PIC BY TIM DE WAELE
In normal circumstances, victory at the Tour of Lombardy would be the perfect note on which to begin one's reign as the world road race champion.
For Paolo Bettini, though, a second straight win in the Classic of the falling leaves on Saturday had a different significance: less than two weeks after the euphoria of his world title in Salzburg gave way to the agony of his brother's death in a car crash, Bettini won to exorcize a curse crueller than anything the rainbow jersey has ever exerted before. "When I was riding, Sauro [Bettini's late brother - Ed.] was near me..." he said amid tears at the finishline in Como. "A lot of victories have meaning. Every one will hold a special memory. But this is the most beautiful of all. I'll have to watch it again, to let it sink in. I did something incredible.with my sheer will and someone else's".
Bettini would later admit that it was his mental, more than his physical strength, which kept his clear of Samuel Sanchez and the courageous Fabian Wegman on the run-in to Como. Wegmann had been the last to rider to cave in to Bettini's onslaught on the penultimate climb of the Civiglio. The Gerolsteiner star was then caught and outsprinted for second by Sanchez - the Basque having launched one of his trademark counter-moves on the final descent into Como.
Seconds earlier, Bettini had wept as crossed the line and pointed to the heavens. "I turned around and I could see that I had a big enough gap. Then I said to myself: you've done it. On the finishing straight my mind was full of good and sad thoughts. Lots of mixed-up emotions. I've freed myself of something that I'd been holding inside. This victory is a gift for everyone, but first and foremost my parents, who persuaded me to carry on when I was ready to give up. If I was going to continue, I couldn't just go through the motions. It had to be for my brother and the rainbow jersey."
The next stage of Bettini's tour of duty will take him to Grenoble (October 26-31) and Munich (November 9-14) for two Six Days in partnership with compatriot Marco Villa. "I'll have to learn quickly - and I'll enjoy myself," Bettini commented yesterday. "The last time I used a track bike was in 1994."
Also on Saturday, Alejandro Valverde was crowned ProTour winner in Como in acrimonious circumstances. Giro d'Italia and Tour of Lombardy organisers RCS Sport banned the official presentation of Valverde's ProTour winner's white jersey on the Lombardy podium because, in the words of race chief Angelo Zomegnan, "we have no intention of advertising the UCI ProTour". At the request of his Quick-Step team - and to the digust of the baying tifosi - Paolo Bettini also boycotted the traditional podium presentation in a gesture of solidarity with Valverde.
Some compensation for Bettini came later on Saturday evening in the form of a lifetime's achievement award, presented by UCI president Pat McQuaid at the ProTour gala dinner in Como. At the same event, Valverde received the ProTour winner's trophy won last year by Danilo di Luca.
Tour of Lombardy (Mendiriso-Como, 245 km)
1 Paolo Bettini (Ita) Quick Step
2 Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi @ 0.08
3 Fabian Wegmann (Ger) Gerolsteiner
4 Cristian Moreni (Ita) Cofidis, 0.14
5 Davide Rebellin (Ita) Gerolsteiner 0.46
6 Matteo Carrara (Ita) Lampre-Fondital
7 Frank Schleck (Lux) Team CSC
8 Michael Boogerd (Ned) Rabobank 0.48
9 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas