Bettini set for worlds showdown with Freire

Italian bidding for hat-trick on home soil

The chance of making history by winning a third consecutive road race crown at cycling’s world championships this week has been keeping Paolo Bettini dreaming all summer.

But at the men's road race on September 28, the energetic little rider known as the ‘Cricket’ will need to outmuscle, and outfox, at least three potential rival teams aiming to bring home the coveted rainbow jersey.

And one rider in particular, Oscar Freire, who has arguably more reason than the Italian to push his legs that extra mile.  

The annual world championships are the only time during the cycling calendar, barring the Olympics, that the peloton’s trade teams make way for national colours.

And when it comes to collective national strength, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Australia and Germany are usually ahead of the pack, arguably in that order. Bettini has won the world title the past two years, allowing the diminutive Italian to sport the rainbow stripes on his shirt, shoes, helmet and... wherever he likes really, handlebars included.

But as Italy hope to cap their hosting of the six-day championships with a home win, it cannot be denied that Bettini has suffered a few morale-sapping blows this season.

First, he lost his Olympic title to Spaniard Samuel Sanchez in Beijing. Then a week ago he was told by his Quick Step team bosses they would not entertain his demands for a bumper, last-season pay deal.

How those incidents influence Bettini’s bid remains to be seen, but he has shown recently - with two stage wins at the Tour of Spain - that the legs are turning nicely.

Bettini brushed off Quick Step’s increased pay snub last week by saying: “I don't have any trouble sleeping at night. Cycling has given a lot to me and I have given a lot to cycling.”

Already Italy’s most successful one-day rider of the last decade, a third rainbow jersey would allow Bettini a wry smile behind the backs of his team, who have recently signed his German rival Stefan Schumacher.

But the shadow of Freire, one of only four men - the others being Italian Alfredo Binda and Belgians Eddy Merckx and Rik Van Steenbergen - to have won the rainbow jersey three times, is looming.

While Bettini would become the first to win three in succession, Freire can go one better and become the first ever cyclist to win four rainbow jerseys.

Although rich with the talents of 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador and all-rounder Alejandro Valverde, a look at the course has prompted the Spanish team to designate Freire as their leader.

The profile of the 17.35km circuit that will be raced 15 times by the men and eight by the women compare to a medium mountain stage on the Tour de France.

The Montello climb comes at the start and is 1.15 km long with an average gradient of 6.5 percent. The Ronchi climb is placed with 4 km to go and is 3.130 km at an average gradient of 4.5.

However a long, mainly flat stretch of road leading to the finish line at the Varese hippodrome gives the likes of Freire, a wily sprinter who can climb reasonably well, a huge chance of victory.

Freire claimed the last two of his world titles, in 2001 and 2004, from winning bunch sprints, his maiden triumph in 1999 in Verona coming after a cunning solo attack around 400 metres from the finish.

“Freire is always dangerous: I’ve been saying for the past two years he could win here,” said Bettini who also admitted that Valverde, Luxembourg’s Kim Kirchen and even Schumacher - a bronze medal winner last year - could be rivals.

The six-day competition starts with the under-23 men's time trial on Tuesday and finishes with the blue riband event of the men's 260.25km road race Sunday.

On Wednesday, Nicole Cooke will have the strongest British team for years at her disposal as she aims to add a maiden world crown from the 138.8 km road race, after years of close runs, to her newly-acquired Olympic title.

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