Mark Cavendish proved he is bang on track for his twin main targets of 2012, the Tour de France and the London Olympic road-race, with a stunning win in the first road stage of the Giro d'Italia yesterday.
Despite the deeply unfamiliar surroundings of central Denmark for the Giro – all part of a three-day visit by the race to Scandinavia – Cavendish seized the eighth Giro win of his career with a trademark acceleration in the last 150 metres. But if the pancake flat 206 kiloemetre run across the plains and coast of Jutland – the highest point being all of 59 metres above sea level – made a bunch sprint a near-inevitability, the Manxman's 26th Grand Tour stage victory of his career was not the most straightforward.
A crash on a sharp righthander in the final kilometre saw several sprinters, including the Netherlands' Theo Bos, go down, and although Cavendish avoided that perfectly, there was then a short but steady uphill finish – not his ideal finale – to contend with. However, after some superb leadout work by Welsh team-mate Geraint Thomas allowed him to pick a safe line through the swirling pack, Cavendish swung out of the bunch with 200 metres to go, at which point only Australia Matt Goss was able to shadow him closely.
In a carbon copy of the sprint on gradually rising terrain which netted the Sky professional the victory in the World Championships in Denmark ahead of Goss last year, Cavendish doggedly stayed ahead for the 80th road victory of his career.
"I'm very pleased, it was windy today and not easy," Cavendish – after giving Thomas a huge hug of thanks – said afterwards, "and there weren't too many teams interested in keeping the bunch together as a unit.
"[Local team] Saxo Bank really wanted to break it up at one point so we had to be careful and really be on our guard. My team-mate Ian Stannard rode his heart out on the front of the bunch for nearly 150 kilometres." It was a performance which will have done the Londoner's chances of joining Cavendish as support rider for Olympic road-race no harm whatsoever. Cavendish added: "But we had a new team that hasn't really ridden together before as a sprint team, so it was great to see how it all worked out perfectly."
Encouragingly for Cavendish, this is his earliest win ever in the Giro. Not since 2009, when the Manxman won the second stage of Tour de France, has he succeeded at winning so swiftly in one of cycling's top three races. There could be lots more victories to come.
Compared with 2last year, when there were only three sprint stages – and Cavendish took two – this year's Giro is a far kinder affair for the fastmen, with six possible bunch sprints. Today in Horsens, should the crosswinds on the flatlands of central Denmark fail to split the pack beforehand, Cavendish will have an excellent chance of taking a back-to-back triumph.
"I'll try to win as many of them as possible, but this is the Giro d'Italia," he said. "It's a very special race for me, but it's one of the biggest races in the world and victories don't come easy."
Overall the race lead remains held by Taylor Phinney, despite a fall eight kilometres from the finish which saw the 21-year-old American come within a whisker of losing his leader's jersey. After yesterday's win, Cavendish, meanwhile, has the red points jersey of the Giro to add to that of world champion.Reuse content