Mark Cavendish rounded off an exemplary display of pace-making and lead-out work by the HTC-Highroad team by sprinting home for his second victory in three days as stage 12 took the Giro d'Italia into Ravenna. The Manxman was pressed all the way to the line by Team Sky's Davide Appollonio, but was three-quarters of a bike-length clear of the young Italian sprinter at the line, with points leader Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) well beaten in third place.
"I'm really pleased, the Giro is a very important race for me. There aren't any more sprint stages in this year's race, and I wanted to get another win here," said Cavendish.
Cavendish's HTC-Highroad teammates set the pace on the front of the bunch for much of the day. Just inside the final 2km, most of the field was held up on a tight left-hand bend when an Androni rider towards the front of the HTC-led line misjudged the corner and went into the barriers, setting off a domino effect that left Sacha Modolo (Colnago-CSF) and Robbie Hunter (RadioShack) remonstrating with each other. However, HTC's lead-out remained right on track.
With only 15 or so riders now lined out behind, Lars Bak powered into the final kilometre, maintaining the pace until 500 metres out, when Mark Renshaw took over. As ever, Cavendish was tucked right in on the Australian's wheel, with Petacchi right on the Briton's.
Perhaps anticipating a move by the veteran Italian, Cavendish accelerated away with 150 metres remaining, with Petacchi trying vainly to make up ground on his left. Instead, it was Sky's Appollonio who offered the greatest threat, jumping across from the fading Petacchi's wheel in an attempt to come through on Cavendish's right. But in the end he, too, was well beaten, as Cavendish breezed through the line, holding two fingers aloft to highlight his stage-winning tally for the race.
Speaking in Italian to Italian TV just beyond the line, Cavendish paid fulsome tribute to his teammates, pointing out that they had received little assistance during the stage in keeping a four-man breakaway in check.
"Winning today was really important," said Cavendish. "My teammates had worked all day with no help at all from any other squad and I wanted to thank them for it by winning. "They did an incredible job."
The maglia rosa stayed on the shoulders of Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) ahead of the first of three crucial stages in the mountains. The first of those comes on Friday with a summit finish on Austria's famous Grossglockner. Kept well up towards the front of the bunch during some very nervy closing kilometres, Contador was in the midst of the riders held up 1.5km out, but suffered no damage either to his lead or to his body in the melee.
Four minute max for breakaway four
With a string of fearsome mountain stages to come, there was never any doubt that the sprinters were going to sort out today's stage between them. Several riders, including Cavendish, have indicated that Ravenna would be the finishing point for them, making it very unlikely any breakaway would go the distance. But someone had to try.
After 5km, four riders of different nationalities did. Dutchman Stef Clement (Rabobank), Pole Michal Golas (Vacansoleil), Spaniard Miguel Minguez (Euskaltel) and Italy's Davide Ricci Bitti (Farnese Vini) quickly built a lead of four minutes. But, after just 20km, HTC's riders started to push the pace on the front of the peloton, and the result was that the four riders' advantage never went beyond the four-minute mark.
The pace of the leading quartet and the pack cantering along behind remained around 40km/h for the first two hours of racing on almost pan-flat roads. From the stage's halfway point, the quartet's lead was gradually whittled away, but began to fall rapidly once the HTC-led peloton got inside the final 25km. The two-minute advantage the four leaders had there was wiped out within 12km, as HTC's Patrick Gretsch, Craig Lewis, Alex Rasmussen and Frantisek Rabon pushed the pace up on the front of the bunch.
Every once a while, a small posse of riders from a different team attempted to take over HTC's lead, notably Omega Pharma and Liquigas, but none could maintain the relentless perfection of the American team's pace-setting. From 10km out, Petacchi stuck stubbornly to Cavendish's wheel, with his lead-out man Danilo Hondo, also close at hand. With roundabouts and road furniture making the fast-moving group particularly edgy, this was the ideal place to be, as Saxo Bank underlined when they moved race leader Contador right up to the front with 7km remaining.
After some very brief and, compared to HTC, ragged-looking pace-making by a trio of BMC riders, HTC's well-drilled lead-out train took over once again, with Marco Pinotti now prominent. Other teams persisted in trying to get riders aboard, and Androni did manage it - until that corner 1.6km out - but most realised the best option was to stick behind HTC and hope that they slipped up coming into the finish.
However, with Cavendish looking red hot once again, that never looked likely to happen. Although Appollonio impressed, Cavendish delivered the reward for the work his team-mates had put in. His second stage win at this year's Giro was his seventh in total at the corsa rosa and brought up his quarter of a century in the grand tours.