Italian sprinter Daniel Bennati has beaten the likes of Alessandro Petacchi, but has never achieved a victory in the world's largest cycling race until today in Castelsarrasin. The 26 year-old Tuscan entered into an early escape of eight and then made the final selection of four with 19 kilometres remaining. The sprinter from Lampre then made easy work of beating Markus Fothen (Gerolsteiner) to the line. Martin Elmiger (Ag2r Prévoyance) and Jens Voigt (Team CSC) finished in third and fourth.
Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) spent his first day ever in the race leadership of the Tour but he was strangely not wearing the coveted maillot jaune. Tour de France organisers decided this morning that no-one would wear the yellow jersey after its former wearer Michael Rasmussen left the Tour in disgrace after being fired by his Rabobank team for lying about his whereabouts leading up to the Tour. Contador wore the maillot blanc of best young rider, a competition he also leads, and he was awarded his first maillot jaune following the stage.
Tom Boonen (Quickstep-Innergetic), resplendent in the best sprinter's maillot vert, led the peloton containing Contador home 9'40" after Bennati.
"The sprint was not like a bunch sprint but clearly the speed was there. We arrived with our space, after an escape of 180 kilometres where it was a matter of having the most energy. Luckily, I had good legs," summarised Bennati after his win.
'Benna' had a rough start to the Tour, and after crashing on the second stage in Gent, he was forced to give up his role as protected sprinter to his Sicilian team-mate Danilo Napolitano on the following stages. He soldiered through to finally take his stage win, however, and thanked his family for supporting him. "The first person I thought of was my wife. She has stayed with me in the hard moments. She gives me the strength to battle."
The four had gone clear with a group containing David Millar (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), Matteo Tosatto (Quickstep-Innergetic) and Bennati's team-mate Daniele Righi at kilometre 12. They faced difficult moments over the five categorised climbs that dotted the area east of Pau with their gap hovering around only two minutes.
The eight powered over the climbs outside of Tarbes before turning north towards the finish in Castelsarrasin, and then the axe fell when the Scot, Millar, launched an attack. The Saunier Duval rider punched the gas on the final climb of the day, the 1400-metre Côte de la Montagnère. The move dropped Righi and then Quinziato but 'Benna' stayed locked on target, knowing his only chance to win would be if the race came down to a sprint. "I was lucky that no on put in a good attack. It went well that we were able to arrive in a sprint," explained Bennati.
Millar faded under counterattacks along with Tosatto, while up front the die had been cast; 'Benna' was clear with the former Swiss champion Elmiger and Germans Voigt and Fothen. The four worked smoothly together to establish a gap on their former companions.
"My legs are not quite there but it is getting better," recalled Millar post-stage. "I was not in control today. I have been riding aggressively, trying to show myself."
As the afternoon sun beat down on the riders, fatigue from the long effort and a night spent up late discussing Rasmussen's case surely affected the tactics heading into the finale. 'Benna' is recognised as a top sprinter and one that no one wants to take to the line, but at the same time there was only a small gap back to the pursuers.
A stage winner in last year's Tour, Voigt is well known for his vicious attacks, and when he nailed the accelerator at 4.1 kilometres to go along the Garonne river to Castelsarrasin, Bennati was on the cagey German, with Elmiger working hard to close the gap and towing Fothen along as uncooperative company. These tactics led the race into the final two kilometres when the pace dropped off.
Bennati, who had been on the front, took a log sip of his bottle and looked over his right shoulder while the four rolled down the left side of the road. Like a showdown out of Clint Eastwood's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Elmiger was forced to the front to lead through a right-hand corner at 1400 metres to go while the others readied their pistols for the final shoot-out. Another right-hander led on the four under the flamme rouge to start the last kilometre.
Fothen, who had been sitting last wheel, was first to unholster his weapon, and took off in a huge blast down the right side to anticipate the sprint. 'Benna' jumped on the anxious German and easily came around the left for his first-ever Tour de France win. The victory made up for a spring of bad luck and two hard weeks of fighting in La Grande Boucle.
