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Bettini sounds off on Alonso project, Sagan, doping

Former champion Paolo Bettini talks about the failed Alonso project, his opinions on Peter Sagan, doping, and the deceased Marco Pantani.

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ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — Paolo Bettini wouldn’t give away the details of exactly what happened but expressed regrets about the collapse of the high-profile project involving Formula One driver Fernando Alonso.

In late 2013, Alonso vowed to create a new cycling team that energized the sport and tapped Bettini to be his general manager. Barely six months later, the effort collapsed, leaving Bettini wondering what happened. “Whoa, good question,” Bettini said with a laugh. “The project is now finished. We were working hard in 2014, and we had many riders and sport directors, and then it all ended. I don’t know why.”

Bettini chatted with a group of journalists Monday as part of his visit to the Australian WorldTour race to coincide with a VIP dinner. Now 41, Bettini said he still doesn’t know how the high-profile Alonso cycling project ended before it could even take off.

“For five months, we were working on the structure, and it was 70 percent completed,” Bettini said. “I had preliminary contracts with 15 riders, and it was all ready to go.”

Bettini said Alonso unexpectedly made a U-turn, and pulled the plug on the project despite having a title sponsor from the Middle East lined up to back the team.

“I don’t know why,” Bettini continued. “I think in 2014, there were many problems with Fernando in the Formula One. He was finishing his contract with Ferrari, and was going to have a new car for 2015 season. There was a lot of confusion between the Alonso manager and his entourage. For them, it seemed like it was a little game. At the moment, it is finished.”

The collapse came as a bitter pill for Bettini, who gave up his job as the team coach for the Italian national team to link up with Alonso. Today, Bettini said he’s collaborating with La Gazzetta dello Sport and RCS Sport on such races as Tirreno-Adriatico and the Dubai Tour.

“For me, it was not so easy. I had stopped the collaboration for the Italian selection,” Bettini said. “When the Alonso team finished, it was not good. It would have been big for cycling. Now I am waiting for something else.”

Bettini retired in 2008 after a career that included the 2004 Olympic title, two world championships, and two victories at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Giro di Lombardia, as well as Milano-Sanremo.

Bettini was queried on other topics, including the doping scandal involving Katusha’s Luca Paolini, a close friend, who tested positive for cocaine during the 2015 Tour de France.

“It’s been very difficult for Paolini,” he said. “In 2003, his brother-in-law died in a motorcycle crash, and he took anti-depressants to keep him calm, and he’s been on and off them over the years.”

Here’s what Bettini said on other topics:

Peter Sagan: Sagan is an artist. He is a big world champion. Cycling has found the right person to be world champion. He’s very good with the public, he’s a happy winner. Peter is strong, and he hasn’t won a big race until the world championships. This is a very important season for Peter, with the rainbow jersey, so it will be a big test in Milano-Sanremo.

Marco Pantani: His story is the most difficult to explain. It wasn’t a problem with the sport, but a problem with life for Pantani. Marco had a big problem in his personal life. When he left cycling, he fell into his own problems. On the bike he was very strong, in his personal life, he was very weak.

Doping in cycling: I think cycling in this moment is the cleanest sport today. It’s impossible to say it’s totally clean, but the sport has worked hard to change the mentality. Not only the riders, but the teams and all the components have a different mentality. Modern cycling had courage to change, but other sports have not the same courage for change. It’s impossible to say that the doping problem is finished, but it’s important that the mentality has changed. All aspects of cycling have changed, and they have a new approach to professional sport.

Doping during his era: I was 12 years in pro ranks, and I had seen many cases of doping. Many friends, many rivals, and many teammates that were involved in cases. A doping positive was a problem for everyone. We all felt at fault, we all took the blame. We saw so many cases.

On winning classics: It’s more difficult to win the first. When I won the first Liège in 2000, and I looked in the mirror, and I thought it was an impossible win. For me, Liège is the big race. It is the biggest and hardest classic of all. In 1998, in my first Liège, Michele Bartoli won. On the flight back home, I told him that this race is my race, and said, I don’t know when, but one day I will win. Michele just laughed.

On his nickname, ‘the Cricket:’ A journalist at La Gazzetta started to call me the Grillo, because of my way of attacking, getting dropped, the jumping back again, like a cricket.

On the Olympics: The Olympic experience in general is fantastic for an athlete. To win a medal is amazing. To win the gold medal is simply fantastic. My win in Athens was in a special place, because that’s where the Olympics started. I took the first medal for the Italian team. We started and finished with gold during those Games. My first time to Australia was for the 2000 Olympic Games. I was 26, still a young rider, and I worked all day in the attack for Pantani an Bartoli.

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