Cycling: Stage goes downhill as tired Mark Cavendish lets slip in Giro d'Italia

 

It was mostly downhill in stage 18 of the Giro d’Italia this afternoon as the riders descended a total of 900metres and Mark Cavendish narrowly lost out on a fourth stage win.  

Pipped at the line by Andrea Guardini of team Farnese Vini, the Team Sky sprinter was able to hold off Roberto Ferrari to claim second. But the triumph over the Italian that caused him to crash heavily two weeks ago will be of little consolidation.

With only two mountain stages and the closing time trial remaining, today was the sprinters’ last chance to snatch a win. For Cavendish, who leads the points classification with just 29 points over Joaquim Rodriguez, it was also his last stab at securing the red jersey.

The world champion won an intermediate sprint to claim eight points and his second place was worth 20 points. But Rodriguez is expect to perform well in the two remaining mountain stages and so the Briton's lead hangs in the balance, entirely out of his control. 

Approaching the finish line, the peloton wrestled at high speed through the streets of Vedelago and looked more disorganised than it has yet, with most teams desperately pushing their men to the front.  

But it was Saxo Bank that emerged strongest in the run into the finish line. Organising with 3km to go, their six riders powered through and swung left to cut off the building Team Sky charge. With up to 20 men in front of him, Cavendish seemed boxed in and lacked room for manoeuvre as he rubbed shoulders with those around him. 

At one kilometre to go, a two-man lead-out from Team Sky regained the lead and Geraint Thomas provided a strong final effort to bring Cavendish down the home straight ahead of the bunch. But, with a sea of sprinters hot on the world champion’s tail, it was Guardini that timed his electrifying burst perfectly.

Crossing the line, a disgruntled Cavendish took a side swipe at the air. After a draining day in the Dolomite Mountains, it seems he couldn’t quite muster his trademark turn of speed. 

Team Sky workhorse Ian Stannard pushed hard to close down two small breakaways today, but it was a heroic last-ditch attempt by Danish time trial champion Lars Bak that proved most formidable – not because it was dangerous, but because it was daring.  The stage 12 winner has attracted admiration by the bucket-load for constant breakaway efforts in this year's Giro. “He continues to push himself,” said Saxo Bank manager Bjarne Riis, and today was no exception.

With just 13km to go, Bak shot off the front of the charging pack to hone in on solo breakaway rider Mikael Delage. Sitting at no more than 15 seconds ahead of the pack, Bak dug deep, crouching in the mock timetrial hunch – his head buried and his forearms resting precariously on the handlebars.

With 4kilometres to go, he was inevitably swallowed up by the bunch, but it takes a tough rider to mount such an audacious attack with such conviction. Expect him to be marked as hot property come the end of the season.

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