Aert, van der Poel, and Valverde was squelched coming off the final climb at Paterberg, the closing flats was a battle between Bettiol’s steely resolve and the conflicting interests of a mish-mash chase group.

Bettiol shouldn’t stand a chance against a dozen of the world’s best riders that included world champions and monument winners, but on the flats to Oudenaarde, they were not working together, and Bettiol was pouring everything he had into the pedals.

When Van Avermaet saw fast finishers like Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) and Michael Matthews (Sunweb) shadowing the chasing group, he knew things were complicated.

“I am not going to pull for the profit of others,” Van Avermaet said. “There were riders sitting on the wheel — why am I going to pull them to victory?”

Despite having three riders in the front group, Deceuninck-Quick-Step wasn’t fully committed to the chase, either. Out of the 16 chasers, no one else had teammates to pull.

“If you want to make a difference, you have to go on the attack with three or four riders. Then you can work together to grab him,” said Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). “With a large group like this, it is almost impossible. There were many riders, there was a headwind and if someone attacks, there are many people to close it.”

That opened the door just a crack for Bettiol, and he pushed it wide open.

“Those were the longest 14km of my life,” Bettiol said. “I didn’t believe it until 100m from the finish. I turned back, and I could see I had the victory.”

Bettiol’s victory was the result of a few things stacking up his way. He didn’t crash or suffer a mechanical. His team supported him from start to finish, and he was on the form of his life. His outsider status helped, but most importantly, he had the legs to finish it off. No one wins Flanders on luck or the misfortune of others. Bettiol won because he was the strongest, and his rivals Sunday were the first to admit it.

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