Michael Matthews passed Mads Pedersen to victory as stage three of the Giro d’Italia proved more selective than expected.
Pedersen was on pole as he was led by his Trek-Segafredo team to the uphill finish of the 213km Vasto to Melfi stage, but Matthews started his sprint first and had the strength to hold off the former world champion.
They were part of a severely reduced peloton that managed to endure a grueling final hour of a stage held in wet conditions in southern Italy, with several riders falling from within the top 10 overall as the battle for Pink came into focus .
Remco Evenepoel stayed safely in the lead and even managed to extend his lead slightly, accumulating bonus seconds by winning the intermediate sprint ahead of rival Primoz Roglic.
Pedersen had been momentarily dropped at the bottom of the final climb and the effort it took to get back to the conditions proved crucial in the end.
It was Matthews’ first win since Stage 14 of last year’s Tour de France, with the first part of his season marked by a positive test for Covid-19 and a crash at the Tour of Flanders.
“What I’ve been through over the past few months to now come back with a win for the team… they rode all day today and put their heart and soul into helping me win the stage,” said the Australian.
“It’s been such a roller coaster ride this year, so already on stage three, to have a stage win is more than I could have dreamed of.
“I heard Pedersen was dropped on the climb so I was hoping he would be a bit pinned for the sprint. I knew I had to go early and get the jump on her and it worked.”
It wasn’t until the last 40 kilometers that the race came to life as the peloton hit the extinct volcanoes of the southern Apennines and several riders quickly backed out.
Evenepoel got the bonus seconds in the intermediate sprint over the last 10 kilometers.
“We were just there,” said the Belgian. “We wanted to take the downhill first because the rain made the roads difficult. It didn’t take much energy (to sprint) so we shouldn’t fear when it comes to snagging the seconds.
“It’s a second more on Primoz and three on the rest so that’s good after a pretty easy day with a hectic finale.”
Evenepoel now leads by 32 seconds over Joao Almeida, who recovered from a late crash to avoid losing time.
Roglic is in third place, 44 seconds back after Filippo Ganna and Stefan Kung retired. Geraint Thomas is fifth, 58 seconds back, with Tao Geoghegan Hart in seventh, another four seconds back.
Frenchman Thibaut Pinot took the lead in the mountains classification in his last Giro.
The race resumes on Tuesday with a lumpy stage from Venosa to Lago Laceno, a day Evenepoel has hinted he could try to hand over the pink jersey by letting a breakaway thrive.