Mark Cavendish ushered in what could be another glorious summer of cycling for Great Britain with a spectacular last-minute charge to victory in the first stage of the Giro d'Italia here yesterday.
Seemingly partly blocked behind a small group that was powered by Australia's Orica GreenEdge squad after a dozen or so sprinters had sheered clear following a late crash, Cavendish resolved matters with a brilliant piece of late acceleration in the finishing straight to stay in contention.
The Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider's tactic worked, albeit by the narrowest of margins, inching ahead of Italy's Elia Viviani, who pounded his handlebars repeatedly in frustration, as Cavendish claimed his 11th stage win in the Giro — and 37th in a Grand Tour — as well as his third spell as the prestigious race's overall leader.
Cavendish grinned as he received the event's first pink jersey in front of a large crowd on the seafront with Mount Vesuvius glinting in the background and his baby daughter, Delilah, smiling in his arms. And the British rider had more than one reason to be content. Apart from being a masterful win where a split-second strategic move had been as vital as his pure strength and jaw-dropping acceleration to get fully back into the game, Cavendish's victory was also a timely reminder how he had kick-started the nation's unprecedented boom in road-race success with bunch sprint victories in his second year as a professional in the Giro in 2008, to the point where his total road wins now total 98.
"The guys [Omega Pharma-Quick Step team-mates] did a great job, they dropped me off perfectly in the final kilometre and I could take it from there," said Cavendish.
"It might look easy but when there's guys surging all the time and you're sprinting for every corner, it's anything but easy. I was very happy with that."
Cavendish said that making a late fast jump to the right, even of such dramatic proportions, was always something he had planned. "I was fine in the final acceleration because like I said to Geert [Steegmans, his team-mate] it doesn't matter if the peloton swerves left, I'll stay on the right even if it is a longer line, the wind's coming from the left, so it will be easier."
While Cavendish does not rule out retaining the lead in today's team time trial, the man with long-term designs on the pink jersey, Sir Bradley Wiggins, pictured, stayed out of the limelight.
He was guided through the swirling crowds to the stage start by a mini-cohort of four Sky team back-up staff and equally ably protected by a phalanx of blue-clad riders on the series of laps around Naples.
Riding ideally placed around 20 riders back as the pace picked up — close enough to the front not to go down in a crash but also to avoid being caught out by splits — and with his tall German team-mate, Christian Knees, protecting his position, Wiggins left absolutely nothing to chance.
His choice proved right. Of the series of crashes that sprinkled the 130km flat stage, the last one inside the last three kilometres was the worst, with Britain's David Millar among those going down, but Wiggins managed to avoid it.
"The aim of the first week is about staying out of trouble, playing safe and staying upright," said Rod Ellingworth, Sky's performance manager.
The most crucial stage of the week is arguably today's team time trial. "It's a big old day," said Ellingworth. "The tactic is just go as fast as you can, that's all you can do in 17.4km. In the worst case, we will lose a bit of time on the other rivals, in the best we will put a bit of time into them. It all depends on where we finish relative to our main rivals in the race."
In the medium term, the most important stage will be next Saturday's individual time trial where, with 54kms to play with, Wiggins is widely expected to establish a big advantage on his rivals.
"I am mentalised to the idea that Wiggins will get the pink jersey that day," said Spain's Samuel Sanchez, who like Wiggins is a gold medallist from the 2008 Beijing Olympics and an overall contender in the Giro.
"But the key to his race, and the whole Giro in fact, is how much time he takes."
Stage two of the Giro d'Italia is a 17.4km technical team time trial on the island of Ischia in the bay of Naples. Time differences are likely to be small, perhaps 40 seconds to a minute between the fastest and slowest squads. Wiggins could – just – get the overall lead today, but Cavendish, whose squad won the team time trial World Championships last year, could well keep it.