Launching his sprint with 250 metres to go and sailing straight past Alberto Loddo, Axel Maximiliano Richeze and Olaf Pollack with apparent ease, Queenslander Robbie McEwen didn't even notice Paolo Bettini's late finishing burst until his second victory salute, where he flexed his might and muscles for all the world to see.
"I let all the others start their sprint; I just watched what everyone was doing, which direction they were going and I opened my sprint along the left. I never really went on the wheel of somebody - I just did my own thing in the sprint and passed everybody without too many problems," McEwen said.
"For me, my sprint almost begins three kilometres from the finish," he continued. "I told my two team-mates who were piloting me - [Nick] Gates and [Henk] Vogels - just to wait until three kilometres and then to put me in the wheel of the Milram train, so that's exactly what happened. They took me until 15 or 14 hundred metres from the finish and sent me off behind Lorenzetto who was the last man of Milram; I just stayed on the wheel and stayed calm untl the last 200 metres.
"It wasn't a surprise to see Milram set up the way they did, I knew they were going to. They did no work on the front all day - they still have some fast guys, like Rigotto and Lorenzetto, who finished behind me last week in Romandie. It's obvious they're still going to try; okay, they've lost Petacchi, but they still want to try and win. They've got a strong train, and I rode my sprint according to them," he said.
"They were working for their guy but indirectly working for me," McEwen said.
"They saved all their guys to ride the last four or five kilometres and the sprint. I used half of my guys to chase the breakaway in co-operation with Gerolsteiner, so we did a lot of work during the day basically for everybody in the bunch, so it's okay another team does some work for me in the sprint. But you still have to get that position and win the sprint," he said.
After his stage victory at the Tour de Romandie a week and a half ago, McEwen told Cyclingnews: "I just need that extra bit of conditioning to go to the Giro with." Well Robbie, whatever you did between then and now, you've obviously found it.
"This victory I could say is for a number of people: for Christophe Brandt from our team, who didn't start today because he broke his arm yesterday. I also said it's for Petacchi because he couldn't ride after he injured his knee, and also for my son because it's his birthday tomorrow."
Many have said this year's Giro d'Italia was not a Giro for sprinters, but so far, with two wins in three days, McEwen has made it so. And with another pancake flat stage this coming Friday, it could very well be vittoria number 11 for the 33 year-old. Unless Bettini manages to surprise him with his trademark hop.
"I'm not a pure sprinter but it was a good finish for me today, a fast finish," said Bettini. "When I started my sprint I hit someone, I think [Alberto] Loddo and it slowed me down a bit... but anyway, McEwen is difficult to beat!" he conceded.
With the entire field bar three all finishing on the same time today, there was little to no movement on the classifica generale. Yesterday's stage winner Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) continues to lead the 89th Giro, looking like a million bucks donned in the maglia rosa, while defending champion Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel), Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), José Ivan Gutierrez Palacios (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears) and José Luis Rubiera Vigil (Discovery Channel) round out the top five, separated by 31 seconds.
What will tomorrow bring?
Well, for the 195 riders left in the 89th Giro, tomorrow brings the first day of rest. After a late-evening air-transfer from Liège to Parma tonight, a sleep-in will be in first on the menu, before the standard two-hour pedal, massage and evening meal.
Buon viaggio, plotone!
How it unfolded
Before the start of Stage 4, seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong stopped by the Discovery Team bus to hang with his homeys, and told the assembled media that "Savoldelli will win the Giro d'Italia."
196 riders left Wanze today at 12:03, with Alessandro Petacchi (Team Milram) and Christophe Brandt (Davitamon-Lotto) non-starters, due to a fractured left kneecap (Petacchi) and cracked elbow (Brandt). With the return of nice weather to the Giro, the remaining riders were ready to rock-on from the get-go. From the start in Wanze on the north bank of the Meuse River, Stage 4 headed south through Huy and immediately climbed the Cote d'Ahin. This initial ascent was bound to provoke attacks and 6km after passing the summit near Marcin, five riders escaped the clutches of the gruppo.
