Mark Cavendish (Sky) crossed the finishing line with rage as he lost stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia in Vedelago, arriving runner-up to second year pro Andrea Guardini, 22, from Farnese Vini-Selle Italia. The world champion admitted that the young Italian was "faster and more powerful" than him on that day.
"I've always believed that I'd beat Cavendish one day," Guardini said. "I knew that I had to anticipate him in the sprint. In the last three kilometers, I took a place behind the train of Saxo Bank. I knew it was the best, even without the Haedo [Juan José] who beat me in the [French cup race] GP Denain, but with his brother [Lucas Sebastian who finished fifth]. They have surprised everyone but not me."
Stage 18 was perfect for Guardini with its short distance of 149km, featuring a finale of sixty kilometers absolutely flat to finish. "There were maybe four or five sprinters left for today's bunch gallop," the Italian said. "We were 198 riders at the start in Herning and we're only 167 left in contention now. That means something.
"I've really suffered on the climbs but I've endured it. During the first week of the Giro d'Italia I didn't believe in myself enough. I'd been struggling in the sprints. I was not happy with finishing tenth in Denmark. That wasn't at the height of my value. Also at the Tour of Turkey, I didn't collect the results I wanted before the Giro. I knew this sprint was the last chance I had. It was today or that I'd have to wait until next year."
All of Guardini's previous victories this season were collected in Malaysia where he won six stages at Le Tour de Langkawi, scoring a new record in the history of the Asian race. He also notched the first win of his career at Langkawi one year before. "I love that race because of the warm welcome of the population," Guardini said.
In his pro debut in 2011, he was told by his directeur sportif Luca Scinto – an overall winner of the 1997 Le Tour de Langkawi himself – that it was like entering high school. "Then I'll take you directly from Malaysia to the Tour of Qatar and you'll step up to college. If you pass, you'll go to university, that's the Giro d'Italia," Michele Bartoli's former lieutenant told his protégé who had already raced under him as an U23 prior to beating the long-lasting record of Claudio Corti: 17 victories as an amateur in 1977.
In 2010, Guardini bagged 19. He was ready for the pro ranks, as he showed by winning two stages at the Presidential Tour of Turkey ahead of the likes of Andre Greipel and Alessandro Petacchi. But he was not ready for the 2011 Giro d'Italia. Scinto opted for preserving him for the future.
Scinto was proven right when Guardini finally came of age at Vedelago. "Let's dedicate this win to La Zampata!," the Tuscan directeur sportif concluded. "La Zampata" is Mario Cipollini's column in La Gazzetta dello Sport in which he lashes out daily and criticizes Scinto and Guardini on a regular basis. Cipollini also suggested in February that he should come back to racing to help Guardini win a sprint at the Giro d'Italia. History now proves that the Lion King, aged 45, was not needed.
"I think I'm a similar kind of sprinter as Cavendish but my idol was Robbie McEwen who retired a few days ago," Guardini said. He also admitted that he grew up watching Cipollini's sprints. He took up cycling at the age of 7 and was a junior European champion for keirin in 2007 and fifth at the junior world championship for individual sprint prior to dedicating his career to road racing.
Cavendish heard the name of Guardini for the first time when Scinto met him at a bar in Tuscany. "Remember this name, he'll beat you soon," Scinto warned the Briton. Following his successful debut at Le Tour de Langkawi, Guardini impressed Eddy Merckx when he won the last stage of the 2011 Tour of Qatar. Cavendish was there but he didn't sprint against the Italian rookie as he was busy protecting race leader and eventual winner Mark Renshaw. To beat Cavendish for the first time at the Giro d'Italia, Guardini was also lucky that the Australian is no longer the lead-out man of the world's best sprinter.