While barely noticed, probably the most important thing that happened yesterday was Daniele Bennati taking fifth place on the stage and an unassailable 74 point lead in the points competition. Barring some disaster or three consecutive stage wins by either Paolo Bettini, Mark Cavendish, or Riccardo Ricco, this sucker's over. After four years of Bettini and Alessandro Petacchi, successors to the Cipollini era, a new guard is taking over the points jerseys. Last year 27-year-old Tom Boonen won his first Green Jersey at the Tour de France, pushing veteran fixtures like Erik Zabel and Robbie McEwen to the margins. Now Bennati, about a month older than Tommeke, has done the same in the Giro.
Not to get all dramatic and shit, but this is a pretty big deal. While sprints can be won by the fastmen of all ages, points competitions at the grand tours are typically won by riders who can add some all-round ability and veteran smarts/consistency to their top-end speed. For every Petacchi 9-stage romp, there's a maillot vert who barely scores a stage win... but comes in top five almost every day.
The fact is, after nearly a decade of the same names, a new generation is seizing control of the peloton's second-best grand tour competition. Thor Hushovd is the only holdover threat from the pre-Puerto era; McEwen and Zabel have finally lost their top gear, Petacchi is off in the wilderness, and Bettini can't escape the sprinters' teams anymore.
Now we have Boonen, who can win every day, but traded some of those moments for getting himself to the front safely every day, and made it to Paris in Green. Now we have Bennati, a rider with the all-round ability to survive in the mountains, demonstrating his ability to get to the front and win too. Along with Hushovd and Robbie Hunter, these guys will be the favorites in July as well.
They may not be alone. Mark Cavendish is currently the fastest man on the planet, and has shown a little more of the fighting spirit necessary to make the finale every day. His climbing is poor, so he'll either have to round out his skills (a good bet) or hope for a really flat Tour someday (meh), but with his ability to close out stages, his potential is there. He's got a couple teammates in Gerald Ciolek and Edvald Boasson Hagen who might also make the grade sooner or later. Hagen is a mystery right now, but was a dominant sprinter in the U23 realm. Ciolek is close to competing already, with several glittering wins and as of yesterday a mountains stage sprint in his palmares. I'm surely omitting some other names; feel free to fill them in for me.
Leave it to Paolo Bettini to mark the occasion. His playful slap on Benna's butt seemed like an admission of sorts, that he had no answer for the powerful young Liquigas star. Or maybe he knew that Benna's move clinched the points competition, and was welcoming in the new era.