by Jean Montois
MILAN, Italy, May 17, 2009 (AFP) – British sprint king Mark Cavendish claimed his first victory of the centenary Tour of Italy on Sunday to hand his dominant Columbia team their fourth win of the race.
Cavendish’s win followed hours of controversy which left race director Angelo Zomegnan fuming after the entire peloton stopped in their tracks six laps from the end to make a protest about unsatisfactory safety measures.
Zomegnan agreed, reluctantly, that the times from the stage would not count towards the race’s general classification.
Italian Danilo Di Luca thus retained the race leader’s pink jersey with his 13sec lead on Sweden’s Thomas Lovkvist intact ahead of Monday’s rest day.
Controversy hit Sunday’s stage before the halfway mark when, after riding at a relatively slow speed of 33km/h, the entire bunch stopped with six of the ten laps to finish to publicize their protest.
Di Luca, of the LPR team, read out a statement apologizing to the public but explaining the riders were unsatisfied with safety measures.
“For myself and a lot of other riders the circuit was dangerous,” said the Italian, who admitted the decision had caused a split in the peloton.
“At the start we asked for, and got, a neutralization of the times and for that I thank the organizers. But the sprinters weren’t happy, that’s why we stopped to explain things to the public.”
The peloton resumed riding minutes later but continued at the same, slow pace until the closing stages when the pace slowly wound up to something resembling racing over the last four laps.
In the closing stages Quick Step sprinter Allan Davis had to battle with compatriot Matthew Goss, of the Saxo Bank team, to hang on to Cavendish’s wheel in the home straight.
But in the end the lead-out work of Columbia teammates Edvald Boasson Hagen and Australian Mark Renshaw helped give Isle of Man rider Cavendish the edge as he came over the line to leave Davis in second.
It is Cavendish’s first Giro win this year, and third in total after his two stage wins last year, although he came over the finish line first in the team time trial last Saturday to pull on the pink jersey.
“This is the stage I was really targeting,” said Cavendish.
“I messed up the first sprint (on stage two) but I’ve made up for it. There’s a limited number of sprints in this year’s Giro, so I wanted this one really badly.”
Columbia’s other stage wins came courtesy of Norwegian ace Hagen on Friday and Belarussian Kanstantsin Siutsou on Saturday.
Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi, the winner of stages two and three, came fifth while a second peloton that had given up all hope of victory came over the finish line over two minutes in arrears.
Di Luca, the 2007 champion, will go into Tuesday’s 10th stage, a 262km ride in the Italian Alps from Cuneo to Pinerolo, wary of a number of close rivals.
Lovkvist’s Columbia teammate Michael Rogers is third overall at 44sec with a quartet of bigger victory contenders – Levi Leipheimer, Denis Menchov, Ivan Basso and Carlos Sastre – all between 51sec and 1:24 in arrears.