Australia's Robbie McEwen of Silence-Lotto took his first win of the season, capturing a sprint finish in Fribourg ahead of Italy's Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) and Denmark's Matti Breschel (CSC). Swiss Michael Albasini (Liquigas) kept the leader's jersey.
The stage was marked by a three-man breakaway. Rémy Di Gregorio (Française des Jeux), José Luis Arrieta (AG2R La Mondiale) and Ian McKissick (BMC Racing Team) took off four kilometres into the race, and the last of them, Di Gregorio, wasn't captured until there were only eight kilometres left. That opened up the way for the mass sprint.
The Australian called his win "very satisfactory, because it is the first of the seaon after a few rather difficult months. I crashed in February, then I got sick. The Tour de Romandie was really the race where I had sworn to myself that I would return at my best level. It is very enouraging for the Giro."
How it unfolded
Thursday's stage got off at 1:07 p.m., with 145 riders taking the start without Milram youngster Christian Kux, who missed out on a beautiful sunny stage which was in sharp contrast to the previous day's miserable conditions.
Three riders took off only four kilometers into the stage: Rémy Di Gregorio (FDJ), Jose Louis Arrieta (AG2R) and Ian McKissick (BMC). By kilometer 25, they had a lead of 4'59", and as the peloton basked in the warm sun, the leaders stretched their advantage to over nine minutes with 100 kilometres to go.
After the race turned the halfway point, High Road, Lotto and Liquigas were sharing the lead work in the peloton, and the advantage had dropped to 6'40" with 67 kilometers to go.
The trio probably had high hopes of getting through to the end of the stage, but with 40 kilometers to go, it was beginning to look as if their hopes would be dashed as the lead had dropped to four minutes.
At 36 km, the trio started up the Cote de la Lorette, an 800 meter long climb with an average gradient of nearly 12 percent. Arrieta fell back almost immediately on the cobbled road, and Di Gregorio led the way.
Behind them, Gerolsteiner's Francesco De Bonis took off after the leaders, who were now less than three minutes ahead. He quickly passed Arietta, while High Road led the following peloton.
McKissick struggled a bit on the climb, but then caught up with Di Gregorio on the descent only to drop off again on the next slight climb. De Bonis, meanwhile, gave up his attempt to bridge the gap and was absorbed back into the peloton while Di Gregorio held on to a two minute lead with 30 kilometers to go.
At 15 km to go, the peloton under the leadership of Liquigas and High Road was roaring along, cutting the lead to 1'40" and then slashing it to just 34 seconds with 10 km to go. Liquigas was putting on the speed to set up a sprint win for Daniel Bennati, and with 8 km to go, Di Gregorio's escape was finally over.
The next attack came almost immediately from Alex Moos of BMC. He was soon joined and then passed by Jose Garcia Acosta of Caisse d'Epargne, but the Spaniard was quickly overtaken by Markus Fothen (Gerolsteiner), who won a stage in this race last year. The German put in a good effort, but could not withstand the force of the teams hungry for a bunch sprint.
It was a wild final sprint with everyone looking for their chance, but in the end Robbie McEwen of Silence-Lotto proved to be the man of the hour. Bennati took second and third place went to CSC's Matti Breschel.