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Stage-20 victory at 2011 Vuelta a España confirms Daniele Bennati as leader of Italian worlds squad

VITORIA, Spain (VN) — Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek) dashed to victory Saturday just in time to confirm his candidacy for leadership of the hyper-competitive Italian squad ahead of the world road cycling championships.

Bennati made it over the Cat. 1 Urkiola climb with about 50km to go in the Vuelta’s 20th stage and then was dragged to the finish line by his Leopard-Trek teammates to claim his sixth win of an injury-plagued season.

The victory will boost Bennati’s morale ahead of the Copenhagen world championships, where he will carry the pressure to lead the Italian squad on a sprint-friendly course on September 25.

“To win here is very important. This confirms that I am in good condition for the world championship,” he said. “I am usually strongest in the final week of a grand tour, so I will carry that fitness to Copenhagen.”

Bennati, who suffered a horrible crash in stage 1 at the Tour de Romandie that kept him out of the Giro d’Italia, said he’s up for the task.

“I’m more mature as a rider. I’m 30, I’ve progressed and I am confident I can do something good for the national team,” Bennati said Saturday. “I do not define myself as a champion, but rather as a good rider. I have prepared well during this Vuelta and I will dispute the worlds 100 percent.”

Italian national coach Paolo Bettini has told Bennati he will be the team’s top rider for Copenhagen, but he will also be looking at younger sprinters such as Daniel Os, Sacha Modolo (who’s been a 10-win streak since July) and Elia Viviani, who recently won a stage at Colorado’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

The world-championship distance of more than 250km should tilt in favor of veterans like Bennati.

With longtime sprinter ace Alessandro Petacchi unable to compete due to new rules introduced this summer by the Italian cycling federation to keep any rider who’s served a doping ban of longer than six months out of national-team competition, all eyes will likely be on Bennati to carry the azzurri to glory in Copenhagen.

Though not a spectacular sprinter, Bennati has proven he has the strength and endurance to contest for victory in longer, one-day races as well as grand tours. This spring, he was second at Ghent-Wevelgem and he’s won stages in all three grand tours.

Bennati fought through injury to return to a top level to save his world’s bid. A high-speed crash at the opening stage of Romandie left him with his collarbone shattered in four places, four broken ribs and a contusion to his right lung.

“Anyone who knows about professional cycling knows how hard it is to return to the highest level after a bad crash. I was nearly two months without riding my bike, so I had to work really hard to get back into condition to compete,” he said. “I had a good start to the season, but the crash was hard to overcome.”

Bennati says a hard Vuelta has put him in top shape for Copenhagen.

“History shows that the world champion has raced in the Vuelta over the past several years, so that’s why I decided to come here,” he said. “Normally, you might pull out with a week to go, but with two full weeks after the Vuelta, it was important to arrive to Madrid. I am glad I made it this far and I hope to have another chance at victory tomorrow.”

Some have suggested that this year’s brutal Vuelta course has been too hard and its participants will not be able to recover in time to contest for the rainbow jersey. Bennati will go to Copenhagen hoping to keep the streak alive.

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