Bennati takes first for Lampre

Italy's Daniele Bennati, of the Lampre team, won the 17th stage of the Tour de France on Thursday, a 188.5km ride from Pau to Castelsarrasin.

Italy's Daniele Bennati, of the Lampre team, won the 17th stage of the Tour de France on Thursday, a 188.5km ride from Pau to Castelsarrasin.

In the absence of ejected race leader Michael Rasmussen, who was sacked over doping suspicions by his Rabobank team on Thursday, Spaniard Alberto Contador pulled on the race's yellow jersey. Contador was quick to insist that he was drug-free.

"If I wasn't clean, then I wouldn't be here. I've undergone all the required doping tests, both at the race and before it," said Contador, who could become the first Spaniard since Miguel Indurain to win the Tour.

Contador began the stage with a 1min 53sec lead on Australia's Cadel Evans in the general classification, and the deficit stayed that way after a rare breakaway managed to go all the way to the finish line.

The break had started out as eight, but in the final 20km it was reduced to four as the pace of Germany's Jens Voigt, who won his first stage in the Tour here in 2001, proved too much for some.

Britain's David Millar began trailing with 16km to the finish, and together with Quick Step's Matteo Tosatto he struggled to close the gap on the leading quartet.

Voigt's drive for the finish was boosted by regular relays from Bennati, former Swiss champion Martin Elmiger and German Markus Fothen.

The leading quartet raced under the red flag, signalling one kilometre to go, and it was Fothen who launched the first drive for the line down the right hand side.

Bennati countered, and the big one-day specialist went on to overtake the young German with room to spare.

After a tough three day spell in the Pyrenees, the 27-year-old Italian said he didn't fancy his chances in a bunch sprint.

"I knew the third week would be hard, and didn't really expect to win in a bunch sprint, that's why I decided to go into the breakaway," said Bennati, who admitted they had had to fight to loosen the peloton's clutches.

"The first 90km were really hard because we really went for it, trying to put some time between us and the peloton.

"But we worked well together and once we'd built our lead to eight minutes we could relax a bit and recuperate."

Millar, who has been one of the most outspoken riders in the wake of Rasmussen's sensational exit, admitted it was more his head than his legs that got him into the early breakaway.

After finishing tired, and over two minutes behind the leading quartet, the Scot said he would be trying for a stage win again.

"I think I deserve 10 out of 10 for the effort, but the legs have still not recovered totally," said Millar, who is being tipped to move from Spanish team Saunier Duval to up-and-coming American outfit Slipstream.

"It was more my determination than my legs that got me into the breakaway. Jens' (Voigt) pace was putting me into the red in the first five to ten kilometres.

"It was a hard day because we spent nearly 110km to finally get rid of the peloton. It was like a team time trial for 110km. I hope I can try again tomorrow," added Millar.

Voigt, who said he was getting sick of all the negative news on the sport, admitted he had simply been outraced at the end.

"I wanted to shake off Bennati because I knew he would be a contender at the finish," said Voigt, who rides for CSC.

"Already, in the breakaway he was the strongest rider. I tried to drop him because I knew I was a bit stronger than the other two if it just came down to a three-man sprint.

"But Bennati knows how to ride. He stuck on my wheel and didn't leave me."

Quick Step's Tom Boonen led the peloton home to reinforce his grip on the green jersey 9:37 later.

Contador meanwhile is already looking towards Saturday's time trial, over 55.5km from Cognac to Angouleme, after which he, Evans or his American teammate Levi Leipheimer could win the race.

"I know Evans is strong in the long time trials," said the Discovery Channel rider.

"But I didn't do too bad in the first one. I'm still hopeful I can hold on to my lead."

© AFP 2007

Also see: stage 17 live report


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