World champion had earlier on taken the intermediate sprint, but hopes of taking red jersey to Milan now out of his hands

Andrea Guardini of Farnese Vini has won the Italian team's second Giro d'Italia stage inside five days, beating world champion Mark Cavendish in a hard fought sprint in Vedelago and dealing a blow to the Team Sky rider's hopes of taking the red points jersey all the way to Milan. Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela's Roberto Ferrari came third. Team Sky had earlier chased down a break to enable Cavendish to take maximum points at the day's intermediate sprint, but the destination of the jersey is now out of his hands and will depend on where maglia rosa Joaquin Rodriguez of Katusha places over the final two road stages.

With some big climbs coming ahead of the intermediate sprints on the final two road stages tomorrow and on Saturday, today was the last chance for the world champion to build a cushion over Joaquin Rodriguez, who in winning yesterday’s stage in Cortina d’Ampezzo had moved to just one point behind the Team Sky man in the points classification.

The Spaniard’s goal, of course, is the maglia rosa, not the maglia rossa, but because the Giro, unlike the Tour de France or the Vuelta, awards the same points irrespective of the type of stage, Rodriguez has emerged as Cavendish’s closest challenger almost by default.

The Katusha rider leads the general classification by 30 seconds from Garmin-Barracuda’s Ryder Hesjedal, and should pick up more points over the next two days. Just how many will determine who will be standing on the podium outside Milan’s cathedral in the red jersey come Sunday evening following that afternoon’s individual time trial.

Should it be Cavendish, he would be only the fifth man to have won the points classification in all three Grand Tours – the others being Eddy Merckx, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, Laurent Jalabert and Alessandro Petacchi.

Team Sky, missing Jeremy Hunt and Peter Kennaugh who both departed the race this week, worked hard to chase down a four-man break today to ensure Cavendish was in a position to take the maximum five points on offer at the intermediate sprint.

Of that quartet, Manuele Boaro of Saxo Bank looked particularly aggrieved at the peloton bearing down on the escapees at a much earlier point in the stage than would normally be expected, with the intermediate sprint coming some 65 kilometres from the finish.

Once the catch had been made, Cavendish as expected crossed the line first, but not before he had to see off a challenge to the line on an uphill drag by Alessandro Spezialetti of Lampre-ISD.

There was still more work to be done by Team Sky as further attacks went off the front, the one that eventually stuck including Rabobank’s Stef Clement who had been in that earlier group.

The last man left from that group was FDJ’s Mickael Delage, who was also joined by Lars Bak of Lotto-Belisol but the pair were caught with four kilometres left of today’s mainly downhill, 149km stage from San Vito di Cadore, raced at a shade under 50 kilometres an hour, making it the fastest road stage in the Giro's 113-year history.

Saxo Bank led the peloton going into the final kilometre, before Geraint Thomas came to the front to attempt to deliver Cavendish to the line, but whether it was the toll of the mountains over the past few days or the efforts in chasing down the break to win that intermediate sprint, the world champion was unable to respond to Guardini’s challenge.

Cavendish now has a lead of 26 points over Rodriguez, and by this time tomorrow we’ll know exactly how things stand going into that final road stage on Saturday. Should the Spaniard figure in tomorrow’s finale and pick up points as a result, the jersey could well be slipping away from Team Sky.

Guardini, meanwhile, has more reason than anyone to look forward to tomorrow’s start in Treviso, if not the climbs that will come later in the day.

During the RAI Sport 2 show that kicks off the broadcaster’s coverage each day, he has been teased mercilessly on live TV by presenter Paolo Belli who has high hopes of the 22-year-old becoming the black jersey – or maglia nera – of this year’s race, the equivalent of the lanterne rouge in the Tour de France.

While the maglia nera itself is no longer awarded – things got a bit silly back in the 1950s with riders trying to outdo each other to take as long as possible to complete stages – the 20 bonus seconds Guardini picks up from winning today’s stage have seen Euskaltel’s Miguel Minguez extend his lead over the Italian in that unofficial competition to 54 seconds.

Giro d’Italia Stage 18 result

1  GUARDINI Andrea      FAR   3:00:52
2  CAVENDISH Mark       SKY 
3  FERRARI Roberto      AND 
4  HUNTER Robert        GRM 
5  HAEDO Lucas          SAX 
6  NIZZOLO Giacomo      RNT 
7  KRISTOFF Alexander   KAT 
8  CHICCHI Francesco    OPQ
9  SOUPE Geoffrey       FDJ 
10 VANENDERT Dennis     LTB 
11 SABATINI Fabio       LIQ 
12 WYSS Danilo          BMC 
13 BEPPU Fumiyuki       OGE 
14 KEUKELEIRE Jens      OGE 
15 GASTAUER Ben         ALM 
16 MODOLO Sacha         COG 
17 RASMUSSEN Alex       GRM 
18 VENTOSO Francisco    MOV 
19 SCHORN Daniel        APP 
20 SELVAGGI Mirko       VCD

Overall standings after Stage 18

1  RODRIGUEZ Joaquin    KAT 77:47:38
2  HESJEDAL Ryder       GRM     0:30
3  BASSO Ivan           LIQ     1:22
4  SCARPONI Michele     LAM     1:36
5  URAN Rigoberto       SKY     2:56
6  INTXAUSTI Benat      MOV     3:04
7  POZZOVIVO Domenico   COG     3:19
8  TIRALONGO Paolo      AST     4:13
9  DE GENDT Thomas      VCD     4:38
10 HENAO Sergio Luis    SKY     4:42

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.