Bennati takes first

First maillot oro and Vuelta stage win

Daniele Bennati proved his form has not faded since his win on the Champs-Élysées in Paris at the end of July by taking the opening stage of the 62nd Vuelta a España. The 26 year-old Italian over-powered Spaniard Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and compatriot Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) as the 146.4-kilometre stage finished in Vigo. With the win on the opening day, 'Benna' moves in to the maillot oro of overall leader.

Way back at the end of February, the rider from Arezzo got the confidence boost he needed by overtaking sprint-great Petacchi in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. He approached the season with newly found determination that was only sidelined by stomach pains during the late spring. A resurgence in the Tour de France proved that he was right to believe in himself as Italy's top gun. He won two stages against the world's best sprinters, while Petacchi sat at home watching on television.

The big rematch finally came today on the streets of Vigo. Bennati not only bettered Petacchi but he also topped Oscar Freire, Allan Davis (Discovery Channel) and Tom Boonen (Quick.Step - Innergetic). It was the 2005 World Champion's team, Quick.Step, that did most of the pace-making in the final circuit around Vigo. With the help of Milram, Discovery and Bennati's Lampre, the gap of Serafín Martínez (Karpin-Galicia) and Jérémy Roy (Française Des Jeux) was closed. Roy was the last to hang on, and his day ended at five kilometres to go.

Petacchi, a 17-time stage winner in the Vuelta, sent Milram to take over for the final kilometres. He had German Erik Zabel on the front as the race for the stage and 2007's first maillot oro came to a close. However, 'Benna' was a few riders back and poised as a danger-man. He made himself visible only in the last metres, which was perfect timing for the taking the stage win and race leadership.

Freire had the help of Pedro Horrillo for the sprint finale. He seemed to be ready for the win, but was a victim of bad positioning. Petacchi must have lost heart. Once 'Ale-Jet' saw the blue-pink flash of Bennati his legs stopped turning at their normal tempo, and he faded. Davis and Boonen showed their eagerness to get a stage win with the help of their teams, and it is likely we will see them challenge in the following two sprinter friendly stages as the race heads towards the mountain appointment of Lagos de Covadonga.

The early escape of Martínez, Dimitri Champion (Bouygues Telecom) and Geoffroy Lequatre (Cofidis) did not enjoy complete freedom, however, it was what neo-pro Martínez needed to snatch maximum mountain points over the category three Ponte Caldelas and Zamans. 23 year-old Martínez of Spain will don the white top of best climber.

How it unfolded

Vigo is a small but famous city by the sea in the province of Pontevedra in southern Galicia. The town is known all over Spain for its famous soccer club Celta and its Citroen big factory which is one the biggest car factories in the country.

This was a special stage for Oscar Pereiro who is from a little town named Mos that is very near Vigo. The route should have been very familiar to the 2006 Tour de France virtual champion.

While Spain's José Luis Arrieta (AG2R Prévoyance) wore dossard number 1 as Alexander Vinokourov and his team Astana were not invited to the tour, the 189 riders started the Grand Tour.

The first breakaway of the Vuelta was made by three riders: Serafín Martínez (Karpin-Galicia) together with Dimitri Champion (Bouygues Telecom) and Geoffroy Lequatre (Cofidis) at kilometre 26. They led by more than three minutes at kilometre 40. Nevertheless, the gap wasn't growing and the peloton didn't let them gain much time.

The race kept going and the three leaders couldn't increase the advantage as the big group led by Milram remained in command. Therefore, the distance between Martínez, Champion and Lequatre didn't grow more than four minutes. The flat finish was an auspicious field not only for Milram's Alessandro Petacchi and Erik Zabel but also for stars Tom Boonen (Quickstep-Innergetic) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank).

Late on, at kilometre 90, Tom Danielson (Discovery Channel) abandoned the race. The American quit due to a hard crash which happened at kilometre 78. He suffered a hard landing together with Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital). Danielson was worse off, as he broke his right collarbone, while the Italian had a hard hit in his left knee, which bled. Danielson was sent later to a hospital in Vigo. It was sad news for the rider hoping to play a big part in the Vuelta.

Local Martínez wanted to make the big surprise of the today, so he attacked his two breakaway mates at kilometre 109, with 43 kilometres to go. He led the race for some kilometres but the teams with sprinters in their rosters found it easy to catch a single rider. With around 20 kilometres to the line, Jérémy Roy (Française Des Jeux) made his move and joined the Spaniard. Roy wanted it all for himself, and he launched another attacked to take the lead solo with eight kilometres to the finish line.

Finally, the Frenchman was swallowed by the peloton as they prepared for the bunch sprint with Milram clearly leading the way. The Italian team took command of the front, but it wasn't enough to allow Ale-Jet to take Vuelta win number 18. Petacchi, Freire and Bennati fought hard and the Lampre rider got the best position going in the right side and prevailing over the other top-class sprinters. Allan Davis and Tom Boonen were fourth and fifth, respectively. 'Benna' won the last Tour de France stage and, therefore, continued his Grand Tours wining streak with the first stage of the Vuelta a España.

Stage 2 - September 2: Allariz - Santiago de Compostela, 148.7km

The Vuelta a España stays in Galicia for one more day with a testing run from Allariz to Santiago de Compostela. The only alto appears early on in the day, kilometre 67.6, but there is some taxing terrain that follows. However, the 11-kilometre circuit in Santiago de Compostela, host of nearly a half-dozen stage finishes, should allow the sprinters' teams to regroup and crunch any gaps the escapees might have formed.

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