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Paolo Bettini’s Roots
By Staff
Date: 3/24/2004
Paolo Bettini’s Roots

Courtesy Paolo Bettini.

Che brutto tempo! What bad weather! Alessandro Tegner, Quickstep-Davitamon’s PR-man, sighs. The sun is shining brightly, but it’s unusually cold at the Tuscany coast. We’re some 60 kilometres south of Pisa, where various teams are on training camp. Because of the bad weather there’s not much going on in Cécina and the little sea resort Marina di Cécina, which lies only 3 kilometres off. From there out, the riders go inland each day, towards the Tuscany hills and the age-old Etruscan city of Volterra. They don’t run into a lot of people with weather like this.

At this time of the year only cyclists are stationed in the Hotel Stella Marina, at the Viale della Vittoria. A name that gives good hope for the coming season! On the other side of the road there’s the Tirrenean Sea. Savage waves roll over the deserted beaches. The bars and restaurants look empty, waiting for the summer to come and bring the tourists back to the beach. Hier spreekt men Nederlands, says a sign next to the hotel - a Dutch receptionist proves the sign right. Cécina - 30,000 inhabitants - is a modern trade town. Very different from the fortified hill-top villages surrounding it, like the age-old Bibbona, of which it was an administrative part up until 1906. This used to be one huge swamp; only in the 19th century did it get drained. No building around here is over 150 years old, which is quite rare in Italy. Cécina got its city rights only in 1906, making it the youngest città of Tuscany.

Cécina is also the home of one the most renowned restaurants of the region; the Trattoria Senese, managed by former pro rider Piero Falorni. Even on an everyday afternoon it’s necessary to make reservations up front. In 1979 Falorni was a teammate of Roger De Vlaeminck at GIS for a year, but even then his thoughts were often more with the kitchen of the restaurant he had just bought, than with his cycling career. Today, he’s a famous chef, but because of his past he stayed popular among riders. One of the tables of the restaurant has Quickstep-rider Luca Paolini’s wife and their little daughter sitting there.

Luca Paolini is one of the domestiques of Paolo Bettini (29), 2 times winner of the World Cup and current world number1 on the UCI rankings. In Cécina and Bibbona lie the roots of Bettini, or rather Paolino, the little Paolo, like everyone in the region still lovingly calls him. Piero Falorni, seated at a table in his own restaurant, tells about how he got to know Bettini.

It was on a training ride after his career, when he met a few teenagers who invited him to ride along for a while. One of them was the 14-year old Bettini, who made a jump on a nasty climb. “At first I let him go, thinking I’d go after him later on. But when I really went after him I didn’t manage to get back to him. That aroused my interest. Nobody ever said that there was a champion in the making, but he got better every year. His head is his strong suit; his mentality. He’s always in a good mood. If he’s having a hard time, he’ll say that things will be better the next day, he never complains about anything. And there are his extraordinary physical capacities too, of course.”

Bettini has been a regular customer at Falorni’s restaurant for years now. “He loves to eat well, and a lot.” During the season Bettini makes fewer visits to his favourite restaurant; he has to manage with the boring training food. But, Falorni assures us, he sometimes makes ‘secret’ visits. Then they prepare a table with fresh fish in the little hall next to the restaurant, preferably prepared with olive oil from Bettini’s own garden. Because, since he renovated the farm of his parents-in-law, the top rider tends after his olive trees as if he were a true farmer. Every pressing is carefully poured into little flasks, which are then marked with a label that refers to cycling. But the manager can’t show us any more of it today, his stock is empty. Peccato, too bad!

At the reception service of Hotel Stella Marina, we find a local edition of the Tuscany coastal paper Il Tirrenno. The front page proudly announces that the local football team has taken the lead in the Eccelenza Girona A, after a win this weekend. There might even be a promotion to the Serie D at the end of this season, who knows! It’s 6 pm, and Paolo Bettini falls heavily into one of the good chairs, after a thorough training session. No, he’s not really a football fan, he admits. But, like any Italian, he can’t afford to not have an opinion about football.

As a child, he says, he was a Juventus supporter. But he never went to the stadium to go and cheer for his favourite team. The only football game he ever attended was the Champions League game of Monaco-Deportiva La Coruña earlier this year, when friends that lived in Monaco dragged him there. Lately, he’s developed a slight preference for the team of the port town Livorno, some 60 kilometers up north, which still has a shot at returning to the Serie A next season. But calling him a true tifoso would be a lie.

