If ever QuickStep boss Patrick Lefevere needed a reminder of world champion Paolo Bettini's value to his team, the misadventures of Tom Boonen over the past ten days have proved to be just such a memory jog – and potentially a very timely one.
Bettini has yet to commit to QuickStep and Lefevere beyond this season. That's because he's yet to commit to professional cycling beyond this season. At the age of 34, and after eleven seasons among the elite, il Grillo has dropped heavy hints that his assault on what would be an unprecedented third straight world title at Varese in September may be his swansong. But then he's not quite sure. He knows it's a big decision.
A week ago, Bettini was doing his best to deflect the incessant questions about his future at "Bettini Day" – a weekend of fun and frolics in and around his hometown of Bibbona in Tuscany, Italy. There again, Bettini was typically phlegmatic – joshing with journalists, sipping Chianti and signing enough autographs to prompt an acute case of Reptitive Strain Disorder.
Those questions, though, kept on coming. About the Giro he'd just finished with great credit but no stage wins, about how he stays motivated, and, of course, about THAT decision. Here's a taste of what he said:
Procycling: Paolo, how would you judge your performance in the Giro?
Paolo Bettini: I'm happy with my Giro because I tried everything. Maybe the only thing I'd say is that I got to the first week a bit behind where I wanted to be, form-wise, and I didn't believe in myself completely, like in the Contursi stage [won by Pavel Brutt, with Bettini leading home the main peloton in fifth place].
Bettini leading teammate Giovanni Visconti (C) in the Giro
Overall, though, I tried everything, and if you keep finishing second, third and fourth, you have to accept that people are better than you on the day. One thing I would say is that I went much better than I expected in the mountains. I suffered very little, or at least a lot less than I expected. That shows my form was on the up at the end of the race.
Are you inclined to think that it was your last Giro?
Yep, just as I think that I've ridden my last Liege, my last San Remo. Until I make a decision, that's the way it is…But I won't wait too much longer. I'd be quite relaxed about deciding in November, but I understand that me being in a team or not in a team changes a lot of things for them. It's understandable that the team wants me to decide soon. I think that, if it's not before the Tour, then I'll certainly have made my choice before the end of the Tour.
I suppose the dream scenario would be decide to carry on, then win my third world championships and announce in press conference straight afterwards that I'm retiring. But for organisational reasons, and out of politeness to the team, I'll make my intentions known before the Olympics.
What's your race programme between now and then?
I'm going to rest for a while now, then come back for the Italian championships on the last weekend of July, then do the Tour of Austria (6-13th July), then the Tour of Wallonia (July 26-30), then the Olympics…
Going back to the question about your future, it must be a hard decision to make…
It's not an easy decision, not least because I've been racing since the age of seven, and if I decide to retire, I have to be absolutely sure about it. I don't want to make the same mistake as one or two colleagues who have made their decision then regretted it later. There can be no turning back… If people wonder about my desire to race, I can say that when I put a race number on back, I enjoy myself. I think that was evident at the Giro.
Letting the UCI know just who is in whose crosshairs in Stuttgart last year
I might lose races, I might not win as often as I once did, but I still enjoyed myself at the Giro, although I also hurt myself – and that proves that I still want to race. But then there are a lot of things to think about. There's my family, there's the sacrifices that being a rider entails. I also don't deny that what happened at the Worlds last year in Stuttgart [when Bettini came under fire for not signing the UCI ethical charter] really left its mark on me, because going through something like that really makes you think hard before you act.
Have you had any offers from or negotiations with other teams?
Of course I've had offers. Seven or eight teams…if Bettini wants to race, someone will give him a jersey and a bike a contract. That's not the problem. But I've been riding with the QuickStep logo on my jersey for ten years – my whole career barring two seasons. I'll tell you the truth – I can't see myself doing another year in a different jersey, because I'm not the kind of guy who'll forget about the past and what's been given to me.
If I do change, it'll be because there's a new, exciting project…a project which doesn't exist right now. It looked as there would be, and we went pretty close [he negotiated with the Tuscan bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena in the spring] but it didn't happen.
Anyway, it's only fair that I speak to Patrick Lefevere before I decide anything. I could, say, stay with QuickStep but not as a rider. I don't know.
Explain a bit more about the factors involved…
Well, a racing season is long and stressful, so you need to be doing it in an environment which makes up for some of that stress. The way I feel physically, I could happily ride for another five years. If, on the other hand, I thought only about the stresses of racing, and the stresses of living up to everyone's expectations that I carry on winning, I'd give up straight away. That's because I realise that, while I still want to race and compete, I lose concentration a lot more easily now than I did three years ago, and I realise that there are a few young riders who have more desire than I do.
So I have to consider that, and I have to consider that there are people at the side of the road wanting to see me win, and who have to be entertained.
Is it hard to motivate yourself after all these years?
Yes it is, but, fortunately, there are so many races in cycling, and so many different kinds of races, that it's not too hard to find new challenges for a rider like me. I think that I'm one of the only riders, if not the only one, who can win Milan San Remo one day, Tour of Lombardy on another, and beat all of the top sprinters in a bunch gallop on another. When you have that versatility, there's always a new race to target, new motivation to draw.
You talk about the variety of races you could win, but you've never really made a concerted bid in the general classification of a major tour. Why?
First of all, because I've never really considered the possibility. The second thing I'd say is that, as a rider, what you become is a consequence of what you do physically, and I've never trained to be good over the three weeks of a major tour. I've always focused on concentrating my efforts into a single-day, and, to be honest, I can't really stay focused for three weeks.
That's a discipline as well – and one that you have to work on for years before you can win challenge for a major tour. I've never done that, just as I've never worked specifically on my time trialling or my climbing in the high mountains. If I think that I finished 19th overall this year messing about, I'll leave it to you to draw your conclusions..
How will you, or should you be remembered as a rider?
That's up to you journalists to decide. What I would say is that I think a riding style like mine leaves its mark on the public. I think the tifosi really appreciate it when they see a rider going to shoulder to shoulder with Daniele Bennati in a bunch sprint in the first week of the Giro, then going over the Passo Manghen in the front group and finishing fifth at Alpe di Pampeago in the last week…I think that's why I'm popular.
For Bettini's thoughts on everything from the Olympics, to the youth of today, to the contribution former pros could make the olive oil industry, look out for the August issue of Procycling, on sale in the UK on July 17.