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Stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico, 166 kilometres from San Vincenzo to Cascina.
The sheer number of grand tour contenders in the line-up (and the absence of a couple more) may have grabbed the bulk of the headlines ahead of Tirreno-Adriatico, but traditionally, this race is all about preparing for Milan-San Remo. The long, long stages at the weekend - including the 244km haul to Selvarotonda - are an important part of that process, but the sprinters also want a chance to test their legs for the Lungomare Italo Calvino, and the first such opportunity should arise in Cascina this afternoon.
There was a hilly start to proceedings this morning after leaving San Vincenzo, but the road flattens out considerably in the second half of the stage, and the fast run-in to Cascina seems like fertile terrain for a bunch finish.
That will doubtless be to the liking of race leader Mark Cavendish, who holds the blue jersey after his Omega Pharma-QuickStep team's dominant ride in yesterday's team time trial. If it all stays together today, Cavendish should retain that lead, but he faces stiff opposition for stage honours, with Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) all in the peloton.
The overall standings, incidentally, are of course dominated by Omega Pharma-QuickStep riders ahead of the opening road stage.
Mark Cavendish (GBr) Omega Pharma - Quick-Step Cycling Team 0:20:13
2 Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Omega Pharma - Quick-Step Cycling Team
3 Rigoberto Uran Uran (Col) Omega Pharma - Quick-Step Cycling Team
4 Mark Renshaw (Aus) Omega Pharma - Quick-Step Cycling Team
5 Wouter Poels (Ned) Omega Pharma - Quick-Step Cycling Team
6 Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Omega Pharma - Quick-Step Cycling Team 0:00:02
7 Tony Martin (Ger) Omega Pharma - Quick-Step Cycling Team 0:00:03
8 Daryl Impey (RSA) Orica Greenedge 0:00:11
9 Simon Clarke (Aus) Orica Greenedge
10 Luke Durbridge (Aus) Orica Greenedge
As we pick up the action, a break of five riders is five minutes clear of the peloton. Daniel Teklehaymanot (MTN-Qhubeka), Marco Canola (Bardiani-CSF), Alex Dowsett (Movistar), David De La Cruz (NetApp-Endura) and Davide Malacarne (Europcar) broke clear in the opening two kilometres, and Omega Pharma-QuickStep were more than happy to stamp their day passes and let them go clear.
Marco Canola has just led the break over the third and final climb of the day at Lajatico. The Italian had already done the same at Guardistallo and Montecatini, and will take possession of the king of the mountains jersey in Cascina this afternoon. With Omega Pharma-QuickStep, Lotto-Belisol and Giant-Shimano all beginning to marshal their riders on the front, however, that may well be the extent of Canola's bounty on stage 2.
Indeed, as the bunch passes through La Sterza, its deficit to the five leaders is already less than four minutes. The average speed for the first two hours of racing is 38kph, but is bound to ratchet upwards on the flatter second half of the parcours. The stage finishes, by the way, with a 20km finishing circuit around Cascina, meaning that the sprinters will have a chance to get their bearings before the grand finale.
Mark Cavendish was pleased with Omega Pharma-QuickStep's work yesterday, although SRAM might be a little less content with his critique of their chainset. Unperturbed by his slipped chain, however, Cavendish led home a team that had been powered by Tony Martin for long stretches, but also included strongmen such as Alessandro Petacchi, Mark Renshaw and man of the moment, Michal Kwiatkowski.
With 70 kilometres still to race, our five escapees - Canola, De La Cruz, Malacarne, Dowsett and Teklehaymanot - maintain a lead of four minutes over the main peloton.
Led by young time trial talents Luke Durbridge and Michael Hepburn, Orica-GreenEdge pushed QuickStep closest yesterday afternoon, but they were still 11 seconds shy of Tony Martin and company at the finish. There's a keen team time trialling rivalry between GreenEdge and QuickStep, but Daryl Impey acknowledged that there was little to be done on the road to San Vincenzo on Tuesday. "We were beaten by a better team on the day," he told Cyclingnews' Stephen Farrand.
Giant-Shimano, Lotto-Belisol and Omega Pharma-QuickStep have reached a working agreement in the main peloton, and they each have a rider sitting on the front of the peloton. For the moment, the gap is stable at 4:10.
