By Andrew Hood
There’s no stopping Paolo Bettini, even when he’s marked as the man to beat.
Bettini attacked up two decisive climbs late in Saturday’s 227km Clasica San Sebastian to win his third World Cup victory of the season and his second in a week after holding off compatriot Ivan Basso (Fassa Bortolo) in a two-up sprint.
“Everyone said that I was the favorite, but it’s true I have great form and I wanted to attack and take advantage of the situation,” said Bettini, who won in 5 hours, 44 minutes, 42 seconds. “We started the race thinking about taking the World Cup lead, but at the base of the Jaizkibel I felt I had good legs.”
The 29-year-old Quick Step rider, nicknamed the “Cricket,” bounced into the World Cup’s overall leader’s jersey after Belgian Peter Van Petegem (Lotto-Domo) suffered, out of his element on the hot, hilly course in northern Spain.
“I am truly content,” said Bettini, who adds the Clasica to his 2003 World Cup victories at Milan-San Remo and HEW Cyclassics. “I have won my second World Cup race in a row and now have the leader’s jersey. It’s better than I could have hoped for.”
Saturday’s Clasica San Sebastian turned into an Italian festival, with six Italians in the top seven, but Bettini was clearly the day’s strongest man.
Less than a week after claiming the HEW Cyclassics in Germany, Bettini barnstormed into Spain with super legs. Bettini attacked up the Category 1 Alto de Jaizkibel, the day’s major obstacle with 37km to go, and trimmed the lead group to 10 riders.
Betttini attacked again on the Cat. 3 Alto de Gurutze with 16km to go and only Basso could follow. Two-time winner Francesco Casagrande (Lampre) gave chase with Danilo Di Luca (Saeco) and Andrea Noe (Alessio) in two just 19 seconds back with 6km to go.
The pair hit the 1km to go banner with just enough of a gap and it came down to a two-man battle. Basso grabbed Bettini’s wheel but it didn’t matter.
Bettini bounced across the line with arms spread high.
Up the Jaizkibel
The Cat. 1 Alto de Jaizkibel is a spectacular chunk of geology towering above the Atlantic Ocean. The green slopes are normally shrouded in mists, but Europe’s searing heat wave transformed Spain’s Basque Country into something more familiar in the Costa del Sol.
Quick Step’s Richard Virenque set the pace on the lower flanks of the 8km climb with an average grade of 5.73 percent until Bettini took over. The accelerations trimmed the lead group down to about 30 riders when Domina Vacanze’s Miguel Martin Perdiguero shot off the front. The pint-sized Madrileño is known as a sprinter, but has been taking wins in surprising terrain, including a climbing finish at the Tour of Valencia back in February.
Quick Step’s David Cañada continued to set a punishing pace, bringing the lead group down to about 20 favorites, including U.S. Postal’s George Hincapie, Gerolsteiner’s Davide Rebellin, Casagrande, Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), Igor Astarloa (Saeco) and Angel Casero (Bianchi) among them.
Bettini moved back to the front as the climb moved out of the trees onto the exposed green hillsides and trimmed the lead and eliminated Van Petegem.
Ten riders made it over the top together: Bettini, Rebellin, Casagrande, Noe, Basso, Luis Perez (Cofidis), Rasmussen and Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), Gorka Gerrikagoitia (Euskaltel) and Di Luca.
The lead group topped out about 25 seconds ahead of Casero and about 50 seconds ahead of Hincapie.
Boogerd slipped off course coming down the narrow descent, but wasn’t seriously injured. He crashed a second time, gashing his left knee badly and ending his chances of making a run for the overall World Cup title.
Coming into San Sebastian, Bettini made his attack on the Cat. 3 Gurutze climb to split the bunch. Leading the chase were Casagrande, Noe and Di Luca, followed by Boogerd, Rasmussen, Gerrikagoitia and Rebellin in a second group.
Hincapie was part of a group of 38 riders that came across the line at 1:54 back.
