For any Italian pro cyclist, his first taste of the Giro d'Italia is always an emotional one. The passion of the home fans - the tifosi - and the race's standing in his country's sporting heritage takes the anticipation levels up into the stratosphere. It's something that Team NetApp's Cesare Benedetti is feeling just as much as any of his illustrious predecessors as the race, which starts on Saturday in Denmark, edges closer.
Italians have won 67 of the 94 stagings of the race so far, and 13 of the last 15. It wasn't until 41 years after the race's inception in 1909, that a foreign rider walked away with the iconic pink jersey as overall winner, and the names of Alfredo Binda, Gino Bartali and [Fausto Coppi are still whispered with a hushed reverence by fans all over the country. The Italians generally look on an overseas victory as an affront to the nation as a whole, and with the likes of Ivan Basso, Michele Scarponi and Damiano Cunego approaching the autumn of their careers, the adoring Italian public are looking around eagerly for the next generation of standard bearers.
Whether Benedetti will ever be able to class himself in such exalted company can only be answered in time. For now, the 24-year-old is supremely focused on his Giro debut and is thankful for the opportunity to match his skills against one of the toughest and most famous races in cycling.
"I am feeling good," he said. "I'm heading to the start from the Giro del Trentino, which I mainly used to get some climbing time. I needed a specific workout. Obviously starting off at the Giro will be very emotional and will be great experience for me. Three weeks is really long."
Benedetti is the only Italian rider in the German-based NetApp outfit, with the rest of his teammates hailing from central and northern Europe. The cultural and linguistic differences haven't been a problem for him and he has been delighted at the form shown by his colleagues this season - just their second at Pro Continental level.
The team will be led by Czech rider Jan Barta, who is seen as the team's talisman after wins at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali and Rund um Köln this season. The team's performance in the former was particularly eye-catching - after they won the team trial in Gatteo, Benedetti briefly took over the leader's jersey. The Giro represents the team's Grand Tour debut and is tangible proof of how far the team have come.
"[Being the only Italian] is not a problem," he said. "For me it's just an extra incentive to try to do well, and it is an effective way to improve my language skills because as a team we speak English and German.
"My main goal at the Giro is to do well right away. The first stages in Denmark will be tricky, we race mainly around the coast and there will be high winds. The next objective will be the team time trial in Verona, and after we did so well in the Coppi e Bartali we are confident. Certainly both me and my teammates think we will do well. I'm not going there to do a Grand Tour in anonymity.
"My dream is to do something important in Trentino, which is my home, on stage 16 from Limone sul Garda to Falzes/Pfalzen. The Italian Championships will be taking place in Trentino this year and I would also like to do well there. But first you need to test your form and your standing in the Giro."
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