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With worlds, possible transfer at stake, Scarponi bets big on the Vuelta

MILAN (VN) — Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) starts the Vuelta a España on Saturday with the aim to win — “a top five overall, at least” — and to impress.

The 33-year-old Italian’s last win was the 2011 Tirreno-Adriatico. He went on to place second in that year’s Giro d’Italia, which officials later awarded him after Alberto Contador lost the title due to a doping suspension.

Two and a half years is a long time for any rider to go without a win, and there is little indication that Scarponi will pull off something in the Spanish grand tour. In 2011, he placed second to stage winner Joaquím Rodríguez in the leg to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, but that is the best he has ever faired in the Vuelta.

Italy’s Lampre team, however, put its faith in Scarponi by naming him at the top of its nine-man roster this week.

“It’s hard to be at your best in two grand tours in one season, but I’ll race the Vuelta with that in mind,” Scarponi said in a press release. “I’ve trained well, like always, to be ready.”

Scarponi, no doubt, is diligent. The attention may be focused on Italian star and Rodríguez, Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), and 2009 winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). However, Scarponi is worthy of consideration.

Cycling’s governing body, the UCI, ranks him 15th in the world and website cqranking.com has him as the 29th best rider for 2013. That may not seem so high, but he is Italy’s best-placed rider behind Nibali. Luca Paolini (Katusha) sits third for Italians in the UCI’s list.

Scarponi told Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport that he wants to finish at least in the top five overall at the Vuelta a España. With a mountainous parcours, it could be possible.

“It’s true, I’ve not won a lot, but I’ve been very close. I’m consistent,” he told La Gazzetta on Sunday. “The best Italian in the Giro d’Italia after Nibali was me [in fourth overall]. Look at the international rankings. It means something, doesn’t it?

“I’m almost 34 years old, but I go strongly. I still have the legs to be the captain of a grand tour team. The UCI rankings give a good idea of my results. Had I not had bad luck in the Tour de Suisse, I’d be even better off.”

Scarponi wants to prove he still has it for several reasons. Like Nibali, he believes he can lead Italy in the world championships race at the end of next month in Florence. He said this week that, “it’s a hard course and suited to my characteristics.” He also may be looking for a new team.

Lampre was unavailable when contacted by VeloNews, however, many believe that he could be leaving.

Earlier this year, the team benched Scarponi under pressure from its new co-sponsor Merida. Scarponi, who was suspended 18 months for Operación Puerto ties, received a backdated three-month suspension over the winter for working with banned doctor Michele Ferrari in 2010. The two reached an agreement allowing Scarponi to start his season in February, but an impression was made.

With a transfer and the worlds in mind, the Vuelta takes on even greater importance for Scarponi.