By Shane Stokes in Frascati, with additional reporting by Jean François Quenet
After two days of the McEwen-Petacchi show, it was German rider Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner) who was the surprise victor at the end of stage five of the Giro d'Italia on Thursday.
Timing things just right in the twisting, turning final few hundred metres, he pipped Crédit Agricole's Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Petacchi (Team Milram) to net his second career victory in the Italian Tour. He won the final stage in Milan last year, then went on to taste another Grand Tour stage success in the Vuelta a España.
"The end of the stage was very special," he told the media at the press conference held near the finish line in Frascati. "The final three or four kilometres were really dangerous. I had a head-to-head with Napolitano who pushed me towards the barriers. I had good legs. I've risked a lot for winning but it was worth it."
Despite those previous stage wins in the Tours of Italy and Spain, plus a second place on stage three earlier this week, wins in stage five of Settimana Internazionale Coppi Bartali and second places on two stages of the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe, the 29 year old is not on cycling's A-list of sprinters. That may be changing, though, given that he is amassing good results and building confidence.
"I was the strongest of the sprinters today," he said. "I won the Milan stage in last year's Giro but I think I have improved with this one because I've beaten many more sprinters today. I feel stronger than I did here last year."
Förster's season has been a bit disrupted at times, but his form has been building well. "I was a little bit sick in the winter, having problems in January and February. The first victory of the season was in the Settimana Internazionale. I felt I was in good condition and then I went to the Tour of Sarthe and was two times second there.
"The last stage race I did was Romandie. It is not so bad but it is not really a stage race for sprinters. I came here then and felt good."
A good sign is also the fact that he is winning in different circumstances, showing some versatility. "This was a different kind of sprint, when compared to the win in Spain," he said, when asked to compare the two. "The Vuelta sprint was on big roads; the last kilometre was straight, but today it was a crazy sprint.
"After the climb I had two guys, [Thomas] Fothen and [Sven] Krauss who rode for me and got me into a good position. I knew that in the last five kilometres it was crucial to be in the front. They put me in the front and then it was a crazy sprint – we went right, left... it was dangerous."
The twisting, narrow roads meant that there was quite a bit of chopping and changing, making the sprint a test of nerve as much as bike handling and strength. Petacchi was in the thick of things and was accused by Ceramica Panaria sprinter Maximiliano Richeze of hitting him. Yet Förster said that most of the danger was coming from another area.
"For me, there were no real problem with Petacchi," he said. "It was more [Danilo] Napolitano and some guys who are not sprinters. Normally the small guys are the ones who bump around the place, not really Petacchi."
So, the crunch question – he's taken placings of first and second so far, scoring well in two out of the three bunch sprints. How many stages does he think he can win? "Well, I have taken one now," he answered, knowing that the pressure is now off. "I will try to take a second one, as I hope to get one more during the race. Right now, I'm not sure if I will go all the way to the end [Milan] but I will try to ride strongly in the remaining sprints."