Cycling: Bettini's volley for critics with road race victory

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The Independent Online

The host city could not stop Paolo Bettini from competing, and the opposition could not stop him from winning.

Bettini won the first back-to-back world road race titles in 15 years yesterday, drawing on raw anger after a week of criticism and court action to come from behind in a sprint finish.

As the Italian crossed the line, his face contorted with emotion, Bettini made the gesture of shooting a gun.

"It was an instinctive gesture, not targeted at anyone," Bettini said. "If anyone felt it was directed at him, they have reason to think."

Bettini finished the 166.2-mile race in 6 hours, 44 minutes, 43 seconds. The Olympic champion beat Alexandr Kolobnev of Russia and Stefan Schumacher of Germany.

The race took place two days after Stuttgart city authorities lost a court injunction to ban Bettini for refusing to sign an anti-doping pledge. "It was a torturous week for me," Bettini said. "I had a lot of anger inside me. The only thing I could do was respond with a victory."

Aggressive as ever on the course, Bettini dominated the race with powerful climbing and an explosive sprint finish to become the first repeat winner since compatriot Gianni Bugno in 1991-92.

"He came, he saw, he won," said UCI cycling federation president Pat McQuaid who handed Bettini the rainbow jersey, days after criticizing him for not signing the pledge.

"It is no problem to give a rider of that caliber the jersey, especially after the pressure he was under," McQuaid said.

Bettini, 33, collapsed crying in the arms of a team official at the end. He has said he is committed to the anti-doping fight but considers the prohibitive fines of the pledge to be excessive.

Behind the medalists, Frank Schleck of Luxembourg was fourth and Australian Cadel Evans was last of the leading group. Davide Rebellin, Bettini's best teammate in the closing stages, crossed sixth, 6 seconds behind.

Italy dominated the day with smart tactics. "The most beautiful thing is we showed what a great team we are," Bettini said. Apart from Bettini's problems, Italy was also hit hard by the withdrawal of Giro d'Italia winner Danilo Di Luca because of doping accusations.

At the halfway point, the race broke open when 25 riders sped off, including several riders with an outside shot at the title. Both Italy and Spain had three riders among them, and the lead quickly grew to almost two minutes.

All the favorites kept a low profile since they had compatriots leading, and when the pack caught the breakaway with 70 kilometers (43 miles) to go, the star riders were all fit and ready for the finale.

The course was set up for explosive climbers with enough endurance to get over the Herdweg and Birkenkopf hills on each of the 14 laps before finishing with a long uphill stretch to the finish.

On one of the last climbs, Rebellin took charge as the pack behind him disintegrated. With 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) to go, only former Russian champion Kobobnev followed in his wake.

Behind the couple, the Italians tried to hold up the pack but they were caught again on the Herdweg climb when a dozen riders shook off the rest.

On the last climb of the day, Bettini put on the pressure and only four could stay with him.

Nervous as ever, Bettini goaded the others into going for the finish line, knowing he would be the best sprinter. Kolobnev opened the sprint from a long way out, Bettini bided his time and struck at the right moment, shouting out his joy and frustration as he crossed the finish line.