The front quintet was composed of Sandy Casar (Francaise de Jeux), Grischa Nierman (Rabonbank), Patrick "Beautiful" Calcagni (Liquigas-Bianchi), long, lean Jurgen Van de Walle (Quick.Step) and 35 year-old Alessandro Bertolini (Selle Italia). This break had the right combination of non-contenders and quickly gained time on the main group; by the tiny village of Tinlot at km 26, the escape had gained 3'30 and the tailwind had cranked up the pace, with 42.9km covered in the first hour.
After 50km, the break was five minutes in front and continued to make time on the peloton. The Giro percorso was now on the same tough, hilly roads as Liège-Bastogne-Liège. At the Cat. 3 GPM at Trois-points / Cote de Wanne after 83km, it was Casar who took the points, while the fast pace through the hilly terrain continued with the average speed 40.80 km/h.
Next up was the difficult climb to the GPM of La Haute Levée and the quintet had a gap of 6'20, while first rider over Casar saw him into the maglia verde of best climber. As the break dropped off the backside of the steep climb, they entered the auto racing circuit at Spa-Francorchamps, where Casar took the 110 Gazzetta intermediate sprint ahead of Calcagni and Van de Walle.
Across the terrain where the Battle of the Bulge was fought 62 years ago, the break's lead reached a maximum at 6'55, while maglia rosa Schumacher's Gerolsteiner squad and Davitamon-Lotto decided to increase the chase pace behind. Suffering from bad allergies since the beginning of the race, Bertagnolli (Cofidis) abandoned in the feed zone at Malmedy, with 195 riders now left in the 98th Giro d'Italia.
Now heading east through Vielsam with 55km to go, the break's lead had dropped to four minutes. The quintet was working well together, but the sprinters' teams back in the gruppo wanted it to come down to a sprint and kept the pressure on; with 45km to go across the rolling farmlands near the Luxembourg border, the gap was now 3' and falling fast, as the headwind made the situation out front more difficult for the break.
At 30km to go, the break was hanging out in front, as the giant form of Davitamon-Lotto's Bert Roesems was on the front and 15km later, the jig was almost up as the break's lead was down to 20 seconds in Bornal. As the gruppo approached, Niermann tried to get away but it was too late as T-Mobile had hit the front for their sprinter Olaf Pollack and it was now gruppo compatto after 174km out front.
On the run-in to the stage finish in the quaint country village of Hotton, the sprinters' teams began to look for elbow room, most notably Team Milram. With the absence of Ale-Jet Petacchi, the Milram milkmen were looking to launch second-string sprinter Mirko Lorenzetto, while Quick.Step was ready to launch Bettini. With 5.5km to go, Jensy Voigt (CSC) made a gutsy solo move and hung out in front, but with the sprinters' squads powering away on the long, straight road, his escape only lasted 1.5km.
Belgian champ Serge Baguet (Davitamon-Lotto) hit the front hard with 3km to go as the long, gentle descent into Hotton commenced. Milram was still up there, as was Henk Vogels of Davitamon-Lotto with Robbie McEwen right on his wheel. Rabobank's Graeme Brown was there, and Korff led out the swervy Pollack with 250 metres to go. But nothing could stop the Vogels-McEwen duo as he gave a perfect leadout. The speedy Queenslander rode to his 10th career stage win in the Giro d'Italia, and thanks to his points bonus, took over the maglia ciclamino of best sprinter from Bettini.
Thursday, May 11 - Stage 5: Piacenza-Cremona Team Time Trial, 38 km
The first Giro TTT since 1989 will be a billiard table fast, flat trip east the Po River valley, with a tailwind likely. Watch for a CSC-Discovery Channel battle on these dead-flat roads south of Milano, while the climbers' teams could lose minutes to such powerhouse squads.