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HUTTWIL, Switzerland (AFP) – Reigning world champion Thor Hushovd finally ended his 2011 victory famine in style with victory on the fourth stage of the Tour of Switzerland on Tuesday, a 198.4km ride from Grindelwald.
Italian Damiano Cunego of Lampre retained the overall leader’s yellow jersey to keep his 54-second lead on Colombian Juan Mauricio Soler of the Movistar team as the race took a brief sojourn from climbing in the high mountains.
On the first of only two stages set aside for the sprinters in the nine-day race, a crucial preparatory race for the Tour de France on July 2-25, Hushovd was predicted to excel because of the stage’s slightly uphill finish.
But after the peloton had chased down the remnants of a three-man break, he was made to work for the privilege during a final 25 km circuit where attacks came and went and the peloton set a relentless pace.
Jens Voigt, of Leopard-Trek, went for broke 4.3km from home but with the sprinters keen on keeping the victory for themselves he was reeled in just as the peloton began the steady 2km climb to the finish line.
The HTC-Highroad team of Mark Cavendish was omnipresent during the closing circuit, employing Michael Albasini and Peter Velits on the small climbs to set a punishing pace.
But with just over a kilometer to go Voigt’s teammate Stuart O’Grady went off on his own, only for the Australian to be reeled in with 400 meters remaining.
A small bunch sprint was inevitable, and from the chaos only two riders emerged — Hushovd and Slovakian Peter Sagan of Liquigas, who beat Cunego to victory on stage three at the foot of the Eiger on Monday.
To his credit, Sagan gave the big world champion a run for his money in a tight finish, which ultimately saw Hushovd put on his biggest smile for the cameras this season.
“That was incredible,” an ecstatic Hushovd told AFP at the finish line, where he was congratulated by riders from rival teams.
“Sagan got five, ten metres on me and at first I struggled to get up to him but in the end I just managed to get the jump on him.”
While established sprinters like Cavendish, Andre Greipel and Robbie McEwen failed to contest the finale, climbing specialist Cunego survived pace to finish an impressive 13th on the stage.
It seems clear now that the ‘little prince’ fully intends on defending his lead all the way to the finish.
“It was a really nervous finish so I wanted to stay as far to the front of the peloton as possible so as not to lose any time,” said Cunego.
Ahead of Wednesday’s 204 km fifth stage from Huttwil to Tobel-Tagerschen all of the Italian’s main rivals — Tejay Van Garderen, defending champion Frank Schleck and Danilo Di Luca — are over a minute in arrears.
But with two consecutive mountaintop finishes on Thursday and Friday, and a final time trial on Sunday, overall victory is far from guaranteed.
- 1. Thor HUSHOVD, (NOR) Garmin-Cervelo, in 4:46:05
- 2. Peter SAGAN, (SVK) Liquigas-Cannondale, at s.t.
- 3. Marco MARCATO, (ITA) Vacansoleil-Dcm, at 2
- 4. Jose Joaquin ROJAS GIL, (ESP) Movistar, at 2
- 5. Oscar FREIRE GOMEZ, (ESP) Rabobank Cycling Team, at 2
- 1. Damiano CUNEGO, (Italy) Lampre-Isd, at 12:29:23
- 2. Juan Mauricio SOLER HERNANDEZ, (Colombia) Movistar, at 54
- 3. Bauke MOLLEMA, (Netherlands) Rabobank Cycling Team, at 1:16
- 4. Laurens TEN DAM, (Netherlands) Rabobank Cycling Team, at 1:19
- 5. Tejay VAN GARDEREN, (United States) HTC-Highroad, at 1:21