The Italian talks legend status, Pantani, doping, Fernando Alonso, Peter Sagan, and his nickname ‘Il Grillo’
Paolo Bettini is all smiles as he talks to the cameras in Adelaide just before the start of the Tour Down Under.
“Adelaide is a very beautiful town and I have discovered many fans in Australia,” he says from the heart of the capital city of South Australia
He joins an exclusive club of men invited in previous years to be the “Legend” at the Tour Down Under. Other include Greg LeMond, Sir Chris Hoy, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Anna Meares, and Cadel Evans.
How does Paolo feel about joining that club?
“It’s new, fantastic, it’s a pleasure,” he beams.
After the formal media work is done, we got a chance to sit down over some pastries for a chat.
The topic quickly turns to the only time he’s raced in Australia: the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
“[It was] confusion. It was a big experience, as a 26 year old. In my team I have Michele Bartoli, Marco Pantani, I was the young rider. I worked all day, in all of the attacks.”
Paolo’s nickname during his career was “Il Grillo”, which translates to The Cricket.
He laughs at the name.
“This is because of the Italian journalists,” he says. “In the peloton I always go front, rear, front, rear, in my attacks.”
So the name was very appropriate?
“It’s perfect for my characteristic” he nods.
The topic turns to the failed Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso’s cycling project. Paolo left his job as the Italian national coach to take on a coaching role with Alonso.
Despite the project failing, Paolo believes in the business model Alonso planned to use.
“I think all big teams of the sport, have to invest in other sport, not just one sport but in others to increase growth,” he says.
Intense rumours surrounded the Alonso project, Paolo was asked which riders they were targeting.
“No, no,” he laughs, clearly expecting the question. “Big riders!”
The next topic changes Paolo’s mood. He shifts uncomfortably, and reverts to Italian more than English.
Does he think the current cycling world is clean?
“It is impossible to confirm all [riders are] clean, but they are working hard to change the mentality,” he insists. “The modern cycling mentality isn’t the same. It’s shown the courage to change. Other sports haven’t got the courage to change.”
Paolo saw many friends and teammates disgraced for doping, something that clearly still hurts him.
“They all felt at fault when someone else got caught, whether a friend or team mate. They all took the blame.”
Paolo’s discomfort talking about doping is replaced by sadness as he’s asked about legendary Italian climber Marco Pantani, who died of heart failure caused by cocaine in 2004.
“Pantani’s history is most difficult to talk about. It wasn’t a problem with the sport, but it was a life problem. Marco had big problems in the cycling world and in his personal life when he left cycling.”
“On the bike he’s very strong, off the bike he was very weak.”
Paolo, like many others close to Pantani, still struggles to talk about the great man.
His mood lifts as conversation turns to modern riders. Without prompting he starts talking animatedly about road race world champion Peter Sagan.
“He is an artist. He is a big personality. He’s very good for people to watch because he’s very happy. Peter was strong, now he’s won a big race.”
The conversation winds down because Paolo has to get ready for the annual Legends Night black tie dinner at the Adelaide Convention Centre, a very hot ticket on the South Australian social scene.
From enjoying a pastry with Paolo, it was obvious how much he loves cycling, how hard it was riding during an era plagued by scandal, and how worthy he is of legend status.
Paolo Bettini’s biggest victories:
- Tour de France: 1 stage victory
- Giro d’Italia Points Classification (2005, 2006) & 2 stage voctories
- Vuelta Espana: 5 stage victories
- Road Race World Championship (2006, 2007)
- Olympic Road Race (2004)
- Liege Bastogne Liege (2000, 2002)
- Milan-San Remo (2003)
- Giro Di Lombardia (2005, 2006)
- Classica San Sebastian (2003)