Bennati responds to Ballerini with win

Non-selection for Italy's Worlds' team spurs Bennati victory

Daniele Bennati sprinted to victory in stage 17 of the Vuelta a España one day after not being selected by Franco Ballerini for the 2007 World Championships. The 26 year-old Italian of Lampre-Fondital held off a surging World Champion Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step - Innergetic) and Alessandro Petacchi to take home his second stage victory. The win proved that 'Benna' is on-form, 18 days after winning the first stage of the Spanish Grand Tour.

"It is not very easy to win, especially in the Vuelta, which is a great tour," explained Bennati after the win. "This is the third week; I did the whole Tour de France recently. I am so very happy because my condition is very good. I am really happy."

Petacchi had all of the Milram at his disposal but failed to come up with win number three of this year's Vuelta. The tall sprinter from La Spezia went back to back after rest day one, but could not match his fellow countrymen today. On the long run-in, perfectly suited for 'Ale-Jet,' there were still three Milrams powering in the final 1000 metres for their captain.

Marco Velo and then Erik Zabel pulled off to release Petacchi, who has 19-career Vuelta wins in his palmarès, down the left hand side of the road in Talavera de la Reina city centre. Bennati, who seemingly been left unprotected in the final metres, edged to the front, and began his sprint. He powered up on the right side of Petacchi, fuelling his sprint with a fury that came from being nixed by National Directeur Sportif Ballerini in yesterday's Worlds' selection.

"Of course I am not happy," remarked Bennati. "I think it is truly incredible; I think I demonstrated in the Vuelta I am the strongest sprinter. Bettini is the strongest Italian rider. I don't know why [I wasn't selected]. I don't like it at all. I don't like it also because the next two World Championships are very, very hard. I don't like to wait two more years to ride the World's. I dislike it."

Bettini made a promising push for sprint victory given that he too was seemingly unprotected in the final metres. He picked the right wheel to be on, but did not have the sprint speed to pass Bennati. Bettini finished second, and he is expected to travel back to Italy tonight to prepare for his World Champion defence. He will co-captain the team with Filippo Pozzato.

Ballerini may second guess his selection, but he won't change it. 'Benna' would have been a good wildcard for the national team on September 30 in Stuttgart given his sprinting capacities after a long day of hard work. However, Ballerini choose to leave Italy's leading sprinter at home, favouring a punchier team (i.e. Damiano Cunego).

Relax-GAM and Andalucía-Cajasur had their day thanks to Jorge García and Juan Olmo's brave move. The Spanish duo stayed clear for 158 kilometres, and they gained huge amount of exposure for their Professional Continental teams. They had to know that they could not win with Euskaltel-Euskadi, Lampre and Milram chasing for the sprint.

"Until we reached the finish line, nobody can say the breakaway would not succeed," argued Olmo. "We got caught close. We tried it time after time. If you don't try, you'll never win."

Euskaltel for the second day in a row came up empty handed. Yesterday, the team lost out on the winning selection from the 18-man move which contained two team representatives. Today, the team flogged itself for Koldo Fernández's chances, however, the team's sprinter could only manage tenth.

Rabobank had a quiet day. The sprinters' teams controlled the time gap to the escape, while the team of race leader Denis Menchov eyed the following two mountain stages. The Russian continues to lead over Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse d'Epargne), second, and Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto), third.

How it unfolded

Talavera de la Reina is a town in the province of Toledo known for its pottery. The last time it hosted a Vuelta finale was in 1969, when Luigi Sgarbozza won.

Two T-Mobile riders decided not to start today in Ciudad Real: stage 8 time trial winner, Germany's Bert Grabsch, and Italy's Giuseppe Guerini. 152 riders signed in to ride today's stage.

The peloton allowed a two-man breakaway made by Juan Olmo (Andalucía-Cajasur) and Jorge García (Relax-GAM). The duo commanded the race, 5'15" ahead at kilometre 53. In such a flat stage like today's it is very easy for the big group to control, and then catch two guys in a escape. The advantage never reached more than six minutes as the sprinters' teams worked hard to keep the duo at reach.

The Milram and Lampre teams wouldn't permit a break on a day with such a favourable route for their big guns: Alessandro Petacchi, Erik Zabel and Daniele Bennati. Therefore, the gap was down to three minutes by kilometre 118. The distance was less than two minutes at kilometre 141 (34 kilometres to go).

With 20 kilometres to the finish, the two Spanish riders led by 2'15" over the peloton, while Euskaltel-Euskadi helped the Italian outfits for its sprinter Koldo Fernández. The Basque team, Lampre and Milram pulled at full speed to catch the escapees. With eight kilometres remaining, the duo was in sight, leading the race by 16 scarce seconds. Metres ahead, they were swallowed by the peloton.

The race speed was high with some sections raced at 65 kilometres per hour. With the peloton together, Milram put its treno up front with Petacchi in last wheel, getting ready to do his part. T-Mobile surged in the final two kilometres. There were many roundabouts in the last kilometres that presented some difficulties.

There was the final turn very near the finish line. At that point, the top sprinters started the bunch sprint. Petacchi was behind Zabel's wheel, Bettini found a good position, while Bennati also found a favourable spot. Coming out of the last turn, Petacchi started the sprint. He passed Zabel on the left, while Bennati took control from centre, and Bettini further right. The Lampre rider won, the World Champion in second place and Petacchi managed third.

Stage 18 - September 20: Talavera de la Reina - Ávila, 153.5km

Sure this stage ends with a flat finish but that does not take into consideration the category 1 Porte de Mijares (km. 56) and category 2 Porte de Navalmoral (km 120). These brutes will allow for a team to work for its captain and the possibility to eliminate some of his GC rivals. The finale, last visited in 2005, presents a technical cobblestone avenue.

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