'I could have followed Van der Poel on the Koppenberg in Flanders' - Alberto Bettiol's confidence ahead of Paris-Roubaix debut

Despite it being his first participation in the race, the Italian rider has no fear ahead of the Hell of the North

The narrative goes that experience is crucial in the cobbled Classics. Some say that to win a Monument, especially on the narrow, winding roads of Flanders or Roubaix, a rider must know every turn, every berg, every crucial moment to be at the front of the bike race.

Speaking just a few days before his first participation in Paris-Roubaix, however, Alberto Bettiol is keen to point out some anomalies to this rule.

“If I think about my friend Sonny [Colbrelli], he’d never rode Roubaix before and he won his first one and it was one of the dirtiest Roubaix editions ever,” Bettiol asserts. “I know how good I am at riding on the bike, I feel confident. I have good legs. I have a good team to support me and put me in a good position. I don’t really care how wet or dry it’s going to be.”

The Italian rider’s bold conviction goes so far that Bettiol admits he hasn’t even done a full recon of the course, despite never having raced on the Roubaix cobbles. He explains that he has only seen a couple of sectors before the Arenberg but places so much trust in his sports directors (former Tour of Flanders winner Matti Breschel and former Gent-Wevelgem winner Andreas Klier) that he feels, in his words, “100% fine with it.”

“I'm not scared,” Bettiol continues. “It's been 21 years that I’ve been riding my bike – I grew up on a bike. I know how good I am on the cobbles. I’m used to riding the cobbles of Flanders and I know some sectors here are pretty unique but the problem will be the legs. If you have good legs, anything can be repaired.”

The problem for the EF Education-EasyPost rider might also lie in the form of a certain world champion: Mathieu van der Poel. Fresh off his solo De Ronde win, the Dutchman is the hot favourite for Paris-Roubaix, made stronger still by the options Alpecin-Decuniunck also have with their sprinter, Jasper Philipsen. Bettiol isn’t fazed by the dominant display from Van der Poel in Belgium a week ago, though, stating that if the run-in towards the Koppenberg (which ended up being a decisive climb in the race) had gone smoothly for the Italian, he would have been able to follow Van der Poel’s winning move.

“I was disappointed because when we got to the Koppenberg in Flanders I was a little bit far behind and I didn’t have the opportunity to stay on my bike and follow Van der Poel,” Bettiol explains. “I’m pretty sure, at least on the Koppenberg, I would have been able to stay there with him, I just arrived a little bit too far from him at the bottom. In Milan-San Remo I showed that I can stay with him. In Harlebeke I crashed, otherwise I could have tried.”

Bettiol points to Gent-Wevelgem, where Van der Poel was outsprinted by Lidl-Trek’s Mads Pedersen in the finale, as an example of a way in which the Dutch rider can be beaten.

“That showed us that when Van der Poel is not 100%, he is vulnerable. The mentality that me and my team decide to apply is that we have to find a way to always be ready. If we are ready, it will come one day that these riders aren’t 100% and we can try to win.”

A scan back through the 30-year-old’s results so far this season go a long way to backing up Bettiol’s confidence ahead of Sunday’s Monument. A win at Milano-Torino, top-10 placings at both Milan-Sanremo and in Flanders, as well as a strong showing at Dwars door Vlaanderen, have shown glimmers of Bettiol’s 2019 Tour of Flanders-winning form – promising signs ahead of Roubaix. What has Bettiol done to get back to his best in 2024? He argues that it’s been a case of keeping things simple.

“I’ve gone back to doing stuff I used to do as a neo-pro, really easy things like with my travel, nutrition and training,” Bettiol explains. “I’ve stopped overthinking and started to talk with my team about what I want to do that makes me happy. Sometimes you have to accept this might not always be the best thing for performance but it is the best thing for morale. The team does a really good job at finding this balance.”

Bettiol sets himself apart from the younger generation of riders coming through who place a big emphasis on data and numbers in their training. Instead, he says he prefers to rely on feeling and passion on race day.

“I've never used the power meter in the race. I never use the heart rate band during the race. If I was watching my power meter during Milan-Torino, for example, I would have thought that I couldn’t hold 400 watts for one and a half hours, but in the end I almost did,” Bettiol says. 

“It’s the same with going to altitude, it’s one of the best things you can do, but if this extra travel compromises my happiness – I already go away from home a lot and travel a lot – it doesn’t really help me. For the younger generation it’s different. I accepted that, discussed it with the team and together we did a different approach. Maybe I could get more results but in general I’m happy with where I’ve been in the game since January. I was really close to another podium in Flanders.”

It’s a combination of Bettiol’s racing instinct and the confidence he is taking from the form he has shown in this Classics season so far, that is giving the Italian such high hopes of success in Roubaix. Although he speaks of the severity and danger of the cobbles of Northern France, and notes how much more difficult they are compared to the ones he has won on in Belgium before, Bettiol still strikes an optimistic tone, believing in not only himself, but his entire EF Education-EasyPost team this weekend.

“We have a good plan. I’m 99% sure it will be the fastest edition of Paris-Roubaix in history again, as it was for Flanders and San Remo. The wind can also play a role, so let’s see how it’s going to be,” Bettiol says. “The team is ready with or without me, we know it’s going to be really difficult to win, but we have to be ready.”

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