31 jan 2019
WHERE CYCLING IS RELIGION: OUR JOURNEY WITH PAOLO BETTINI IN BELGIUM
What an amazing trip with one of the greatest cycling champions of all time! Our journey to Velofollies, the most prestigious cycling trade show in Belgium, soon became a full immersion of memories. The two-time road cycling World Champion and 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist, Paolo Bettini, began reflecting on past victories, adventures and stories of racing. Even though Belgium is a relatively small country, it represents the heart of worldwide cycling activity. It’s where people’s passion is at the highest level and many cities host some of the most important cycling Classics races.
We were given the opportunity to graciously host Paolo Bettini for an entire day at Velofollies, as he was able to meet the people at our booth and in the area. Although Paolo was born in Italy and famous among the Italian supporters, he is also famous in Belgium. He rode with the Flemish pro team Quick-Step for six years, with many of those seasons on Full Speed Ahead components. We therefore have had many years of success together and a friendship that is continuing to this day.
Paolo Bettini won the Athens Olympic Gold Medal supported by FSA products.
CHARLEROI – Flèche Wallonne
We arrived in Charleroi airport a few minutes before lunch to pick up Paolo. Charleroi is a city in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, and the 5th most populous city in the country. Founded by the Spanish King Charles II in 1666, it hosts the start of the Flèche Wallonne each year. For you non-cycling fans, that is the Walloon classic that ends on the top of the terrible Mur de Huy (The Wall of Huy) climb. Several segments of that climb are steeper than 15% gradient and up to 26% gradient during one section!
Together with Paolo, we decided to have a quick lunch at Ribs House, a steakhouse in the city centre. We ate two blocks from the square that hosts the start of the race and Paolo reflected that many things have changed since he was racing as a pro.
“Once that roundabout never existed,” indicated Paolo, “but rather a long street directed the group for the first kilometre of the race. I never won Flèche Wallonne as Mur de Huy was too steep for my racing style [as he was more of a sprinter]. Rather, I experienced one of the hardest days of my career here. It was 1999 and during the penultimate climb on Huy, Mapei’s leader Michele Bartoli ordered us to accelerate. I was young and inexperienced, and taken by the enthusiasm, I took off my heavy clothes. Unfortunately, soon after I did that it started to snow. Thus, the snow landed directly on my skin and I began to quickly freeze. I eventually had enough, so 18 kilometers from the finish I withdrew from the race, which happened to be one of a very few withdrawls in my career.”
“I do fondly recall the pub in the starting square. French fries are highly coveted in Belgium, and every year before the race, my teammates and I went there to eat the best french fries in the world. Of course, our sport directors always discovered us and punctually reproached us!”.
The terrible Mur de Huy
NAMUR – Giro d’Italia 2006
We moved onto Namur, an important trading settlement, straddling east-west and north-south trade routes across the Ardennes. As you approach the city, you can see the citadel looming large, which is where the third stage of 2006 Giro d’Italia ended.
“I was sure to win that day. I approached the last bend before the final straight in first position. Unfortunately, a race service motor bike slid on the pavement in front of me and I had to bite the curb. I finished in fourth position with a great regret: if I won that day, I would have been in the ‘Maglia Rosa’ as leader of the race.”
Paolo won the "Maglia Ciclamino" of Points Classification in 2006 Giro d'Italia.
LIÈGE - Liège–Bastogne–Liège
Our journey continued to Liège, the beautiful Walloon city on the Meuse river. Each year, Liège hosts the start and the finish of the oldest Classic race in the World: Liège–Bastogne–Liège.
Together with Flèche Wallonne and the Amstel Gold Race, it comprises "Le Weekend Ardennais", as Paolo had incredible memories in this city.
“Liège–Bastogne–Liège has always been my race; perfect for my features. I rode it 10 times and I finished 7 times in top ten. Of course, I will never forget my two wins in 2000 and 2002. At the time, the race ended few kilometers after the Côte de Saint-Nicolas (a steep climb in the Italian neighbourhood). I remember there were only my countrymen on that climb. The only encouragemnt to the riders were in Italian and there were a lot of Italian flags on the wall of the houses. This fact surprised us! I remember the 2002 edition - 5 Italians in top 5 five, 7 in the top 9: what a national triumph!”
Paolo's win in 2002 edition.
GAND - Gent-Wevelgem
From Walloon we arrived in Flanders, the Dutch region of Belgium, through Ghent. It is the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province and the second largest municipality in Belgium. Every year it hosts the start of Gent-Wevelgem which is an ancient Classic race suitable for sprinters.
“I only rode that race once,” remembered Paolo. “It was the 2002 and I crashed a few kilometers after the start and I was forced to withdraw. That day was won by my fellow countrymen Mario Cipollini, who became the World Champion a few months later in Zolder, another place of Belgium. I would have my revenge two years later, winning the Olympic Title supported by Full Speed Ahead products!”.
The famous "cobblestones" in Flanders.
BRUGES - Ronde van Vlaanderen
The last stage before our arrival in Kortrijk was Bruges, the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders and sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the North”.
Bruges has hosted the start of the “Tour of Flanders” (Ronde van Vlaanderen) for several seasons. It is one of the most prestigious races in the world and arguably the most important in Belgium. “The Tour of Flanders is the "University of Cycling’” admitted Paolo. “Every year, millions of cycling fans from all over the world are on the route for a true cycling festival. Riding in this situation is the best for a Pro Rider! I remember the morning before the race, during the team’s presentation, the most important square of Bruges was full of people. Music, entertainment and fun: it seemed more like a rock concert than a cycling race.”
“I have never found the best recipe for winning this race. In 2002 I had a chance to win as six of us were in the breakaway; two of them being my teammates, Andrea Tafi and Daniele Nardello. I was feeling good in the final leg of the race, so I decided to attack. At a certain point I depleted my energy and I lost the wheels of the other riders in the breakaway. Luckly, the race was won by my teammate Tafi.”
“You know, this is the ‘Home of Cycling’ around us and in the Kortrijk area. Hidden behind the countryside, there are the famous ‘Muurs’, the short and terrible cobblestone climbs of the Tour of Flanders. Yes, here CYCLING IS A RELIGION!”
FSA and Titici at Velofollies with Paolo Bettini.