Half a year longer than expected, Alberto Bettiol (EF Pro Cycling) was the defending champion of the Tour of Flanders. The 26-year-old Italian rider entered the 2020 edition knowing that it would be difficult to repeat last year’s tremendous achievement. He came up with a good fight, but in the end, he had to bow for cycling’s stars Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe.
“It’s a fucking hard race, this one. The Ronde is beautiful but so hard. It’s so difficult to stay in front. I think I worked as hard as I could. I was again in the finale of this race. Also, last weekend [Gent-Wevelgem] I was in front. I didn’t have the same legs as last year. I think the best guy won the race,” Bettiol said in the post-race mixed zone in Oudenaarde.
“We had two guys in the chasing group. I arrived at the finish line without energy so I left everything out there. I’m not happy but I have no regrets; there wasn’t more that I could do.”
In his explanation, it showed that Bettiol wanted to prove that last year’s victory wasn’t a fluke.
“Before the start of the race, I wasn’t considered a favourite because I’m not the king of cyclo-cross, don’t have a Belgian id and no rainbow jersey. That’s why these guys were a little bit stronger,” Bettiol said, hinting at a lack of respect for last year’s winner coming into this edition.
“This is a strange season,” Bettiol said, referring to the worldwide threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus that led to EF Pro Cycling’s decision to only take part in the WorldTour calendar. Because of that decision, their riders didn’t have the racing rhythm in the legs compared to many other riders at the start in Antwerp on Sunday. He also felt that some riders were fighting for positions who normally opt to go all-in at other races.
“This year it was more dangerous because for many riders where this was the only opportunity to show their strength, like pro-conti riders [UCI ProTeams] or riders without a contract for next year. A lot of guys went deep today. That made it more difficult than in April. Then again, you only need good legs.”
Despite the lack of racing rhythm, Bettiol was on the verge of being with the three top guns that escaped the remains of the peloton after the Koppenberg. Alaphilippe accelerated away at the top of the steep cobbled climb. Bettiol bounced back and bridged up, together with eventual winner Van der Poel, Van Aert, AG2R duo Romain Bardet and Oliver Naesen, and Arjen Livyns (Bingoal WB).
Several riders bridged back up to this star-studded group but after tackling the Steenbeekdries climb the riders were thundering downhill over the cobbles of the Stationsberg. Alaphilippe went full gas and took risks. Van der Poel marked his wheel with Bettiol, Van Aert and Livyns right behind them. At the bottom of the descent the course turned around and crossed the railway tracks. That’s where Bettiol lost the wheel of Van der Poel and Van Aert dropped his chain. Van Aert quickly recovered but Bettiol then seemed to bank on Livyns to do the chasing at first.
“It was a tough race. I was there on the Koppenberg with Mathieu so I have to be happy. I was there with Naesen to chase Alaphilippe down,” Bettiol said, talking about the passage over the famous Koppenberg climb. A little later, the Steenbeekdries climb followed.
“I saw Julian speed up in the downhill of the Steenbeekdries. I was behind Mathieu. In the corner before the railway, I had a problem with the rear wheel that was slippery. I left a small gap of maybe ten metres. Van Aert came from behind and did a sprint and was in front. I couldn’t do anything. These guys stayed in the front. I tried to get back on the Taaienberg with another guy and came back to five seconds. They didn’t give up and of course QuickStep was not working. Julian, Mathieu and Wout were stronger. On the climbs, I was on the same level as these guys. I showed that on the Koppenberg. With the race situation, they were in front. We tried to get back. If Julian would’ve stayed with them they would arrive with a bonus of three minutes.”
Alaphilippe didn’t stay in the front group, however, as he crashed out when riding into a motorbike that was slowing down.
“I was shocked to see him on the ground,” Bettiol said. “He often shows strange moves on the bike. I don’t know what happened. It’s a pity for him, and also for the organisation. It would be nice to see the rainbow jersey in the front. It’s such a difficult race. To stay focused for so many hours is difficult. Every year it is a challenge.”
On Wednesday, Bettiol is scheduled to race in the Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne but he explained that he wasn’t sure what races would follow up after the Ronde. “I have to decide tomorrow. For sure not the Vuelta.”