Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) hopes to swap his world champion?s rainbow jersey for the ?maglia rosa? at the Giro d?Italia by winning Sunday?s first road stage to Agrigento.
Bettini has struggled in the first part of the season and has to win a race. He rode Liege-Bastogne-Liege with a cracked rib, but was confident about his chances of success in what is almost be his last ever ride in the Giro d?Italia.
?The Giro is important for me,? he said emotionally in a pre-race press conference on Thursday afternoon in Palermo.
?It?s the second time I?m riding it as world champion; I didn?t win a stage last year so it?s important to win this year. I think my form is better than last year. I was a bit behind earlier in the season, then my form was coming and then I crash but since Liege-Bastogne-Liege I?ve realised that my form?s getting better all the time.?
Bettini has picked the stage two uphill finish in Agrigento on Sunday.
?Agrigento is definitely the first good chance to win a stage. I know the finish because it was used for world championships in 1994 and I rode it the finish a few years ago when the Giro started down there. It?s a difficult stage and not only because of the finish. It?ll be tough all day. It?s a good stage not to throw away.?
Bettini also hopes the time bonuses of 20, 12 and 8 seconds at the finish, and 6, 4 and 2 seconds in the intermediate sprints could help him take the race leader?s pink jersey in the first few days of the Giro.
?My Giro all about the first five days,? Bettini said.
?We?re not one of the favourites for the opening team time trial but I?d like to be within 40secs of first race leader. We?ll have to see who wins but 40 seconds could be enough to get the pink jersey.?
Bettini named Gilberto Simoni as the rider to watch but warned of the strength of the Astana team.
?Simoni is my favourite but the late invitation of Astana has changed things. Their strength in depth and their experience is such that they could dominate but the Giro is tough and different to the Tour de France. The Dolomites can hurt so much that a rider can throw away the chances of a whole team. Simoni is my favourite because of his experience but Astana the team of the Giro.?
LAST EVER GIRO?
Bettini admitted that this could be his last ever Giro d?Italia before he retires at the end of the season.
?I?m riding every race like it?s my last because to be honest there?s nothing that will make me race in 2009. I don?t want to think about it for the next three weeks but I?m still waiting for an offer or a proposal that will make me want to race next year. At the moment I haven?t got anything. Lets say I?m in standby.?
Bettini refused to set himself a deadline for his future. For now he clearly wants to enjoy the Giro and win a stage. He is likely to make an announcement about his future after the Beijing Olympics in August, before saying goodbye at the world championships in Varese in September.