It wasn't unusual that sprinter Daniele Bennati would take a win on such a flat course as the Giro d'Italia's ninth stage, but it was a bit unexpected that he'd do so in a photo finish with World Champion Paolo Bettini.
The former, motivated to gain back the maglia ciclamino jersey of points leader which was taken by Riccardo Riccó on stage eight, took win number two in this year's event. He knew he'd need come across the line first if he wanted to wear that jersey in Milan in two weeks time, but he had to fend off Bettini, who hoped to win the stage which finished just 20 kilometres from his hometown.
In a somewhat chaotic final few kilometres, Bennati's Liquigas team conceded the lead to the High Road squad of Mark Cavendish until the line was in sight. "I had to do two sprints," Bennati explained to AFP, "the first to get on the right wheel a kilometre from the line, and the second at the finish. I was on the wheel of Zabel, but when he did not launch, I went."
The Italian stayed tight against the barriers on the right side to prevent Milram's Erik Zabel from getting a clean run at the line, but before he could think about celebrating victory, a rush of air on his left signaled danger. "Usually, I would lift my arms, but then I felt a projectile coming from the right, it was Bettini."
Only a well-timed bike throw gave the Liquigas rider the stage on a photo-finish. Bennati gave a small salute, but was immediately questioned by Bettini, who then embraced his rival in congratulations. "I am sorry for him," Bennati admitted feeling remorse for beating Bettini so close to his hometown, "but this is the only stage in Tuscany [where he also lives -ed.], and I wanted to win."
The points awarded for the win put Bennati back into the magenta jersey where he hopes to stay until Milan, but he is disappointed there aren't more sprint stages, in particular the final stage. "There aren't many chances for the sprinters in this Giro, and they're basically the last two flat stages of the race," he said. Those stages come on Thursday and Friday this week before the races hits the high mountains. The last stage, which is normally a bunch gallop into the fashion capital, is an individual time trial this year.
Bettini was gracious in defeat, giving high praise to Bennati. "Daniele was the best," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "I am not a pure sprinter but I still finished fast. Still second. It's destiny that I do not win with this jersey on," the world champion joked. His finish was all the more impressive that it came after Bettini put in an attack, which was marked by Riccardo Riccó, on the final rise at San Carlo with 15 kilometres to go. But that move expired before it gained much ground.
"Riccò I came back and it was better this way because we stopped immediately. It would have been a suicide," Bettini continued. He was able to recover and contest the sprint, which he was convinced he'd won only to be disappointed. He could take solace in the fact that his team-mate Giovanni Visconti was able to hold his lead in the overall classification.
Zabel took third on the stage, and was disappointed to be denied a shot at the line, but did not complain about the way Bennati eased over toward the barriers effectively closing down his only route. "It was a very unlucky sprint. I was in good position and I had found the right wheel. Unfortunately, the road was so close that I was unable to pass between Daniele Bennati and barriers."