Mark Cavendish can be beaten.
With the gorgeous seaside town of Trieste providing the backdrop to the 156-kilometre opening road stage of the 2009 Giro d'Italia, LPR's Alessandro Petacchi - once considered the top sprinter in the world - beat the man who many consider to be the best sprinter in the world.
On the long, wide-open, Riva III Novembre boulevard, it was vintage Petacchi: the 35-year-old from La Spezia choosing to jump a massive 300 metres from the line, arms bent, torso still, chin almost touching the stem, and powering his massive 11-cog down the right-side barriers. Cavendish tried to overtake him, but it was useless: Petacchi 1, Cavendish 0.
"Today [Sunday] was the first real win of the year," said Petacchi, whose victory punch - his 24th at the Giro - would have delivered a knockout blow, had he been in the ring with the Anglophone.
Speaking of Anglophones, a trio of English speakers rounded out Stage 2's top five, British rider Ben Swift (Katusha), Aussie Allan Davis (Quick Step) and American Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Slipstream) third to fifth, respectively.
"Sprints at the Giro, Tour de France and Vuelta are totally different," said Petacchi. "I didn't know much about Cavendish; I saw him win Qatar, I saw him win in Milano-Sanremo, but again, Sanremo is very different to stage races. I wanted to see if he was that fast.
"I started my sprint really far out," he continued, describing the finale. "I took a risk doing so but I knew [long sprints] don't suit his characteristics. Sure, I won easily, but it's not certain that tomorrow or the next time will be the same."
Said fifth-placed Farrar, "To be honest, I was just thinking about winning the stage; today, winning and taking the pink jersey were going to be one and the same thing.
"Unfortunately I didn't quite have the right positioning. It was very wide between about four and two kilometres to go, then there were a few bends and your finishing position was pretty much the position in which you went into those bends. And it was chaotic even before that, coming off the climb. I think that's perhaps why Columbia went too early, just as we hit the front too early with around three kilometres to go."
It may have been Petacchi's 164th career win, but it's been a long time coming.
"I wasn't happy watching the Giro on TV last year," he said, referring to his suspension last year by the Court of Arbitration for Sport for testing non-negative to asthma medication Salbutamol (which Petacchi has clearance to use), resulting in him being fired from his previous team, Milram. "So to win the first stage at the Giro [after my suspension] is very important to me. I'm really happy to be back."
Sprinting 101: Do your own thing, and don't be lazy
At the 2006 Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen, Tom Boonen, who at present is battling demons of a different kind, said at the height of his powers the only person he fears when sprinting is Alessandro Petacchi.
Said Boonen, "Every time I take the race in my own hands and take my own responsibility, I succeed; every time I look at another guy, I fail. The best example is Alessandro Petacchi: every time I lose, I say to myself, 'You dumbass!' And every time I know: you shouldn't look at Petacchi; he's the only guy that gets me in situations like that."
It seems the same thing happened to Cavendish. He wasn't doing his own sprint.
"I was delivered perfectly by my team. My team was perfect; everything was perfect, except for me at the finish. Normally, I should have jumped earlier. I was lazy. I left it too late to make the sprint easier for myself, but Alessandro got the jump on me - you can't beat him when he gets the jump," Cavendish lamented.
Showing such dominance until now, could it be a case of suffering some sort of superiority complex, he was asked.
"Yeah. Probably, yeah. Serves me right."
There was some consolation for the man from the Isle of Man - the maglia rosa for another day - but on the podium his face said it all. Visibly annoyed at himself, Cavendish shook the champagne with such nonchalance, he would have probably preferred if it was a giant can of Coke and it sprayed on his face as punishment.
"Sure, it's a consolation wearing the pink," said Cavendish, "but the guys rode the whole day for me. I think that [keeping the maglia rosa] was going to happen anyway.
"That's why it's so hard to accept. Normally I deliver; today I didn't. With an ego like mine, for sure losing is going to hurt my pride," he said, who has a 14-second buffer over four of his teammates on GC: Mark Renshaw, Michael Rogers, Thomas Lövkvist and Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Mused Petacchi, "In one or two years, when I've lost my speed, I would like to be part of a train of a great sprinter."
For now, Cavendish will have to match him.
The short though savage torture test, otherwise known as yesterday's 20.5km team time trial, possibly had something to do with Sunday's unhurried start in Jesolo.
Out of the 198-strong peloton, the only rider with any ambition was ISD's Leonardo Scarselli, who skipped away very early in the peace and by default, became that guy - the suicidal breakaway that 99.999% of the time, never succeeds on a flat, mountain or undulating course.
Nevertheless, despite those unenviable 0.001% odds of success, the recently-turned 34-year-old chose to back himself over the 156-kilomtetre, mostly flat stage, enjoying a maximum 8:20 advantage after 51 kilometres.
From there, Scarselli, whose biggest claim to fame was his overall victory in the 2003 Tour of Senegal, found his situation out on the road turn south. With the team of the maglia rosa intent on delivering Cav' another win and another day in pink, the Italian found himself dying a slow death, caught just before the crest of the day's only categorised mountain, its crest coming after 140.6 kilometres and won by David Garcia of Xacobeo Galicia.
As often happens when racing in Italy, things began to get sketchy in the closing kilometres. Milram's Matthias Russ crashed out on the descent, while a subsequent pile-up in the peloton prompted Philippe Gilbert of Silence-Lotto to try his hand inside the final 7 kilometres, taking Enrico Gasparotto (Lampre-NGC) and Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) with him.
Despite such promise, the move didn't last as LPR and Columbia shut it down, and with two kilometres remaining, the two words "gruppo compatto" blasted over the loudspeakers in Trieste led to what many believed was a foregone conclusion: a sprint it was, but not the man most thought it would be...
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