Bettini on the Oude Kwaremont - Kuurne Brussel Kuurne 2004. By Delphine Page,

An hour later, Bettini doesn’t join his teammates at the dinner table; he has to be in Rome for some physical tests. He’s still gone the next morning, when the others leave the hotel at 9.30 am for a good training ride. It leads the riders into the Tuscany hills, where Johan Museeuw & Co. pass by Bettini’s house during the descent from Riparbello to Cécina. His wife’s parents’ old farm lies in between the olive trees, isolated on a hill top, but with a breath-taking sea view. Four kilometres south of Cécina lies the hamlet of La California, caught between the highway that leads from Genua to Rome and the railroad track. Bettini’s house of birth can be found here, and it’s also the place where his parents grew up.

The little hamlet holds only a few dozens of houses and a few hundreds of inhabitants. It’s gotten his name from an inhabitant that migrated to the US in the 19th century, became rich in California, and later on returned and started a factory in his hometown. Out of gratefulness he named his company after the state where he had made his fortune, but soon also the people in the close proximity of the company were named after it. That rather unusual name, Sauro Bettini says laughingly, makes it so that sometimes the mail makes a detour through the US before reaching its Italian destination.

Sauro (39) is Paolo’s brother. He stumbles into the supporters’ hall of the Club Paolo Bettini, right next to the main road and diagonally opposite of the Bettini family’s house. Inside, we see Paolo’s first bike fastened to the wall, brightly red, in between of all the jerseys. Pappa Giuliano and Mamma Giuliana are good and friendly people, who welcome their Belgian guests with arms wide open.

They’ve managed to track down Bettini’s very first coach, especially for this occasion. For thirty years, Sergio Taddei (60) has been guiding young cycling talent. He quit two years ago, when his regional club decided to put all its efforts in women’s racing. “With all due respect for women, but I don’t like women’s racing. They can swim, play tennis, etc., but cycling and football…wouldn’t you agree?”

Proudly, Sergio Taddei presents all the results of his youth teams during Bettini’s first two official racing years. The young Paolo rode 20 races during his first year: he abandoned twice, crashed once, and won twice. His first prize money, for a third place, was 3000 old lire (about 1.5€ or dollars ), he remembers. In his first season Bettini won 38€ in total, in his second 110€. In that second year he was more of a worker than a winner as well; over 22 races he had “only” two wins. Taddei, talking with a heavy Tuscan accent, is really getting started now.

“In those first few years, I never thought I was working with a future champion”, he admits. “It’s hard to tell at that age. What you can tell, however, is who has or hasn’t got a passion for cycling. At that age someone with a love for racing is worth more than a winner. Paolino might not have been the greatest talent of all, but he was the most headstrong. Passion is, for example: not skipping training. That’s not as straightforward as it might seem, in a region where the beaches and girls are always near and the sun is often shining, you know. Sometimes they told me that they couldn’t train because they had a big exam at school the next day. But when I passed by the bar in the afternoon, I would run into them.

"You have to be honest to yourself, otherwise you won’t cut it. If Paolino didn’t want to train because he wanted to go fishing instead, he just plainly told me: ‘tomorrow, I’m going fishing’. But it didn’t occur a lot that he missed training. I’ve never heard him complain once, in or outside the race. He was always in the break, and he often paid the cost for those extra efforts at the finish. He didn’t always make it, but the next time he just jumped along anyway."

Photo by Julia Schlenkrich.

Taddei recalls Paolo’s first victory, in Azzano di Seravezza, close to Massa, North Tuscany. His riders had barely eaten because someone had forgotten to pack the food, but still Bettini attacked at 8 kilometres from the end, together with a teammate. “They’re going to drop dead out of starvation, if we don’t watch out”, I thought, but I couldn’t get to them because a long line of cars was blocking the way. Only later did I hear that Paolo, completely exhausted and starved, had won the race, on sheer character. That’s what counts when you’re young: most of all, you have to like racing and feel good about yourself. Young riders don’t have to live like pros, you don’t grow a champion on rice and chicken alone. There were kids that asked me if they could have a gelato, an ice cream, the day before a race. Of course they could! If one of those guys wants to eat fries during the week, what difference does it make? It’s not at that age that such details make a difference”.

“But”, Mamma Giuliana interrupts, “fries are bad for everyone. You can eat them once a week, but that’s enough.  Ice creams on the other hand, those are harmless. Paolo ate his ice cream almost every day. He’s a good eater and he doesn’t gain weight easily. In Italian we have a saying: for some people it’s cheaper to buy them a warm coat, than to cook them fat."

