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GENT, Belgium (CT) — More than six hours after he raised his arms in Oudenaarde, Alberto Bettiol stood in front of a blank grey wall in a hotel outside Lokeren, held a single glass of champagne in the air, raised it, and paused. In front of him, fanned out in pink and purple, stood his team: riders and mechanics and soigneurs and chefs, domestiques and champions and all the men and women in between. More than thirty of them, easily. They smiled, and he smiled, then he spoke.
“I am really proud,” he said, beaming. Proud, he said, of the strength of his teammates, how even those he’s known for years surprised him today. Proud to have great riders like Sep Vanmarcke and Sebastian Langeveld working for him. “Not so many teams have this honor, this privilege,” he said.
“I hope, now, you are paid back for all the sacrifice in the past years. Working, working, working and never getting enough.”
Which is a pretty good way to summarize pro cycling.
“He’s a good dude,” Taylor Phinney said. This is, from Phinney, a high sort of praise, backed up by crucial details: Bettiol, 25, still lives with his parents; he loves his mama’s pasta; he and Phinney, eager to escape and relax, smoked cigarettes on the rest days of the Tour de France two years ago. “He’s super Italian,” Phinney said. He has a series of what Phinney calls “old man-isms,” habits of an old man played out by a young man. “Like a true Italian does,” Phinney said, “he sits at the table with his arms crossed like he has a beer belly already, though he’s clearly very skinny.”
“He’s a good dude,” he said, to make sure I got the point.
The two have a bond, of sorts. It’s obvious if you follow either of them on Instagram. Phinney speaks Italian; Bettiol is Italian. They often room together. They both, apparently, like a cigarette on a rest day. They both give a good quote. Neither takes this whole thing too seriously.
Bettiol first signed for EF, what was then Cannondale, way back in 2014. He was 20. Young, and by all accounts overweight by the underweight standards of pro cycling. A huge motor held under a few too many pounds of chassis. He rode with the team through 2017, the year he raced his first Tour de France. By then a lighter version of the 2014 rookie, he was Rigoberto Uran’s star mountain domestique.
This new, svelte Alberto still earned a special nickname that Tour, from his boss Jonathan Vaughters: Mamma di Pasta. He left for BMC for a year, following Slipstream’s financial troubles, but the name stuck. “He still calls himself Mamma di Pasta,” Vaughters said. “When we finally signed this contract he sent me a text and said, ‘Mamma di Pasta is coming back!’
“You could see early on that if you could just get rid of those 15-20 pounds of gnocchi that was on him he was really a top talent,” Vaughters said. “So we started working with him little by little. At the Tour de France, he was the one who helped Rigoberto more than anybody.
“He even admits it. He said, ‘If you leave me at home with my mother I get fat. You have to have me at training camps and keep pushing me.’ So we keep [putting] a little extra effort into pushing him.”
It was not entirely a game of weight and power. The team didn’t want Bettiol back after his year hiatus for his watts, at least not entirely. “Numbers schmumbers,” Vaughters said. “He’s good in that way, but he’s an excellent racer, he knows when to save energy, he knows when to relax. He’s versatile. He can sprint a little bit. He can climb. He’s good on the stones. And he’s a really great time trialist. He was an extremely underrated rider.”
This spring, Bettiol is three kilos lighter than previous seasons. “It’s an easy thing to say but not easy to do,” he said at the post-race press conference. He attacked on the Poggio at Milan-San Remo, because he felt good, and finished fourth at E3. It was that race, Vaughters said, that made the whole team believe. “He was angry he didn’t win. That’s good.”
By the time I got to the press tent, just past the finish line, EF-Education First soigneur Alyssa Morahan was already bouncing, lightly, watching a too-small television and wiggling her hands down by her sides like she was trying to flick the nervous energy out through her fingertips. Bettiol had eight kilometers to go and a 22-second gap. At five kilometers he had 26 seconds. At four kilometers, 20 seconds.
Two kilometers, 18 seconds.
1.8 kilometers, time to run.
She dashed toward the finish. Jon Adams, another EF-Education First soigneur, ran next to her. And behind the clasped hands of a ring of security, they waited, bouncing, wiping their eyes, straining to see their rider in a moment that belonged to all of them.
I have seen other teams win bike races, big bike races. I have seen the celebrations, the party, the champagne, the genuine happiness that comes from success. But I have not seen many tears. That’s a different emotion. That’s relief; it’s pride in not just where you are — the pride of victory — but where you’ve come from.
Eighteen months after it nearly sank, this plucky little team — “the Mighty Ducks,” as its communications officer put it — has a fourth Monument, and its first major win since it was purchased by education giant EF. The only Monument missing, now, is Milan-San Remo.
In some convenient ways, Bettiol’s story mirrors his team’s story. Neither entered this sport with fanfare, or victories, or has ever been seen as a dominating force of any sort. Little real attention has fallen on Bettiol since his early years, and before Sunday he’d never won a pro bike race. Not one. He pointed to his eyes as he crossed the line, a little message to the Italian media. They never see him, he says. Well, can you blame them?
A rider with massive talent weighed down by home cooking, whose success, now, is either in spite of or because of the fact that he struggles with those details. A rider who loves pink, like really loves it, and sometimes sings on his social media feeds. A rider who embraces this whole ungovernable aesthetic and thrives off it and wins.
Alberto Bettiol is EF and EF is Alberto Bettiol. Which might explain the tears.