Alessandro Petacchi's main role at Tirreno-Adriatico is to lead out Mark Cavendish, but the normally impassive Italian was uncharacteristically expressive after yesterday's team time trial victory. "I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it but after the finish I actually cried," Petacchi told Gazzetta dello Sport. "It’s the first real team time trial I’ve won. I won a stage of the Tour of the Med with Fassa Bortolo and Ferretti years ago, but Tirreno is different, it’s a WorldTour race."
The five escapees are continuing to collaborate well and have stretched their lead back out to 4:30. Alex Dowsett, in particular, is pedalling very smoothly indeed as they zip through Perignano.
There are serene blue skies overhead in Tuscany this afternoon, with temperatures approaching 20 degrees Celsius. Tirreno-Adriatico is often a race blighted by poor weather, but the prognosis appears to be good for the rest of the week, even as the peloton heads into the mountains in Abruzzo.
RAI have just treated us to slow-motion split-screen images of Mark Cavendish and Alex Dowsett, proving that Cyclingnews has not quite cornered the market on shakey footage of Alex Dowsett. For videos of Alex Dowsett's suitcase, this video on Alex Dowsett's time trial preparation and a lot of other videos that involve neither suitcases nor Alex Dowsett, subscribe to our YouTube channel.
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) started the stage with his left knee heavily strapped, although the full extent of his injury is not quite clear. The Frenchman came through yesterday's team time trial untroubled, but admitted that his knee has been causing him problems when he gets out of the saddle en danseuse.
The break had 4 minutes as they entered the final 50 kilometres, which seems to have been the signal for the sprinters' teams to pick up the pace another notch or two. The gap is now 3:45.
Pinot, incidentally, seems to have discarded the strapping along the way, which is perhaps an indication that his knee injury is not causing him undue problems.
The seconds are beginning to melt away from the break's lead as they approach Cascina for the first of two laps of the 20 kilometre finishing circuit. The gap is now 3:30.
Dowsett leads the break through the finish line in Cascina, where the crowds are out in force to welcome Tirreno-Adriatico to town. Johan De Muynck won the stage when the Giro d'Italia visited here in 1978.
Giant-Shimano lead the bunch through the finish line for the first time, 3:21 down on the break. A small group of BMC riders move up along the side of the peloton, trying to keep Cadel Evans in position.
Canola is trying to inject some life into the break's efforts, but their advantage is continuing to tumble steadily. The Giant/Lotto/QuickStep sprinters' security council has now pegged the gap back to three minutes.
At the rear of the peloton, meanwhile, Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) drops back to his team car. The Italian has been solid but decidedly unspectacular thus far in 2014, but he will be aiming to shine from Milan-San Remo onwards.
Robert Kiserlowski (Trek Factory Racing) punctures, but he should have few problems in latching back on.
Alex Dowsett claimed the three bonus seconds at the first intermediate sprint with 50km to go, and he jumps away from the break in a bid to add to his tally at the second sprint.
Dowsett picks up the bonus seconds in Uliveto Terme and rather than wait for his companions, the Englishman decides to put his head down and keep going.
Along with Canola, Dowsett had appeared the strongman of the break, and he has opened a decent gap of 16 seconds over his erstwhile companions. A fine rouleur, the Englishman is looking comfortable with his wrists resting on the tops of his handlebars.
It's not always easy to judge accurately from intermittent glances at the front of the peloton, but it seems as though Giant-Shimano are doing most of the legwork in chasing the break for now, but Lotto and QuickStep are keeping a close eye on proceedings.
Indeed, Lotto-Belisol have now stepped up to the plate, and the peloton has picked up the flagging De La Cruz from the original five-man break. Dowsett, meanwhile, still has 2:30 in hand on the bunch.
The bunch sweeps across the Arno as it swings back towards Cascina for the second time, 2:21 down on Dowsett.
Dowsett is back in the streets of Cascina and is warmly applauded across the finish line with a shade over 20 kilometres still to race.
Teklehaymanot, Canola and Malacarne cross the line 35 seconds down on Dowsett and riding visibly slower than the lone Movistar man.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep have now put their shoulder to the wheel at the head of the bunch, with Matteo Trentin leading them through Cascina 1:50 down on Dowsett.
The bunch is on target to reel in Dowsett before the finish, but the Englishman is still pedalling fluidly in spite of the 140 kilometres he has spent off the front so far today.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep's marshalling of the chase is beginning to yield significant dividends. Dowsett's lead is down to 1:11, while the three chasers - Teklehaymanot, Canola and Malacarne - are all but sitting up, resigned to their fate.
