He did the right thing at the right time. He attacked, dropped all of his rivals, and eventually soloed to a well-earned victory. The greatest (so far) in the career of rider that had already shown his talent in previous occasions, one of them being the past Fleche Wallonne in April.
A helluva day for Igor Astarloa, the Basque rider, based in Italy in the last two years, and coached by former pro Bruno Leali. And even though he’s going to move from current team Saeco to France’s Cofidis at the end of he current season, “Asta” spent good words for Italian cycling: “There’s much of Italy in today’s victory. If it hadn’t been for you, I couldn’t have made it to professional cycling. With many riders, but few teams in Spain, it’s hard to find a place there”.
But when it came to Paolo Bettini, the brand new World Champion was not that “kind”. Quite the opposite: Astarloa made some statements, immediately reported by Spanish media, that opened a Pandora's Box of polemics in his own country and - notably - Italy: “Bettini went so far as to offeri me money (to help him). But I was as strong as the other guys in the break, and confident that I could win”. Somehow strange accusations, coming from a rider you wouldn’t expect to make them, and addressed to a rider you wouldn’t expect to be aimed at.
When asked to reply to such allegations, Bettini chose not to comment upon Astarloa’s words “The way races end has often thought several things in cycling history. But I prefer not to respond to what Astarloa said”. Probably the best way to react as, hours later, someone else spoke in Bettini’s defense. And it was … Igor Astarloa himself!
“It was just a misunderstanding” the 27-year-old Rainbow-jerseyed guy said “We are very good friends. Last year we were together on vacation at the Caribbean. And we even talked about that after yesterday’s race. Sure that he asked me to help him drop a few rivals, but never offered any money, and never asked me to let him win. Also because he knew that I’d never give up my chances to win the title, no matter how much money I could get”.
So it seems that all doubts were cleared, Bettini “acquitted” and the media hype following Astarloa’s statements proved groundless. Although such things leave a bitter taste, and some further doubts on why the well-deserved World Champion made such heavy allegations, just to say “I was misunderstood” hours later. Not exactly a pleasant thing anyway.
In any case, after his “honour” was re-established, the “Cricket” could also take some solace in his comeback to the top of the UCI Rankings. A classification now featuring Petacchi as runner-up, and third-placed Zabel as only “intruder” in a Top 5 containing four Italians (Simoni and Rebellin are the other two).
But that’s just small compensation for the man who was going for the Rainbow Jesery in Hamilton, but will have to see it, for the next twelve months, firmly on the shoulders of Igor Astarloa, who besides his victory also moved up 25 places in the UCI Rankings, where the Spaniard is currently sitting in spot number 18.
Update: According to the latest news from Italian media, Paolo Bettini categorically denied that the episode Astarloa talked about ever took place. And besides that, he announced that he has the intention to sue the Spanish rider, with the full support from the Italian Cycling Federation, who pointed out Paolo Bettini's extreme correctness and respectability.