Michele Merlo (Barloworld) claimed his first professional victory, at the end of his first season in the pro ranks, to take the showpiece final stage of the 2009 Tour of Britain in London on Saturday.
After two second-places earlier in the week it was just reward for the 25-year old Italian, who, with Barloworld folding at the end of the year, is without a team for 2010.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Columbia-HTC) crossed the line in 39th, opting not to contest the sprint after his four stage wins in succession, on stages three, four, five and six. The 22-year old Norwegian had no need to go for win number five, having rubber-stamped his superiority, and cemented the overall win, mid-way through the final stage, by winning the third bonus sprint ahead of Chris Sutton (Garmin-Slipstream). Sutton also had a good final day, leapfrogging Martin Reimer and Kai Reus to claim second overall.
Geraint Thomas (Barloworld) was an early attacker, continuing a trend of the previous two stages, which had also seen him on the offensive, though he wasn’t allowed too much leeway. Starting the day at sixth overall, forty seconds down, he still presented an outside threat – as did his breakaway companion Tom Southam (Rapha-Condor), a minute down in 35th.
One of the stars of the race, the Belgian Thomas De Gendt (Toppsport-Vlaanderen), was predictably enough another attacker, having featured in breaks on all but one previous stage. The King of the Mountains and sprints winner admitted afterwards that he had a bizarre motivation for his final escape. "We worked out I had been on the attack for 594km," he said. "I needed 6km to make it 600. Once I had done 6km, I dropped back."
So bunched together were the first fifty riders on general classification – all of them starting the final day within a minute of Boasson Hagen – that Columbia-HTC opted to take no chances. Over the ten laps of a 9km circuit around Whitehall they kept a tight grip on proceedings.
One group that did get clear numbered five riders, with Simon Clarke (ISD-Neri), Darren Lapthorne (Rapha-Condor), Davide Appollonio (Cervelo Test Team), Tom Stamsnijder (Rabobank) and Geoffroy Lequatre (Agritubel) putting 22 seconds between themselves and the bunch.
Of the quintet, it was the presence of Lequatre that worried Columbia-HTC. Last year’s Tour of Britain winner, who has figured in several moves throughout the race, started the day placed seventh, 43 seconds behind Boasson Hagen. They were allowed a couple of laps of freedom before being brought back.
Several teams tried to set up the final sprint, with Halfords-Bikehut appearing at the front for Rob Hayles, and Euskaltel-Euskadi also prominent, for their man Koldo Fernandez. Thomas, meanwhile, took Merlo up to the front at 2km to go, dropping him off on the fourth wheel and then watching as the punchy Italian claimed the win from Fernandez, with Sutton third and Pierpaolo De Negri (ISD-Neri) fourth.
The British riders Hayles and Russell Downing (Candi-TV-Marshalls Pasta) placed fifth and sixth, with Tour of Ireland winner Downing ending the race as best British rider overall, in fifth.
"It’s my first year as a pro and my first win, so it’s very emotional," said Merlo. "It’s also my first time in London, and it was a great stage with big crowds. Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome did a great job for me, and I really trust them. Geraint at the end took me to fourth, and then I began sprinting with 200m, hit the front then, and held on. I’m trying to find another team and this win should help."
Boasson Hagen said, "It’s really good to win, and my team has worked all week. It’s been amazing, with all the crowds." The Eneco Tour winner put his latest stage race success just below that one, pointing out: "It’s a ProTour race, so it’s a bit bigger. But I don’t normally compare results. I’m really satisfied."
His fourth stage win, into Bideford, had been the most surprising, he confessed. "I didn’t expect the fourth one. But I had a really strong team and they helped me all week."
Due to ride for Team Sky in 2010, Boasson Hagen was asked if – after three stage wins last year, and four this year – he feels a special affinity to Great Britain. "I am still a Norwegian rider," he said. "But it’s nice to win in this country."
At the world championships in Mendrisio he will ride the time trial and road race. He even managed an hour on his time trial bike after Thursday’s stage, but he played down his chances in the road race. "There are a lot of good guys, it’s a hard race, and a lot longer than this," he said. "I don’t expect to win, but I hope to do a good race."
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