Dowsett's shoulders are beginning to rock, and he grits his teeth as the Movistar team car pulls up alongside him. His lead is just over a minute on the peloton.
Teklehaymanot, Malacarne and Canola are swept up by the peloton, and Omega Pharma-QuickStep have clipped Dowsett's margin back to 45 seconds.
A crash in the peloton sees a number of Lott-Belisol riders come down, although Andre Greipel does not appear to be among them. Stijn Devolder (Trek) was also among the fallers, but the Belgian champion remounts quickly and gives chase.
30 seconds the lead for Dowsett as he crosses the Arno for the final time with 12 kilometres remaining.
Ivan Santaromita (Orica-GreenEdge) was also caught up in that crash, as well as a couple of riders from NetApp-Endura.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep continue to lead the bunch with 10 kilometres remaining, where Dowsett's lead drops to 17 seconds. Tinkoff-Saxo and Sky are also moving up in a bid to keep Alberto Contador and Richie Porte out of trouble in the finale.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep have dropped back from the head of the peloton, and Dowsett remains dangling alone out in front.
Tinkoff-Saxo has now taken up the reins, in support of Contador but perhaps also in support of local rider Daniele Bennati. It's a few years, however, since Bennati beat the likes of Cavendish in a bunch finish.
The Tinkoff-Saxo-led peloton catches Dowsett with 7 kilometres remaining, and the stage is set for a sprint finish in Cascina.
Lotto-Belisol are trying to force their way up the right hand side of the road in support of Greipel. Lampre-Merida are doing the same on the left in an attempt to set up Sacha Modolo.
Arnaud Demare is also tucked in a decent position in the colours of FDJ.fr, and a Cannondale delegation is attempting to guide Peter Sagan towards the front.
It's still gruppo compatto entering the final four kilometres, and FDJ.fr now take over at the front.
QuickStep are surprisingly not on the front, but they are now trying to beat a path to the front for Cavendish, with Kwiatkowski leading their line.
A crash in the peloton brings down Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano), who shows his frustration by slamming his bike on the ground.
There didn't seem to be any other sprinters caught up in that crash, and Mark Cavendish is being shepherded closer the front by QuickStep.
Lampre and FDJ.fr are leading the bunch towards the final kilometre, with Cavendish sitting in around 15th place behind Alessandro Petacchi.
FDJ lead into the final kilometre, but then Lampre take over with 800 metres remaining.
FDJ lead out the sprint for Demare, who jumps with 300 metres to go.
Modolo, Greipel and Sam Bennett are in the mix too...
But it's Matteo Pelucchi (IAM Cycling) who wins the stage.
Pelucchi takes the win, ahead of Démare, André Greipel and Sam Bennett.
Pelucchi left his sprint very, very late but he timed his effort perfectly. The Italian tucked on to Andre Greipel's wheel and didn't panic when it appeared the German had been boxed in. Instead, he waited for the gap to open ahead of Greipel, and then followed his wheel to the final 100 metres, before unleashing a crisp sprint finish.
Although Arnaud Démare went from a long way out - he hit the front with over 200 metres to go - he looked like he had the win in the bag right up to the last moment, when Pelucchi nipped past.
Peter Sagan looked well-placed but faded to 5th place in the final 100 metres, while Mark Cavendish and QuickStep made no impression in the finishing straight.
1 Matteo Pelucchi (Ita) IAM Cycling
2 Arnaud Demare (Fra) FDJ.fr
3 André Greipel (Ger) Lotto Belisol
4 Sam Bennett (Irl) Team NetApp - Endura
5 Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale
6 Davide Appollonio (Ita) AG2R La Mondiale
7 Filippo Fortin (Ita) Bardiani-CSF
8 Sacha Modolo (Ita) Lampre-Merida
9 Tony Hurel (Fra) Europcar
10 Kristian Sbaragli (Ita) MTN - Qhubeka
Cavendish crossed the line in 17th place. Assuming he was the first Omega Pharma-QuickStep rider across the line, he will retain the overall lead this evening. Either way, the maglia azzurra remains with the team for another day.
Mark Cavendish has indeed retained the leader's blue jersey, but the full general classification has not yet been forthcoming.
Thanks for joining for us today's live coverage of Tirreno-Adriatico. We'll be back for more tomorrow, but in the meantime, you'll be able to see a full report, results and pictures here and read all the news and reaction from our man in Tuscany, Stephen Farrand.