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By Andrew Hood
Brawny Italian sprinter Danilo Napolitano – racing this week at the Tour of Qatar – is hoping a change of team colors will put him back in the heat of the sprints in 2009.
After an inconsistent season that saw him miss both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, Napolitano signed with Russian-sponsored Katusha to search out new motivation.
With two second-places in the opening three stages at the Qatar race, the new team colors seems to be working so far.
“It’s good to change, with new challenges, new teammates and new stimulation. Most importantly, the sport directors have shown confidence in me,” Napolitano told VeloNews. “What’s sure, I have to improve from last year and show my worth.”
Last year, Napolitano was the only sprinter to beat Tom Boonen in the Qatar tour, but his season fizzled after he later admittedly was not in condition to race the Giro.
“It was a very strange year. I was OK in Qatar and Grosetto, but in February, things started to go bad,” he explained. “There were little small things that weren’t going my way and it just stayed that way most of the year.”
The 28-year-old enjoyed a breakout Giro sprint victory in 2007, but languished on the sidelines last year as he struggled to find his form for the season’s most important races. He won two stages at the Tour of Portugal, but couldn’t manage to win at the Vuelta.
“I wasn’t in good condition for the Giro last year. The team was talking about taking me to the Tour and I would be the leader for the sprints, but the condition wasn’t good,” he said. “So I ended up racing the Vuelta.”
With his three-year run at Lampre winding down on a bad note, the new Katusha team offered him a chance to rebound.
He’ll line up as the team’s third sprinter behind Robbie McEwen and Gert Steegmans.
“This team is great for me. The ambiance is very diverse, much more international than Lampre. It’s a big team, with an important sponsor,” he said. “I will have a lot of opportunities to do the sprints. We have a lot of sprinters here, but I think there will be chances for all of us. I believe I can do well. My sensations are good. I am optimistic about getting some good results.”
Napolitano isn’t worried about not getting his chances to sprint despite the presence of McEwen and Steegmans, two proven winners who will draw support from the team.
His first major goals are to help teammate Filippo Pozzato at Milan-San Remo and then aim for a strong result at Ghent-Wevelgem. After that, it’s all about the Giro.
“I hope to be in good condition for the Giro,” he said. “Sure, we have McEwen and Steegmans, but we are professionals. We will be working together, we will be responsible and work as a unit. But I am not worried. There will be plenty of races for all of us.”
Despite the hiccups last year, he still notched six victories and said the memory of his 2007 Giro stage victory motivates him to keep plugging away.
“It was the most beautiful victory of my career. I was always getting close, second, third, then it came together for me and I won ahead of Petacchi and McEwen,” he said. “That’s pretty prestigious company. I know I can do it. I hope to have a lot more.”
At 28, Napolitano feels like he’s just hitting his stride.
“I’m not one of the young guys and I’m not one of the older veterans yet,” he said. “I hope to be right in the middle, passing them all!”
His bosses at Katusha are hoping so as well.