|Tomorrow is sixth of October. The first Sunday of the month. The day the UCI Road World Cup resumes in France with the 257-km-long Paris-Tours. And the first of three consecutive week-ends that could make history. For Italy's Paolo Bettini at least.
The 28-year-old from "La California" (in Tuscany) has got the chance to achieve an historical double, as he's the current World Cup leader (with just two races to go, tomorrow's Paris-Tours, as well as the Giro di Lombardia to be disputed on Saturday, October the 19th) and one of the main favorites to take the World Title next Sunday in Zolder.
Curiously enough, he could achieve this result at the expense of the only rider able to get it before. Not an ordinary rider though; no less than Belgium's Johan Museeuw, winner of both World Cup and Championships (the latter in Lugano, Switzerland) in 1996.
And it will not be an easy task at all. The 37-year-old Flemish has displayed an extraordinary condition all through the year, with great performances especially at Paris-Roubaix in April and HEW Cyclassic in August. And, as Bettini himself admitted in an interview given to Italian sport newspaper "Gazzetta" dello Sport", the Belgian has got something more: the experience of an accomplished rider, who has spent many years inside the peloton, and perfectly knows his stuff.
Just like the way things went at HEW proved: "In Hamburg I was too eager to win, such that in the end I made the wrong thing, whereas Johan took the most out of his experience and took many important points. He's still very hungry for victory" Bettini admitted in the interview.
But tomorrow's race is his first match-ball. In case of victory (the eleventh so far this year), paired to Museeuw's absence among the Top 25 names, the gap would extend to an unbridgeable 102-point margin, and the title move all the way to Tuscany, without the need to wait for Tour of Lombardy to know the 2002 World Cup winner's identity.
Actually Paolo sounds like he's regarding Sunday's race more as just a chance to put some further points into the Belgian veteran, but who knows ... The condition is good, and the route not unfavourable. He explained his tactics for the contest "We'll stay in the peloton and control Museeuw, but if I was given the chance to do well and gain some useful points, I'd definitely try not to waste it". Bettini's victory seems unlikely in a mainly flat race, often a hunt-terrritory for the pure sprinters, but ...
... but just a couple of days ago fans discovered the peloton has got a new "super-fast" wheel. In stage 3 of Giro della provincia di Lucca the Mapei rider gave a cycling lesson to two among the best pure sprinters in the World: American Freddy Rodriguez and especially fellow tuscan Mario Cipollini. Yes, folks ! The (Lion) King of the Sprints was beaten at his own game (and even on home roads, as Cipo is from the Lucca province).
New problems for Ballerini, who already appointed "Super Mario" as Italy's unique leader in case of massive sprint (and Bettini as the man to get into any successful breakaway) ? Should the national team coach change his opinion now, as some fans asked ?
Bettini smiled at hearing similar questions, and sounded like he sees this perspective as unrealistic "On Thursday I sprinted just to test my condition, after I had a bad day 48 hours before, when I was in a breakway. Sure once you're given the chance to win, you don't put your hands on the brake ...".
But the man has got no doubts about who must be the Italian leader in case of a bunch sprint in Zolder."Mario Cipollini. He's the number one in this field, and has to be assisted and helped by the team, also in order to avoid the mistakes made last year. Getting 4 riders into the best dozen of the GC is purely pointless when you don't win. Only victory matters. Words said by last year's runner-up, so he must know what he's talking about ...
Last year's silver medallist. But with more than a chance to grab the gold this time. Indeed, in case of a breakaway, or a split in the group due the bad weather, or anything alike, would-be winners have to be there, with the first ones. And "Il Grillo" is confident about his chances to do it.
Breakaways in particular could be a danger to the strong Italian squad: "Should the race end in a bunch sprint, victory would become a matter of 5-6, perhaps 8 guys. The other 180-190 riders know they wouldn't have any chance. So it's unthinkable that they can just wait for the sprint. Other teams, Belgium, France, Holland and Denmark in particular, would probably attack since the early part of the race to spoil Italy's plans".
And Italians will have to play their part, by controlling the peloton, preventing the formation of dangerous breaks and/or chasing them down. Is the roster good enough to accomplish such tasks ? Or will they miss excellent absentees (like Paolo's former "leader" Michele Bartoli" ?
Bettini is optimistic and supports the decisions taken by Ballerini (former team-mate of both him and Michele Bartoli at Mapei): "I think the Italian squad has got the best possible roster for such a route as Zolder's". And about the "excellent" exclusions he says they are "Things that may happen. It happened to me too, in 1999. I was in a very good condition, but had to watch the race on TV. Several Italian riders are usually in good form at World Championships time, after all. But only twelve of them - plus two reserves - can make it into the team".
A little cutting remark addressed to his former captain Bartoli ? One thing is for sure. Bettini spent years in Bartoli's shadow, but after the latter moved to Fassa Bortolo at the end of 2001, "Il Grillo" was free to show all of his talent.
And what a way to do it ... LBL, Coppa Sabatini, and many other recent victories. And now the chance to chirp two times: the first in World Cup, and the second at Zolder. Or viceversa. But things wouldn't change.
To Paolo Bettini it would always mean "the best possible way to seal such a wonderful year, a more than memorable season. At the age of 28, after working a lot for the others, I could become the number one (as the UCI rankings too would probably say in that case). Yes. That is the best possible thing for me"".