Bettini got his passion for cycling from his brother Sauro. He used to race too, until he went to work in the factory and gave up cycling. Back in the days, the entire family, including little Paolo, used to travel from race to race. Sauro: “When I got to the juniors, my career was over. I couldn’t race for 18 months because of a recurring bronchitis. So I hung around with friends on the beach. One and a half year of doing nothing is hard to recover from at that age. When Paolo first became a cyclist, I advised him to start off on one wheel, in order to intimidate his opponents. He followed my advice, but he immediately fell on his face. But he got up again, and won the race.”

In fact, Sauro was more talented than Paolo. That’s what Pappa Giuliano (65) says, who’s retired now, after a life of work at a tannery. He enthusiastically looks after the website of the supporters club. “Sauro was the better climber of the two”, he says. "But he didn’t have the character and the willpower of his younger brother. Sauro sometimes liked to go to the beach, or to go fishing, instead of training. Paolo didn’t, you never had to encourage him to train, he automatically did so."

"After school he had a light meal, rested for half an hour, put on his training gear and went for 50-60 kilometres of training. In the evening he went upstairs after dinner, put on his pyjamas, went back downstairs and waited until it was time to go to bed. When he reached the age to go out, we had to ask him ourselves if he wouldn’t go out and have a drink at the bar, where they had a pool table. He occasionally did so, but he usually came right back home after having his ice cream, never later than 22.30. Recently a girl sent us an email, saying that she remembered asking Paolo if he’d feel like going to the disco on a Saturday night, when he was about 19 years old. But it didn’t interest him much: ‘I have a race tomorrow’, he had said. It was then, she says, that she realized that for a guy like Paolo, cycling was the most important thing.”

Johan Museeuw, Richard Virenque and Paolo Bettini.
Courtesy Paolo Bettini.

It might sound a bit boring, but Paolo Bettini was an exemplary kid, at home as well as in school. “Just like his mamma”, Giuliana grins, but hastens to add: “you’re not going to write that down, are you? But really, he couldn’t sit still for one second. In kindergarten, he had something going on just about every day, I don’t think there’s one bone left in his body he didn’t break. He certainly wasn’t a quiet kid."

One time though, Giuliano recalls, there was trouble at school. “You don’t have to tell them that”, his wife says to him, but he keeps on talking: “he was 15 when I got a call from the principal of his school in Rosignano. He asked if I knew that Paolo hadn’t been to school for an entire week! I couldn’t believe it at first, but it was true. When I woke him up he told me that he didn’t want to go to school anymore. That winter, he’d gotten bronchitis and had been out of the loop for a long time. Because of that he had a learning deficit. He couldn’t deal with that. He’s like that in the race too: if he wants something, he wants to do it well, or he won’t do it at all. The idea of failing paralyzed him. We then stepped into the car for a good talk. I told him that I wouldn’t mind if he didn’t make it that year, that he’d just have to graduate one year later. Only when he realized that he wouldn’t be letting us down did he come around. He did his year over and eventually graduated from high school in 1995 without any further problems. Then he said, 'this is going to be the decisive year. Either I’ll make it as a pro, or I’ll quit and get a job, like Sauro.' The following year he was fourth in the WC for amateurs in Lugano."

According to his parents, success hasn’t changed their son. Giuliano Bettini: “To us, he isn’t a champion, but still the little Paolino that raced in these streets on his bike. Because most youth races in Tuscany were being shown on TV, I taped his races from when he was 15 on. In the evening we would watch them together, and looked where he had made a mistake. We never pushed him into cycling. It’s beautiful that he’s making his name in cycling, but he didn’t have to become a cyclist, as far as we were concerned. You know what our main goal was? To keep him busy with something decent until he was 18. We live about 4 kilometres from the beach here. In the summertime this place is crawling with tourists and pretty girls, and night life is at its peak."

"It’s not good for a kid like him to hang around in bars from his 14th birthday on, and think about nothing but going out. We wanted him to keep busy with other things. He did all sorts of activities. He even did some dancing for a year or three, because a girlfriend at his school did so. He was a good dancer, too. But when he started racing on Sunday, he gave up on dancing which was on Saturday evening. I’ll put it this way: if he’d given up cycling when he was 18 and started working instead, it would have meant just as much to us as when he won a World Championship. Because that would have meant that he made it through his youth without any problems.”

Bettini with the World Cup trophy. Courtesy Paolo Bettini.

When we are about to leave the supporters hall, Sauro shows us a picture of a few kids posing in cycling jerseys. Proudly he says, “Look, this is my son, and there’s the son of our sister. We’ve started a small cycling team, sponsored by Paolo. It’s name? Club Paolo Bettini, of course! Maybe you’ll have to come back for one of them, someday!!"

Source: Cycling Season Special of Sport Magazine, translation by Jan Janssens.

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