Huttwil (Switzerland): 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 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 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 relenting pace.
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 the steady 2km climb 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.
But with just over a kilometre to go Voigt's teammate Stuart O'Grady went off on his own, only for the Australian to be reeled in with 400 metres 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.
"The last 30km was hard, there were a lot of small hills and the pace was really fast. In the end I just felt really strong."
First Published: Tuesday, June 14, 2011, 22:24