Huttwil: Norwegian Thor Hushovd claimed his first victory as reigning world champion when he surged to victory over Peter Sagan on the fourth stage of the Tour of Switzerland.
Italian Damiano Cunego of Lampre retained the race leader`s yellow jersey to keep his 54sec 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 largely because of the profile of the stage.
Beginning in scenic Grindelwald, it crossed the hilly Bernese countryside before ending with a 2km climb, at an average gradient of 3.1 percent, to the finish line in Huttwil.
But after the peloton had chased down the remnants of a three-man break, Garmin rider Hushovd was made to work for the privilege on a fast-paced final 25 km circuit where the attacks came and went.
German Jens Voigt, of Leopard, 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 to head up to the finish line.
The HTC-Highroad team of British sprint king Mark Cavendish were omnipresent during the closing circuit, employing Michael Albasini and Peter Velits on the small climbs to set a punishing pace.
However at the finish Cavendish was nowhere to be seen, the Isle of Man rider eventually trailing home 7min 23sec off the pace.
Voigt`s teammate Stuart O`Grady then went off on his own, only for the Australian to be reeled in with 400 metres remaining.
A small bunch sprint seemed inevitable, but from the chaos only two riders emerged -- Hushovd and 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 but after a tight finish 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 the peloton`s relenting 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.