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Paolo Bettini said he would happily retire from cycling having finally won the world road championship in Salzburg on Sunday. The 32-year-old Italian, who had previously finished second and fourth at the Worlds, took the rainbow jersey when he came around 36-year-old Erik Zabel in the final sprint for the line, relegating the veteran German to yet another second place. Pre-race favourite Alejandro Valverde was right on their heels to take his third podium place at the Worlds.
Bettini has made no secret of the fact that after taking the Olympic title and having already won other major titles such as Milan-San Remo, Lige-Bastogne-Lige and the Tour of Lombardy, the rainbow jersey was the one prize he coveted above all others. Having finally won it, the Italian joked about retiring, but quickly added that he would still like to win the Tour of Flanders before the end of his career and would now focus on that - which should set up an interesting clash with his Quick Step team-mate and defending champion Tom Boonen.
"I dedicate this victory to all those who have contributed, in whatever way, and who continue to believe in me," said Bettini in the highly emotional aftermath of his victory. "Beating riders such as Zabel and Valverde increases the quality of this victory and the satisfaction gained from it, but at the same time I even slightly disappointed for Erik because he would have deserved this victory as much as I have on the basis of his incredible career," the Italian said graciously. "I hope he is able to win this title next year at Stuttgart in his home country.
"I think the race was firstly decided on the corner 700 metres out. I was with Valverde who was going at a crazy speed with [Samuel] Sanchez. Behind us, [Luca] Paolini allowed a gap to form and we went clear. I then concentrated on staying focused right to the finish, and 50 metres from the line I started to believe I was the strongest, although the last few metres seemed to go on for an eternity. Crossing the line was an amazing relief!"
Zabel was one of the first to congratulate Bettini, but did not hide his own disappointment at going so close to a first world title. "I would be lying I said I wasn't disappointed," said the Milram sprinter. "When you go so close you have to be disappointed if you're a real champion. But I'm always the first to congratulate the victor no matter what the race is. Paolo beat me fair and square, he deserved the gold medal.
Zabel explained he had rarely felt so good. "I had a good feeling about the sprint. I was calm. even more so because Oscar Freire was not there. He has deprived me of so many big victories right on the line. But Paolo ended up beating me more decisively than Oscar has ever done."
Valverde was pleased with his third Worlds medal, and said the gold would surely be his one day. "I am very happy with my medal. I have already won the silver [twice], now I am going home with the bronze. Considering the fact that in four appearances in the world championships I have won three medals, the world title has to be mine some day. I have to complete my collection," said the Spanish team leader.
"The Spanish team did exceptional work for the whole day. As for me, things were rather complicated from the moment I understood that the race would finish with a mass sprint. I owe my medal to the fantastic work Samuel Sanchez did in the last kilometre. At 700 metres from the finish line, he told me to remain on his wheel and that he would launch the sprint for me. Unfortunately, I could not take sufficient advantage of his work to win because Bettini and Zabel were faster, but I am very satisfied with my result."
PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM