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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — He’s a momma’s boy who loves his mother’s homemade pasta. He’s a goofball. He’s a sweetheart who cracks jokes with the team soigneurs. He’s also cutthroat racer whose outward body language carries a certain swagger.
“He’s like a skinny Italian John Wayne,” says Jonathan Vaughers, general manager of EF Education First.
Alberto Bettiol is many things, and on Sunday, he became a Tour of Flanders champion, a title that will follow him throughout his cycling career and well into retirement. Bettiol, 25, unleashed a blistering attack on the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, held off a charging group of pre-race favorites on the Paterberg, and then surfed a tailwind to arrive at the finish line in Oudenaarde with more than enough time to salute the crowd.
“It was the longest 14km of my life,” Bettiol told reporters at the finish line. “I don’t know how I did it.”
For those who know Bettiol best, however, his Tour of Flanders demonstration was no surprise. A few things added up for Bettiol’s winning equation Sunday, including dropping weight, smart team tactics, and an opportune shift in cycling’s transfer market.
A native of Tuscany, Bettiol has spent the lion’s share of his pro cycling career with EF Education First, and its precursor team, Slipstream Sports. Bettiol joined the squad in 2014 after Slipstream merged with the Cannondale team, formerly Liquigas. Bettiol was just 19 years old at the time, and according to Vaughters, he showed promise. There was just one thing holding him back.
“He was a 20-year-old kid with about 15 extra pounds of baby fat on him,” Vaughters said. “You could see really early on that if you could just get rid of that 15 pounds of gnocchi on him, he was a top talent.”
Vaughters said he gave Bettiol the nickname “Mamma di Pasta” after Bettiol blamed the extra weight on his mother’s delicious homemade pastas.
“He even admits it, ‘If you leave me at home with my mother in Italy, I get fat,'” Vaughters said. “‘You have to have me at training camp and keep pushing me.’ We put extra effort into pushing him.”
Bettiol is something of an enigma to cycling fans outside of Italy. His racing resume lacks any major results. In fact, Sunday’s victory at the Tour of Flanders is his first ever pro win. Bettiol told reporters Sunday that he was to blame for his relative anonymity.
“It’s my fault because in 2016 and 2017 I was pretty good, and then last year I disappeared,” Bettiol said. “This season I started pretty well from Strade Bianche, then Tirreno, then Milan-San Remo. I was trying to stay in the front and to be part of the race so they could recognize me and see me in a top-10 and I hope now they recognize me.”
Bettiol’s early professional years saw glimmers of brilliance and plenty of middle-of-the-pack finishes. In his first two seasons he was a frequent DNF, and in those races he finished, he sniffed the top-20 on occasions. A breakthrough came at the 2017 Tour of Poland, where he finished third overall, won the King of the Mountains jersey, and finished second in the points jersey.
All the while, Vaughters said, Bettiol worked with the team to lean out. The progression transformed him into a versatile rider.
“He’s an excellent racer. He has a nose for the race. He knows how to save energy and he knows how to relax,” Vaughters said. “He’s versatile in that he can sprint a little bit he can climb. He’s obviously good on the stones. He’s actually a really good time trialist. He was an extremely underestimated rider.”
Bettiol’s breakthrough came during the 2017 Tour de France, when he helped shepherd Colombian climber Rigoberto Urán to a second-place finish. Throughout the race, Bettiol turned heads with his abilities on the climbs, flats, and hills.
But Bettiol bid adieu to the Argyle squad that fall after the team was placed in financial jeopardy. In late August 2017, Vaughters told his riders they were free to seek employment at other teams after a potential sponsor fell through, a move that appeared to doom the squad. Bettiol signed with Team BMC and swamped jerseys to race with Greg van Avermaet.
Slipstream was eventually saved when study abroad company EF Education First purchased the team and secured its finances. Bettiol raced for one season with BMC with marginal results. When he found himself back on the transfer market in late 2018, Vaughters jumped at the opportunity to sign him back.
“We always wanted him back,” Vaughters said. “Lucky for us he didn’t have a great season in 2018 and we could afford him on the transfer market. He was the first new guy I signed for the 2019 season.”
When asked about his short stint with BMC, Bettiol simply chalked it up to a bad fit. The team had one leader in Van Avermaet, and, as Bettiol said, “a lot of things went wrong” throughout the season. When the opportunity opened for him to re-join Vaughters and EF Education First, Bettiol jumped at the chance.
“They signed me basically without any results from 2018, only based on trust,” Bettiol said.
Bettiol said he lost 3kg (6.6 pounds) in the off-season, and showed up to EF’s training camp on top form. The team saw glimpses of Bettiol’s improved form at the Tour Down Under and Tirreno-Adriatico. Then, he turned heads with an attack at Milano-Sanremo. Bettiol blew past the favorites on the Poggio, only to be caught in the run-in to the finish.
The skies then opened for Bettiol during the cobbled classics. He powered into the front group at E3 Binck Bank Classic and finished fourth. EF’s co-leader, Sep Vanmarcke, crashed during the race, and the slow recovery convinced the team to have him ride as a super domestique at Flanders.
Then, during Flanders, Bettiol bounded into the front group of favorites. Vanmarcke joined an early attack, and the move allowed him to work for Bettiol at a crucial moment in the race. As the group sped into the Oude Kwaremont for the final time, Vanmarcke’s long pull helped put Bettiol into the perfect position to attack.
“We had a very good team tactic,” team director Andreas Klier said after the race. “After the Muur, we go on the offensive. Whenever somebody goes, we go with them.”
With his victory, Bettiol became the first Italian champion at the Flemish Monument since Alessandro Ballan won the race in 2007. Sunday’s boundless performance seemed to catch the Italian rider off-guard.
“I still don’t really believe it, even now,” he said. “I don’t know where I am or what I’m talking about.”
After winning Flanders, maybe Vaughters will let him enjoy some of momma’s cooking, at least for one celebratory dinner.