By Gregor Brown in Paris
Sprinter Daniele Bennati equalled the success of fellow sprinter Tom Boonen in the 2007 Tour de France, adding to his stage 17 victory on the Champs Élysées with an explosive sprint victory in Paris. The 26 year-old Italian from Arezzo blasted clear of Thor Hushovd and Erik Zabel to take a sprinter's "dream win".
Bennati exudes a quiet and down to earth attitude off the bike, but the former lead-out man of Mario Cipollini unleashed a violent sprint on his competitors on the Tour's final stage. The second win in four days more than made up for a first week spent suffering the effects of a crash, and his persistence certainly paid off, much to the envy of his rivals.
"I still don't believe that I have won this great sprint. As far as I am concerned, it is a dream," Bennati explained with a calmness that must have belied the excitement in his heart.
Through the corners out of Rue de Rivoli and onto the Avenue des Champs Élysées the Lampre-Fondital sprinter was left in the best position possible behind Tom Boonen's lead-out man Sébastien Rosseler. The Belgian of Quickstep end early but 'Benna' was able to hold the distance while fading right towards Hushovd and Zabel.
"I went off the wheel of Rosseler and he had practically taken me to the last metres. It was long and hard for me to conquer. The 200 metres were so long over the cobbles but I had a huge sprint.
"As soon as I raised my arms I saw the Arc de Triomphe ahead of me, I had goose bumps right away. There were tears... It was the most beautiful win for me. ... These two wins at the Tour are not small."
His luck changed significantly from his rough first half of the Tour, where he fought hard just to finish in the top three on stages and had to swallow his pride and give up the status of protected sprinter to his team-mate Danilo Napolitano on several occasions. He never gave up home, however, that he would attain his first ever stage win. "I had hoped to win but I was never secure. ... This Tour, I started bad. I crashed in the stage to Gent I was able get through a hard week and then win a stage, and now a second stage. It is a fantastic moment."
His roommate and close friend Alessandro Ballan, winner of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, rode on the front of the race for many of the first parade-like kilometres before going into an escape on the closing 6.5-kilometre circuits around Paris. Once Ballan's escape group was caught, the blue brigade hit the front for Bennati.
"My team-mates did the most for me in the last laps and that was great. Claudio Corioni did the last two laps all-out; it was amazing." Corioni pulled off with about 1300 metres remaining. "Then there were the other team-mates, they did well too."
The only thing that could dull the experience for the Italian was the absence of his wife on the sidelines at the finish. Police barriers and traffic prevented Chiara Bennati from seeing her husband live out a dream. "The most important person in my life is my wife. She came here to Paris last night. I heard that she was stopped from entering the finish area, the last kilometre," he paused and looked down for a minute in sorrow, "and for this, I am sorry."
The couple will have no trouble finding their way to the first Lampre Champs Élysées victory party since the team won here in 2001 with Jan Svorada.
"You can't really select when you win or don't win," continued Bennati. His last win came at a time when Michael Rasmussen had been forced out of the Tour de France. "I am sorry it happened while all this other news was going on but as far as I am concerned for an Italian to win a Tour stage, it is always great. Like I said before, we can always go forward [in the fight against doping]."