"I am happy with second place since Bennati is a top sprinter," said 25 year-old Fothen who finished second last year in the young riders' competition. "He has beat guys like Boonen. I tried to surprise him but it wasn't enough. The sprinters' teams were a little bit tired so this was one of the last chances for us. Overall, I am not happy with this Tour."
Contador thought of the upcoming time trial and saving his recently accepted maillot jaune. "55 kilometres is a lot of kilometres. It depends on the day," predicted the 24 year-old. "I think it will be substantially hard to keep the yellow jersey but I think my condition in this third week is good.
How it unfolded
The 17th stage of the Tour de France began with a very different look to 24 hours earlier. The Cofidis team were missing thanks to the positive test of Christian Moreni and, more significantly, previous race leader Michael Rasmussen was far away from a Tour he had looked set to win after Wednesday's final mountain leg.
There was some speculation as to whether or not his Rabobank team would actually start the stage to Castelsarrasin but, come the time, they were there at the depart. Their morale was seriously dented and they'd spend the day far from the front, but for Thomas Dekker, Denis Menchov, Bram de Groot, Juan Antonio Flecha and Grischa Niermann, the race would continue. All would make it to the finish bar Menchov, who pulled out with approximately 100 kilometres to go.
A total of 124 riders lined out in Pau for the sunny, relatively flat stage. They'd face six climbs along the 188.5 kilometre parcours but with these being a third category ascent plus five fourth category hills, it was far removed from the gruelling battleground of the higher Cols.
The attacks began right from the start. Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom) jumped clear and was joined by Mickaël Delage (Française des Jeux) in a short-lived move. After their recapture eight riders went clear and opened a decent gap. The riders concerned were Martin Elmiger (Ag2r – Prévoyance), Daniele Bennati, Daniele Righi (Lampre Fondital), Markus Fothen (Gerolsteiner), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), Matteo Tosatto (Quick.Step Innergetic), Jens Voigt (CSC) and David Millar (Saunier Duval – Prodir).
Recognising the danger, eleven others tried to get across. The pursuers were Nicolas Portal (Caisse d'Epargne), Chris Horner (Predictor Lotto), Simon Gerrans (Ag2r Prévoyance), Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel Euskadi), Paolo Bossoni (Lampre Fondital), Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), Jérôme Pineau, Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), Lilian Jégou (Française des Jeux), Benoit Vaugrenard (Française Des Jeux) and Carlos Barredo (Quick.Step – Innergetic). However the peloton was trying to keep things under control and succeeded in hauling this chasing group back eleven kilometres after the start.
Twelve clicks later Tosatto beat Voigt, Fothen and Righi to the top of the third category Côte de Baleix. The break had an advantage of 1'10" at this stage and continued to work hard. Quinziato took the intermediate sprint at Rabastens-de-Bigorre (km 44.5), ahead of Millar and former Swiss national champ Elmiger. By this point the octet had 2'15".
The peloton wasn't going to let the break go that easily, though, and with Caisse d'Epargne leading the chase in the hope of taking their first win of this Tour, the lead started to drop. By the time Fothen beat Tosatto and Elmiger to the top of the fourth category Côte de Villecomtal, this was down to 1'30".
This hill was followed in rapid succession by two identically-ranked ascents, the Côte de Miélan (km 55) and the Sainte-Dode-aux-Croix (km 63.5). The order over the first was Fothen, Tosatto and Elmiger, while Millar took the prime over Righi and Bennati on the second of these ascents. Millar and Righi were also first and second on the Côte de Theux (km 72.5), with Fothen nabbing third.
The gap had gone up to 1'50" at this point and continued to grow. With 90 kilometres left they were 2'35" ahead and twenty clicks later it was up to five minutes. The peloton had started to lose interest, helping the break to pull further away.
The eight leaders knew they had a strong chance and were co-operating well. Bennati took the sprint in Solomiac ahead of Voigt and Elmiger and here, with 42 kilometres to go, they still had over seven and a half minutes.
