Mark Cavendish has taken just his second win of 2014, crossing the line in Porto Sant'Elpidio to take a convincing win in Stage 6 of Tirreno-Adriatico, with Omega Pharma-Quick Step colleague Alessandro Petacchi second ahead of Peter Sagan of Cannondale.
Following race leader Alberto Contador’s fireworks in winning back-to-back mountain stages over the weekend - the Saxo-Tinkoff man should seal his overall win in the closing time trial tomorrow - this afternoon the focus moved to the sprinters.
With less than a week to go until Milan-San Remo, which this year has a sprinter friendly parcours, today represented a rehearsal of sorts for the Spring Classic.
Cannondale had been one of the day's big protagonists, pushing the pace to drop Giant-Shimano's Marcel Kittel hand then riding so hard at the front of the bunch that he could not rejoin.
Meanwhile a crash with around a kilometre to go brought down much of the Lotto-Belisol team and caused a gap in the peloton. Cavendish was just in front of that chaos, and made his victory look easy.
Sagan's team took the opportunity of the climb to Sant’Elpidio A Mare, crested 41km from the finish, to see if they could put any of his rivals into trouble, possibly with a similar strategy in mind on the Cipressa or Poggio next Sunday.
In last year's Tirreno-Adriatico, the climb to the same village, but from a different, much more difficult route, proved pivotal in the 2013 race, with the stage won by Sagan and Vincenzo Nibali of Astana moving ahead of Team Sky’s Chris Froome on GC.
Without the 27 per cent ramps that featured last year, the overall wasn’t in play today, but Cannondale’s work resulted in Kittel losing more than a minute on that climb, following which the route of the 189km stage from Bucchianico headed back down to the coast.
Giant-Shimano led a desperate chase to join the group as Cannondale were joined by Lotto-Belisol in forcing the pace to ensure the German sprinter could find now way back.
While they got to within 25 seconds with 10 kilometres remaining, the chase took its toll and the gap widened again, their pursuit over.
The pace being set by Cannondale and others also meant that any remote hope the members of the day’s break may have harboured of making it all the way to the finish were doomed to failure.
The quartet - Peter Kennaugh of Team Sky, BMC Racing’s Steve Morabito, Garmin-Sharp’s Jack Bauer and Cesare Benedetti of NetApp-Endura had got away at the start of the stage.
There was time for a late attack by former world champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, but the sprinters – or at least, all other than Kittel – would not be denied and reeled him back in with 3km left.
After the stage, Cavendish said: “The whole team was fabulous. I had everyone around me. We dropped back on each climb, but we stayed together and moved as a unit to the front afterwards. All the big motors we still with me in the final 4 km.
"Renshaw produced at least a thousand watts for the final 500m! I just stayed behind him. [Michal] Kwiatkowski was disappointed after yesterday [when he lost the overall lead to Contador], but today we can celebrate and hopefully get another win tomorrow with another member of our team,” a reference to Tony Martin, who won the time trial stage in last year's race.
“We won the team time trial last week, we had the race lead until yesterday, we’ve won another stage today and we hope to win tomorrow," continued Cavendish. "We have a super strong team here, not just strong in the legs, but a real group of friends.
"A lot of what I do is in my head, it’s to do with morale, and I haven’t felt this way for a long time. We have 23-year-olds in Kwiato and [Matteo] Trentin, and a 40-year-old in Alessandro [Petacchi], but we really feel like a group of kids going out to ride our bikes.”
Looking ahead to Sunday's Milan-San Remo, a race he is looking to win for the second time having triumphed in 2009, Cavendish added: “I was very tired at the Tour last year, so we decided to start the season late. I’m probably fresher than last year, and I always step up for big races. I was top-10 in last year’s Milan-San Remo, and if I don’t ride it this year, I’ll regret it later on.
"I probably have one more shot at it before they insert the new climb [of the Pompeiana, due to have made its debut this year but ruled out on safety grounds].
"I disagree with changing the route of Milan-San Remo. It’s like asking Banksy to paint the Pantheon in Rome,” he concluded.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.