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For the second time this summer, Danny van Poppel has found himself unexpectedly thrust into a sort of leadership position.
The Dutchman is normally a key leadout rider for Sam Bennett, and has seen his reputation soar due to the strength of his efforts for the Irishman.
He showed on stages of this Vuelta a España that he has qualities similar to those of Michael Mørkøv, who guided Bennett to many wins when the latter was with Deceuninck-QuickStep in 2020 and 2021.
Van Poppel embraces that role, but just as was the case in the Tour de France, he finds himself again filling a gap created by Bennett’s absence.
In July it was Bennett’s non-selection for the Tour that handed an unexpected opportunity to the Bora-Hansgrohe rider. Even though he is more accustomed to working for others, Van Poppel took a solid fourth into Nyborg on stage two, as well as other placings of fifth, seventh and seventh on stages.
With fewer big-name sprinters at the Vuelta a España, he could go much closer to success in the Spanish race. Van Poppel has again been thrust forward following Bennett’s COVID-19 positive and withdrawal from the event.
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Asked prior to the start of stage 11 if he would be going for the sprint, Van Poppel confirmed he would. “This is plan B,” he said. “For sure I go for it, but I prefer to do a leadout with Sam and win races. It is like it is, and that is life at the moment.”
Bennett’s victories on stages two and three marked him out as the best sprinter in the race, and he was a major contender for the points jersey. He wore green for several days and while he was five points behind Mads Pedersen heading towards Tuesday’s time trial, he and his team believed a stage win on Wednesday would have been possible.
“Finally he is back on his level and we could win for sure a lot of stages here,” Van Poppel said. “We did already two victories. It is hard, but we need to stay positive.
“My goal is to do the leadout with Sam, and that is not possible any more. So it feels strange here.”
Stage 11 is expected to conclude in a big gallop to the line in Cabo de Gata. Asked who he felt was the big favourite, Van Poppel nominated Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo).
“But if we were here with Sam, I was sure we could win today,” he emphasised.
It’s now up to Van Poppel to play his own cards. He won a Vuelta stage in a bunch sprint back in 2015 and now, seven years later, has the chance to try again.