By Alasdair and Fotheringham
CHERASCO, Italy, May 17 - A series of small but challenging climbs late on Friday's stage of the 2012 Giro d'Italia could not stop Britain's Mark Cavendish taking his fourth stage win and second in two days.
Italy's Vincenzo Nibali remained overall leader but it was sprinter Cavendish who stole the show again after compatriot and pre-race favorite Bradley Wiggins failed to start the 254 kilometer stage, the longest in this year's Giro.
In a bunch sprint finish Cavendish outgunned Italy's Giacomo Nizzolo and Slovenia's Luka Mezgec.
After clinching his 40th Grand Tour stage win and 101st of his career, Cavendish told reporters he had not expected to take the victory on a course with such a difficult finale.
"Its a bit of a bonus, an extra trophy, I don't know how I'm going to recover before the mountains," a visibly exhausted Cavendish, leaning against wire fencing for support, told reporters afterwards.
Cavendish felt his 14th Giro stage victory belied what he said was a common misconception that sprinters are lazy.
"...the amount of suffering I've had to go through in the last days, what it takes out of you on stages as hard as these, I'm on my knees," he said.
"But with 300 meters to go (to the finish) I had to go (accelerate) because of what the guys (team mates) did working for me today during the stage.
"I had to go and not look back."
The Omega Pharma-Quick Step sprinter said that mid-way through the six-hour grind across the plains and hills of northern Italy he had not wanted to contest a sprint.
"But at that point another team started working to bring the break back, and Brian (Holm, Cavendish's sports director) said ‘ok we pull, too and the guys (Cavendish's team mates) supported me on the climbs.
"They did so much work for me, they rode and rode until their legs wouldn't go round anymore."
Nibali remained in the overall lead on a day when former Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal of Canada and Britain's Wiggins, the 2012 Tour de France winner and pre-race favorite, both failed to start the stage because of illness.
The race now moves into the Alps with a summit finish at Bardonecchia on Saturday with Nibali leading by 41 seconds from Australian Cadel Evans and two minutes and four seconds ahead of Colombian Rigoberto Urán.
"With no Wiggins here, that restricts the number of riders we've got to try and control," Nibali told reporters afterwards.
"Tomorrow we're into the big mountains, and it's a completely different race."
"A lot has changed because Bradley's gone, in fact everything is changing because we're no longer on the flat stages," Urán, now Sky's sole leader at the Giro and the winner of the first big major mountain-top finish last Tuesday at Altopiano del Montasio, told reporters afterwards.
"I'm only two minutes behind Nibali, but two minutes could be a lot or a little. Where am I going to attack? I don't know, I'm going to take things day by day."
The Giro d'Italia finishes in Brescia on May 26.