Timing his final move perfectly and easily over-taking Daniele Bennati, Mark Cavendish thundered to his first ever Grand Tout stage victory today in Catanzaro Lungomare.
Still eight days short of his 23rd birthday, the 22 year-old benefited from strong team-work in returning after being dropped on the day's last big climb, 19 kilometres from the line. The High Road team then delivered him to the front and he repaid them by unleashed a strong kick inside the final 200 metres, passing Bennati and holding off a fast-closing Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner).
A large crash inside the final kilometre meant that only a handful of riders contested the gallop, but the main fast men were there.
"I think for sure it is the biggest win of my career," said a delighted Cavendish afterwards. "I think to come to the Giro and win a stage is big for any rider. What makes it even more sweet is the way my team worked today. They had a lot of faith – even though there was a climb near the finish, they believed in me, they waited for me on the climb, they took me back and then they went straight to the front and got working.
"It was pretty incredible and so the only thing I could do [in response] was to finish it off with a win."
He explained how the final moments played out. "I was expecting a tailwind, to be honest, but there was a headwind in the last kilometre. I was ten positions back at that point but my team-mate Tony Martin did a perfect job to get me to three positions from the front.
"Bennati went then…I think he went at a perfect time, and I could wait because I am younger and it is easier for me to hold back and come around at the last minute."
The day was marked by a brave, but ultimately futile attack by Rik Verbrugghe (Cofidis). He got over ten minutes lead but was hauled back on the last climb due to the strong driving by Liquigas and the sprinters' teams. Race leader Franco Pellizotti finished 65th and maintained his one second advantage over Christian Vande Velde (Slipstream Chipotle H30).
Vande Velde's team-mate David Millar was happy with how things went. "We are just looking after Christian for now. I am waiting until the second half of the race, then I will start showing myself," he stated.
The Scot was one of those who came down in the big crash yesterday. He wasn't stiff during the stage, though. "I felt good… am feeing better and better every day. I had no problems after the crash, I actually felt better than I had done in a long time."
One who didn't was Graeme Brown, the Rabobank sprinter. He finished 149th, 6 minutes and 39 seconds back, but said he hopes to recover. "My knee is pretty sore but I struggled though it," he stated. "I hope it will be okay in a few days. Today was pretty sore, it is pretty sore now."
Italian time trial champion Marco Pinotti also gave his reaction to the stage and, as Cavendish's team-mate, was very happy how things went. "We had a beautiful day. After the long transfer yesterday, today was a bit of recovery. Mark was great, nobody was sure that he could make it over the final climb but he has been training a lot in the hills and he showed great form. The final was anything but easy. Quick Step made a strong pace…it wasn't easy but we saw Mark coming back. The team was happy to help him, and finally we got the win."
Ironically, part of the reason for Cavendish's success was the fair play of world champion Paolo Bettini. The Italian had attacked on the descent after the climb but was hauled back. He was then fighting for position for the sprint but graciously allowed Cavendish to recover after he lost his train.
"With three kilometres to go, I was in the wind a little bit," said the Manx rider. "My team had gone down the other side but the door had closed and I had to go around them to get back on. A lot of people would have fought if someone had tried to get them off the wheel – I know I would have - but Bettini let me in and back onto my team-mates, which was gentlemanly of him, I think."
How it unfolded
The Giro d'Italia returned to the country's mainland where it will stay for the remainder of the race. Kicking off from Italy's toe was a stage of 183 kilometres from Pizzo Calabro to Catanzaro-Lungomare. The Corsa Rosa has finished in Catanzaro five times, but the last time was in 1996 when Pascal Hervé took top honours.
The race departed at 12:35 under cloudy skies. Three-time Giro stage winner Rik Verbrugghe attacked immediately as the race left Pizzo Calabro. The 33 year-old Belgian of Team Cofidis had 8'33" in hand at kilometre 50.
It was to be a hard day in Reggio Calabria for the lone Verbrugghe; after topping the Passo di Pietra Spada (at 64km), he had to battle winds and an aggressive peloton. Over the GPM (Gran Premio della Montagna), he had a gap of 9'30".
Verbrugghe is remembered well in Italy thanks to his grand Giro d'Italia in 2001; while riding for Lotto he won the prologue in Pescara and went on to spend four days in the maglia rosa. That year he set the record speed for a prologue at 58.874km/h. The rider from Helecine, Belgium, also won a stage in the 2002 Giro, Versilia, and the 2006 Giro, Saltara.
Following the feed zone in Monasterace Marina the gap grew to 11 minutes, at 110km.
A light rain started falling at kilometre 128. At the sprint in Soverato, Verbrugghe led by 8'58", and the gap dropped to eight minutes at 40 kilometres to go. Five kilometres later, the gap fell to 6'13".
The day was done for Rik Verbrugghe with 25 kilometres to go as the gap slimmed down to 2'48". Quick Step and Barloworld were adding its men to fuel the fire. After 164 kilometres of racing, Verbrugghe was caught on the small rise to Catanzaro Alto.
World Champion Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) attempted to spice up the finale with an attack at 10 kilometres remaining. The Italian's move was snuffed by Di Luca's LPR Brakes team as the race flew through the Fiumarella valley.
The stage came down to a sprint finish as many predicted it would. Milram took control in the final kilometre and carried Erik Zabel safely to the finale; however, the German got washed away when Daniele Bennati opened up his sprint. Bennati, who went long, could not hold the charge on the left of Mark Cavendish (High Road) and Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner), who finished first and second respectively.
"Benna" went on to finish third over Assan Bazayev (Astana), Mirco Lorenzetto (Lampre), while Zabel finished sixth. The front men were safely ahead of a crash in the final kilometre that sent two CSF Group Navigare riders down along with Belgium's Nick Nuyens (Cofidis). Nuyens left the race in an ambulance.
Stage 5 - Wednesday, May 14: Belvedere Marittimo - Contursi Terme, 203km
Stage five will be one for a long escape thanks to its rolling parcours. Those who make it free won't have time to enjoy seaside views as the road winds along the shore in the first 42 kilometres to Praia a Mare, and it will only get worse when the parcours turns inland for the climb of Fortino.
The arrival in Contursi Terme – a first time host of a Giro d'Italia finish – suits a rider like Italy's Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner).