A late but perfectly calculated acceleration netted Mark Cavendish everything he could ask for from Naples: an 11th Giro d'Italia stage win, his 37th Grand Tour stage victory and a third spell - after 2009 and 2011 - in the Giro lead.
Signed by Omega Pharma-Quick Step in 2013 to deliver stage victories in Grand Tours, the Briton had delivered at the earliest possible date, and at the same time is proving that there could be a lot more to come. It was also particularly important for the Belgian squad to succeed with Cavendish after their Classics champion Tom Boonen had crashed out in the Tour of Flanders and could not defend either of his two big Monument wins - Flanders and Roubaix - as a result.
Achieving all this in one fell swoop at Naples was far harder than it sounds. With a leader's jersey and a stage win on offer at the end of a flat, fast, short opening leg, this was the ideal opportunity for every sprinter in the race to ease the pressure on himself and his team from the word go. And although Omega Pharma-Quick Step, with some limited assistance from Argos-Shimano, had kept the pace high and the breaks under control, a late crash splintered the peloton and left the victory, if reduced to Cavendish and a handful of other riders, potentially looking a lot more open. Open, that is, until Cavendish made a late, perfectly timed acceleration that took him swooping out to the right past his rivals and then a good wheel ahead of closest contender Elia Viviani (Cannondale)
"The guys [Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammates] did a great job, they dropped me off perfectly in the final kilometre, and I could take it from there," Cavendish said afterwards. "It might look easy, but when there's guys surging all the time and you're sprinting for every corner, it's anything but. I was very happy with them."
"I was fine in the final acceleration because the wind was coming from the left, the road was bearing to the left, I knew the riders were going to the left, and I said to [teammate] Geert [Steegmans] it doesn't matter if the peloton swerves left, stay on the right even if it's a longer line, the wind's coming from the left, so it'll be easier."
Cavendish acknowledged that the team, which had worked hard for the entire stage pegging back the early breaks, had a high degree of determination to hit the ground running. "The team were really motivated, we talked it over yesterday (Friday) and again this morning, planned it all out. Orica-GreenEdge did their usual tactic of not riding and then coming in at the end, but I was determined to win for the guys after all the effort they'd put in."
As for the crashes on the opening stage, Cavendish said that "with wide roads before a hairpin, you always get surges in the peloton. [Omega Pharma Quick Step teammate] Jerome Pineau crashed there. But it happens in bike racing, on a circuit race you always get more crashes than on straight roads, and it was a nice circuit today. The fans really enjoy those circuits."
As for their chances of victory in Sunday's team time trial, an event Omega Pharma won in Tirreno-Adriatico, and simultaneously defending Cavendish's maglia rosa, Cavendish said, "We'll try our best. We had a more specialist team time trial squad there [in Tirreno], and [double time trial world champion]Tony Martin did a great job there, pulling for about 15 kilometres by himself. It's a bit more difficult without him, but team time trials are also a lot about a team feeling united, and we showed we had that today. I respect the jersey, and we want to try and succeed."
If the pink jersey in Brescia is by default out of Cavendish's reach, the red jersey of the points classification is, on paper, not so unattainable. After all, he lost by one point last year to Spain's Joaquim Rodriguez and has previously taken it in the Vuelta and Tour. But despite rule changes, Cavendish explained with remorseless logic that his chances were still very limited.
"Ideally, it would be a goal for me, and [Giro organiser] RCS has changed the structure of the points jersey to make it more accessible for sprinters. It's more like the green jersey in the Tour. Unfortunately, there are not so many sprint stages. In the past, most of the flat days would have a climb of 100 metres or 200 metres to put the sprinters on the edge, but this year they're flat, flat, flat and then there's a climb of 400 or 500 metres and that's not so possible for a sprinter to get over. I think I'm limited to three or maybe four stages here and that's not enough for me to win the red jersey."
What no one can deny though, is that Cavendish has exploited his limited opportunities at Naples to the full.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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