Daniele Bennati's stage victory on the penultimate stage of the Vuelta a España is far more than just another result on his palmares.
Bennati needed a win to secure a leadership role in the Italian team for the world championships, he needed a big win for his own morale after making a comeback from serious injuries in the spring and Leopard Trek needed some success after the announcement of the merger with RadioShack for 2012.
Despite the hilly stage profile, Leopard Trek believed in Bennati and rode for him all day. He was happy to dedicate the win to them in reward.
"This is an extremely important victory for me and for my team," he said. "We've been going through challenging times lately, and this is our reward for hard work despite the disruptions around us. I want to dedicate it to them because we all deserve a bit of this victory.
"This morning I didn't honestly think I'd be able to win. At the team meeting we said that I had to stay relaxed and then see how the race was after the climb. It was a hard race stage right from the start at one point there was a group of 20 going away, without us in it, so I jumped across.
"I knew I'd struggle on the Puerto de Urkiola and so rode carefully. We were only 50 seconds clear on the climb and so I rode the climb as if I was in training and listened to my body. The bunch eventually caught me but that meant I was there for the sprint. The guys then did an amazing job leading me out and I had to finish it off with a win."
Ready to lead for Italy at the world championships
It was Bennati's seventh career stage win at the Vuelta but only his fifth sprint won of the 2011 season. With him struggling to win sprints at the Vuelta, there has been doubts about if he should be given protected status in the Italian team for the world championships. But he has now silenced his critics and made it clear he wants a shot at winning he rainbow jersey in Copenhagen.
"I've shown that my form is getting better and better and now my morale is good too," he said.
"I've had a difficult season. I was going well early on, even if I had too many placings and not enough wins. Then everything went wrong when I crashed at the Tour de Romandie," forcing him to miss the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France.
"It meant two months away from races," he explained. "I had an operation on my collarbone, I broke four ribs, suffered concussion and had a lung problem. I spent a month off the bike and it's very hard to get back to fitness in pro cycling after something like that. I suffered a lot but I wanted to be good for the Vuelta because the world championships really suits me and I know that (Paolo) Bettini believes in me. I'm able to talk about it now, but it was a very difficult moment in my career and life."
Bennati is not scared of the pressure and responsibility of being the team leader of the Italian national team. He also knows that he has statistics on his side.
"Paolo has said I could be the leader of the 'nazionale' and I'm not afraid of that. I think I'm old enough and mature enough to handle the pressure. I don't like to describe myself as a 'campione'; I'm a good rider. But if given the chance to be team leader, I'll give 100% and leading the Italian team would be huge satisfaction.
"The history books say that almost all of the recent world champions had ridden the Vuelta beforehand. That boosts my morale. The Vuelta is decisive when preparing for worlds. People usually pull out before the end, but the worlds are two weeks after the last stage this year and so it's important to go all the way to Madrid."
With RadioShack-Nissan-Trek in 2012
Bennati is under contract with Leopard Trek for 2012 and is convinced he will be part of the new RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team after the completion of the merger of the two teams. He has been named as part of the new team in a RadioShack press release.
"I've got a two-year contract with Leopard Trek and I think for sure that I'll be part of the team next year," he said.
"For the moment the only thing we know is that RadioShack and Nissan will join Leopard Trek. We're waiting for more details. I don't know anything else, so can't really say anything else."
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