Mark Cavendish remained in the lead of the Giro d'Italia yesterday despite suffering a stinging defeat in the race's first bunch sprint to local veteran Alessandro Petacchi.
The Manxman's look of sheer fury and heartfelt yell of anger as he stormed across the line in second place underlined how unexpected this challenge had been – and how badly he had wanted the victory.
Considered, until yesterday, to be too long in the tooth to challenge Cavendish, Petacchi's 21st bunch-sprint stage win in the Giro came in part thanks to pure speed and in part thanks to low cunning. Lying third in line behind Cavendish as the peloton roared towards the finish in Trieste, the 35-year-old LPR rider began his final acceleration with 300m to go – far sooner than is usually the case.
Caught by surprise, Cavendish's head was almost level with his handlebars as he powered after the Italian, a tell-tale indication that the Manxman was digging deep. But despite pulling back to less than a bike's length behind Petacchi, Cavendish was unable to regain enough ground, and the Italian claimed his first Giro stage win since 2007.
Cavendish was quick to congratulate Petacchi afterwards, and equally fast to dole out the self-criticism at failing to take a sprint that had looked to be more than in the bag.
"I'm disappointed not to win, I let the team down," Cavendish said afterwards. "I was lazy at the finish and left it until too late. It's normal to be angry when you lose, but I also know when a good rider beats me and that's what happened." The 23-year-old's only consolation – and it is a major one – is that after becoming the first Briton ever to take the lead in the Giro on Saturday, following yesterday's stage Cavendish remains in the top spot overall.
His Columbia-Highroad squad took an unexpected victory in Saturday's opening team time-trial stage, forcing favourites Garmin to settle for second, six seconds back. Lance Armstrong's Astana squad took third. Cavendish's position as the first rider of his team to make it across the line on Saturday meant that the Briton was rewarded with the Giro d'Italia leader's pink jersey, the first he has ever achieved in a major stage race.
But as Cavendish pointed out afterwards, victories in team time-trials are collective affairs, and while he was honoured to take the jersey, his desire for an individual stage win remained unsatisfied.
Following yesterday's near-miss, the Briton will have another opportunity to take a sprint win in today's stage from Grado to Valdobbiadene, the last before the race goes into the Dolomites and the fastmen take a back seat.
Petacchi will be more than motivated to challenge Cavendish again today, but another rival may well be the extremely talented 21-year-old British rider Ben Swift.
The Katusha pro is riding his first major tour, but he was still able to secure third in yesterday's stage – and today he will be itching to prove it was no fluke.