A little earlier, Voigt had gone back to the team car with a problem and, without stopping, the mechanic switched his saddle and seatpost on the move. He had another issue just before the 25 kilometre to go banner and had to pull over to the side of the road with a flat rear wheel. The double Tour stage winner quickly remounted and, aided perhaps by a short period of time holding onto the team car while the mechanic adjusted his brakes, chased back on to the seven others.
Co-operation turns to aggression
Voigt recommenced working and the break moved on to the final climb of the day, the fourth category Montagnère. By this point the Discovery-led peloton had given up thoughts of a bunch finish and were rolling along at a respectable – but not hectic - pace, soaking up the July sun. The break was itself very much still in race mode and Millar set the attacks in motion when he jumped hard on the climb. Elmiger and Voigt covered the move, then the CSC rider countered. However the other riders were able to get back on terms.
Fothen then attacked but the sprinter-turned-rouleur Bennati was straight on to him. Voigt countered and had a slight gap over Bennati, Fothen and Elmiger at the top of the climb. Driven by the powerful CSC rider, these four pushed on but Tosatto and Millar clawed their way back across.
Bennati, Fothen and Elmiger then went yet more, jumping with approximately 18 kilometres to go. Voigt accelerated and Millar wasn't able to hold the wheel. He and Tosatto slipped back while the other four set about consolidating their lead.
With five kilometres remaining Voigt, Fothen, Bennati and Elmiger had a lead of 1'20" over the next two. Righi and Quinziato were 2'15 back. The main field was 9'44" in arrears and completely out of it as regards the stage win.
One kilometre later Voigt set off the aggression when he jumped. Bennati was looking very strong though, covering the move and looking confident enough to ride on the front. The other three resumed going through until Fothen attacked just before hitting the kite with one kilometre to go. Elmiger tried to cover it but Bennati was the one with the stronger legs, bringing the others up to the German rider.
Elmiger tried to jump with about 500 metres to go but eased back when the others got his wheel. Then Fothen went with 300 metres remaining, trying to steal a march on Bennati. The Italian was far too strong, however, jumping hard, shedding Voigt and Elmiger and then surging past Fothen to take his first Tour de France stage win.
Voigt kept going for third but was pipped just before the line by Elmiger. Millar and Tosatto then came in 2'41" back, the Saunier Duval – Prodir rider taking the gallop for fifth, and then Quinziato finished ahead of Righi for seventh. They were 3'20" down. Six minutes 17 seconds later the main bunch was led home by maillot vert Tom Boonen, ahead of Sébastien Chavanel (Française des Jeux), Robert Hunter (Barloworld), Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner) and Erik Zabel (Team Milram). This extended his lead to 22 and 25 points respectively over Hunter and Zabel.
Contador hadn't worn the yellow jersey during the stage due to the organisers' decision not to award on this morning, but he received his first ever Tour maillot jaune after the stage. There was no change to the top ten during the race to Castelsarrasin and so the Spaniard will set off on stage 18 with a 1'53" lead over Evans. Leipheimer is 2'49" back while everyone else is at least six minutes down and surely out of it as regards the fight for a podium place.
Stage 18 - Friday, July 27: Cahors - Angoulême, 211km
With one day remaining before the time trial, Friday's stage will see the GC contenders keeping their power dry while anyone else with available energy will chase a victory. Breakaway riders and sprinters will be hoping for success on the stage, which crosses four category four climbs, passes northwest through the Dordogne region and then concludes after 211 kilometres total in Angoulême, also the finish for Saturday's TT.
Km 15: Côte de Salvezou: 1.3 km climb @ 6.5 % grade / 4th Cat.
Km 24: Côte de Lavercantière: 1.2 km climb @ 5.9 % grade / 4th Cat.
Km 39.5: Côte de Saint-Martial-de-Nabirat: 1.5 km climb @ 4.3 % grade / 4th Cat.
Km 70.5: Côte de Saint-Cyprien: 2.8 km climb @ 4.9 % grade / 4th Cat.
Km 66: Saint-Cyprien
Km 192: Dignac