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ALÈS, France (VN) – Watching Alberto Bettiol’s performance across all five days of last week’s Étoile de Bessèges, where he finished second overall behind Cofidis’s Benjamin Thomas, it was hard to believe that it had been more than six months since the 2019 Tour of Flanders champion’s last competitive appearance at the Olympic Games time trial in Tokyo.
Hit last summer by a recurrence of ulcerative colitis that had affected him the previous winter, the Italian opted to call a premature end to his 2021 season to receive long-term treatment for the condition and to rest.
Going into Bessèges last week, his training had been going well, but he wasn’t expecting to be as competitive as he was. A top-10 finisher on all five days, he repeated his 2020 performance in the French stage race in claiming second place, 16 seconds behind the Frenchman Thomas.
“At the start of the week, I had absolutely no expectations of finishing on the podium here. I came to Bessèges to improve my condition, to push myself and get some kilometers in the legs, and there was no pressure from the team. Everything came day by day, and I ended up in second place. I’ll leave with more confidence about my legs, about my condition, and again, I’m really happy above all for my health,” Bettiol explained as he waited for the final protocol ceremony in Alès.
“A few months ago, I was in the hospital and the first goal of course has been to get healthy again, and only then think about results. I arrived here with good preparation but I’m not 100 percent ready yet. But it’s only February and I have another month to improve and be ready for March and the classics.”
The 28-year-old Italian was also delighted with the way EF Education-EasyPost performed across the week. In their newly designed kit combining pink jerseys and green shorts that make them so easy to pick out in the bunch, it was plain to see how prominent the American team was at the race’s key moments.
“My team was really unbelievable [last] week. We were the most compact and strong team for sure, and this second place is more than 50 percent thanks to them,” said Bettiol. “I’m actually a little bit disappointed not to get a big result for them, but like everybody else on the team I did the maximum I could so I’m happy.”
EF Education-EasyPost has put together what is arguably their strongest-ever line-up of one-day racers, including Bettiol, Magnus Cort, Michael Valgren, Sebastian Langeveld, and new signings Owain Doull and Łukasz Wiśniowski.
“It gives me a good feeling for the classics, especially as we have even more riders to come in for those races,” Bettiol told VeloNews. “But it was good too that the new guys like Owain and Łukasz got the chance to get used to working with us. We’re coming out of Bessèges with really good feelings.”
Welshman Doull told VeloNews he was very happy with the way that the race had gone for his new team, but confessed it hadn’t been the perfect start for him, although he added there was a good reason for this.
“I’m just missing it a little bit. I’ve had a good winter, but the goal has always been to try and be at my best for the bigger races,” said Doull, who moved from the Ineos Grenadiers over the winter.
“I think sometimes I’ve started the year a little bit too hot and then kind of dipped off as the main classics have come around. I’ve always started ‘opening weekend’ in a good place and never really quite kicked on from there. So this year I’m aiming to have a more gradual build-up and be better for the main classics.”
Like Bettiol, Doull saw EF Education’s strength and cohesiveness as a significant positive they could take from Bessèges.
“As a group, we can take a lot of confidence from this race,” he said. “Across the board, everyone has been strong but also clever. It feels as though everyone rides on a similar wavelength. We don’t speak too much, but everyone knows what they’re doing when they have to commit and when they have to be clever.”
The Welshman regards the team’s greater strength in depth as its principal attribute approaching the spring classics.
“When I first joined they said there’s no real hierarchy – if you’re good, you’re good. We don’t race in that style of protecting one rider. Obviously here with Alberto in good shape and up there on the GC it was sensible to do that. But in the one-days you’ve to be more flexible and adaptable,” explained Doull.
“There’s a lot of guys with a lot of pedigree across the board. Everyone’s got results in their own right and has been up there in those one-day races. Obviously, with Alberto as a former winner of Flanders and guys like Valgren as well, we’re going to have a lot of depth for those big races and also quite a lot of experience as well.”