So near but so far. Closeted between a row of team buses parked on Olbia seafront, André Greipel (Lotto Soudal) warmed down after stage 1 of the Giro d'Italia regretting that what could have been his first Grand Tour leader's jersey since the Vuelta a España eight years ago had slipped through his fingers by fractions of a second.
After a move by Bora-Hansgrohe's Lukas Pöstlberger to support teammate Sam Bennett turned into a surprising, but well-deserved, solo victory for the Austrian ahead of the sprinters, Greipel at least managed to speed his way through a technical run-in for third.
But with Pöstlberger just a few metres ahead of Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) and Greipel, the maglia rosa had slipped through the German's fingers, and although another bunch sprint finale is anticipated for Sunday in Cagliari, a Grand Tour lead will almost certainly now have to wait until next year.
"I think I was in 10th position in the moment when he attacked, we couldn't react," Greipel told a small group of reporters. "We tried to pull him back when the race went over a bridge in the last kilometre but we didn't have time to react."
Greipel did not feel that Pöstlberger's victory was in any way a fluke, rather it was a manoeuvre which the Austrian calculated instinctively as possible, and which paid off in full.
"There was not so much time to come from 10thh position to the lead, so chapeau to the winner, he did a really strong kilometre and a half and he deserved to win."
Greipel was overhauled in the dash for the placings behind the stage winner by Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) - "I went too early and it didn't work out," he claimed. In any case for sprinters, perhaps more than any other category of racer, winning is all that really counts."
Greipel was not overly surprised that Pöstlberger could capture what looked, on paper, to be such an unpredictable win. "Of course I know his name, that's why I say it," he said, mildly rebuking one reporter who asked if he knew the Austrian from beforehand. "I think he was fourth [fifth -Ed.] in Harelbeke this year, so he's clearly a strong guy. For sure this wasn't in the [Bora-Hansgrohe] plan for today, but you have to make the best of a situation and that's what he did."
Greipel did not feel that Lotto Soudal and Orica-Scott could be blamed for letting a rider get away in such a complicated finale. After a straightforward series of avenues, the streets of Olbia just before the finish were designed with relentless series of changes of width and direction, making for a type of finale that Greipel wryly described as "Italian style."
"We are not playing in the sand, eh?" he said sharply. "It's not that we say, 'OK, you can take the pink jersey.'
"Like I said before, it was quite messy until three and a half kilometres to go, we used a lot of energy there, we lost each other so we couldn't line it up with the team, and that's what happened."
On Sunday, Greipel will endeavour to continue the Giro's tradition of bunch sprint victories in Cagliari. With the most recent winners in Sardinia's southern capital being Mario Cipollini in 1991 and Germany's Robert Förster (following Alessandro Petacchi's suspension) in 2007, Greipel will be keen to add his name to that particular roster of prestigious sprinters - maglia rosa or no maglia rosa.
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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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