Robbie McEwen won three stages in last year's Giro d'Italia, took one this year and was then beaten into sixth place on stage two of the Tour de Suisse. But any thoughts that the 34 year old Australian was starting to slow down appear to have been dispelled today when he sprinted to victory in the Italian-speaking town of Giubiasco.
Led out by Predictor-Lotto team-mate Fred Rodriguez, McEwen hit the front and held off main rivals Daniele Bennati and Erik Zabel all the way to the line. It was his fifth win of the season and followed on from stage victories in three other ProTour events, namely Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour of Romandie and the Giro.
"Every sprint has a story, and most of time it involves the good help of team-mates," he said after the race. "Today Chris Horner was up there in the final kilometres, but mostly the two guys who helped me were Leif Hoste and Freddy Rodriguez. Hoste was able to keep Fred and myself out of the wind and in a good position all the way until about 600 metres to go.
"Myself and Fred Rodriguez were in about sixth or seventh position and then with about 300 metres to go I told him to hit the front and go for it. He pulled the sprint for me. I stayed about two or three lengths behind him so I could make a run towards him."
McEwen showed his experience in working with the fact that the sun was behind them. "I was looking for the other riders trying to come from behind. I could see the shadows of the others behind me and when first shadow started to move towards me, that is when I started my sprint. It was a very tough sprint, it was uphill. I felt like I was starting to slow down, but I was able to hold everyone off behind me and get the win."
Yesterday was the first time in his pro career that Frank Schleck took the lead of a stage race. He started the day in yellow and had a relatively straightforward ride, finishing towards the front of the main bunch and preserving his overnight advantage over his main rivals.
"It was a very fast start and a lot of riders tried to go on the attack," he said, looking very relaxed at the post-stage press conference. "It was very possible that a big group could have got clear and we had to avoid that. We tried to let a little group go, of perhaps three to six riders but not more, and we knew that after that happened, there would be a good chance that the sprinters' teams would help us to bring it back."
That plan worked out well, with Rubens Bertogliati (Saunier Duval) and fellow Swiss rider Laurens Ten Dam (Unibet.com) attacking some 28 kilometres after the start. The duo built a maximum lead of over nine minutes before Ten Dam went on ahead alone on the run up towards the start of the first category Lukmanierpass.
He persisted with his effort but sensing the possibility of a bunch gallop, the sprinters' teams drove the pace and eventually hauled him back with some 13 kilometres remaining. An attack by José Oroz (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was then neutralised by the peloton, after which McEwen and the others sprinted it out on Giubiasco's Via Monte Ceneri.
"It was a very hot day out there," said Schleck. "There was a lot of attacking until the first hill but after that things settled down and the break went clear.
"This evening I am very happy to have the jersey for another day. Tomorrow will be a very hard stage. It is important to defend the lead, it is a very important jersey. I think that the Tour de Suisse one of the best races in the world. I hope to keep the jersey and after the climb to Crans I can tell you more about my chances. We will see tomorrow."
How it unfolded
156 riders lined out for the start of the fifth stage of the Tour de Suisse, a 192.8 kilometre race from Vadul in Liechenstein to the Italian-speaking town of Giubiasco. Although there was the category one Lukmanierpass to be scaled, the summit came a full 78.3 kilometres from the finish. This made it possible that a bunch sprint could take place.
Former Tour of Britain winner Mauricio Ardila (Rabobank) was the only non-starter. Very soon after the drop of the flag the Swiss rider Pascal Hungerbühler (Team Volksbank) attacked, but he was hauled back. His compatriot Rubens Bertogliati (Saunier Duval) also tried unsuccessfully, then David Lopez (Caisse d'Epargne) did likewise at the summit of the uncategorised St. Luzisteig climb.
The very aggressive opening kilometres then saw a group of seven move away after 174 kilometres, but with Michael Rogers (T-Mobile) present in the break, it was quickly reeled in.
After several more unsuccessful attempts, Bertogliati went once again 28 kilometres after the start and was joined by Laurens Ten Dam (Unibet.com). They hit the Wurth sprint on Aspermontstrasse some five kilometres later, where the gallop was taken by Ten Dam over his breakaway companion. The duo had by then opened up a considerable 3'10 gap to Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom) and the rest of the bunch.
The leaders sped on from there to the third category climb to the summit at Hotel des Alpes [km 58.5]. Bertogliati was first to the top, while the main bunch was approximately nine minutes back. KOM leader Alessandro Proni nabbed third from the peloton, crossing the line ahead of his Quick Step – Innergetic team-mate Mauro Facci.
The gap then started to fall on the descent, dropping to 7'16 before going back up again to 8'25 after some 100 kilometres of racing had elapsed. Very soon afterwards - with some 86 kilometres to go - Ten Dam dropped his breakaway companion on the lead up to the first category Lukmanierpass.
The summit was 78 kilometres from the line and by then he was five minutes clear of Bertogliati and 9'19 ahead of the bunch. This main group was led over the top by mountains leader Proni.
Once on the descent, the peloton set about closing the gap. With 50 kilometres left Bertogliati was reeled in, leaving just Ten Dam alone in front. He had just over five minutes with 40 kilometres to go; by the next bonus sprint this was down to 2'56. Stalder won the gallop behind for second, strengthening his hold on the jersey for this classification.
Ten Dam took the category 4 prime of Gorduno just before his adventure finally came to an end with 13 kilometres remaining. His escape was one that had been an impressive 152 kilometres in length. Three km later Stadler took second in the final AXA-Winterthur bonus sprint behind team-mate Gerrit Glomser, ensuring he'd be on the podium this evening.
The stage win was very much up for grabs and José Oroz (Euskaltel-Euskadi) surged clear with about 8km to go. However the sprinters' teams were determined to keep everything together. After his recapture the speed was kept high to dissuade any further moves and as a result, the top fast men scrapped it out for the win. McEwen proved quickest in the final push for the line, going early and holding off new points leader Daniele Bennati (Lampre) and stage two victor Erik Zabel (Team Milram). Swiss champion Gregory Rast had gone early on the left but faded to sixth.
Schleck crossed the line in 32nd place, holding onto yellow at the end of what was a relatively straightforward day. It means he maintains his 49 second advantage over Vladimir Efimkin heading into tomorrow's tougher stage, the 190.8 kilometre race to Crans Montana. The riders face the hors categorie Nufenenpass , then a long descent down towards two AXA Winterthur sprints before the final category two ascent to the finish line.