The blistering hot day turned into a rolling retirement party for ONCE and iBanesto.com. With both of the Spanish powerhouse teams losing their respective sponsorships at the end of the season, riders from each team – Jorg Jaksche (ONCE) and Chente Garcia Acosta (iBanesto.com) – went on the attack in the opening kilometer.
With the pair nursing a 15-second lead, Leif Hoste (Lotto-Domo) and Nicolas Portal (Ag2r) bridged out to join them. The leading quartet quickly built a 3:32 lead going over the day’s first climb – the Cat. 3 Alto de Orio – at 19km and the peloton was more than happy to let them have their time in the Iberian sun.
The four worked together over the Cat. 2 Col de Garate at 29km and the Cat. 2 Col de Azcarate at 59km to build up a 13:40 second lead.
Garcia Acosta attacked the group and came to the base of the Jaizkibel with about a 2 minute lead over the peloton. With Cofidis and Quick Step leading the charge, Garcia Acosta was gobbled up before reaching the towering summit high above the Atlantic Ocean.
Bettini moves into World Cup lead
After starting the day just three points behind Van Petegem, the defending World Cup champion moved solidly into the overall lead with 300 points just three races remaining in the 10-round series.
Still, the winner of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix put up a good fight. Lotto-Domo sent Hoste up the road to take some pressure off the team heading onto the Jaizkibel, but Van Petegem said there was nothing he could do against Bettini on the steep climb. He lost contact coming up the Jaizkibel and failed to score any points after finishing 86th at 6:50 back and slipped to second overall with 203 points.
“That’s life,” Van Petegem said with a shrug. “My strategy was to arrive at the base of the Jaizkibel in a big group and try to limit my losses. But I just blew up. To be honest, I didn’t expect anything more.”
Rabobank’s Boogerd remained third overall with 164 points, but the World Cup is Bettini’s prize to lose. His victory marks the third World Cup victory of the season in four tarts. Bettini crashed at Ghent-Wevelgem and missed Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold and Liége-Bastogne-Liége.
The victory also marks the first time in World Cup history a rider has won three rounds since the 10-round series began.
“I will go to Zurich with ambitions to be a protagonist,” Bettini said. “I always ride well in the race there and it’s very important for me. I have to be realistic. Winning is always difficult. There are three races with 300 points in the air.”
1. Paolo Bettini (I), Quick Step-Davitamon, 5:44:42
2. Ivan Basso (I), Fassa Bortolo, s.t.
3. Danilo Di Luca (I), Saeco, at 0:20
4. Francesco Casagrande (I), Lampre, s.t.,
5. Andreas Noe (I), Alessio, at 0:23
6. Gorka Gerrikagoita (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 0:33
7. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner, s.t.
8. Michael Boogerd (Ned), Rabobank, at 0:34
9. Michael Rasmussen (Dk), Rabobank, at 0:37
10. Paolo Valoti (I), Domina Vacanze, at 1:53
11. Igor Astarloa (Sp), Saeco, at 1:54
12. Stefana Garzelli (I), Vini Caldirola, s.t.
13. Richard Virenque (F), Quick Step-Davitamon, s.t.
14. Mirko Celestino (I), Saeco, s.t.
15. George Hincapie (USA), U.S. Postal, s.t.
16. Luca Paolini (I), Quick Step-Davitamon, s.t.
17. Miguel Martin-Perdiguero (Sp), Domina Vacanze, s.t.
18. Beat Zberg (Swi), Rabobank, s.t.
19. Marco Serpellini (I), Lampre, s.t.
20. Ludovic Turpin (F), AG2r, s.t.
World Cup standings (after seven rounds):
1. Bettini, 300pts
2. Peter Van Petegem (B), Lotto-Domo, 203
3. Boogerd, 164
4. Rebellin, 151
5. Celestino, 139
6. Di Luca, 124
7. Dario Pieri (I), Saeco, 117
8. Casagrande, 108
9. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), Telekom, 100
10. Frank Vandenbroucke (B), Quick Step-Davitamon, 92