BALATONFÜRED, Hungary (AP) — Mark Cavendish marked his return to the Giro d’Italia by winning a bunch sprint at the end of the third stage on Sunday while Mathieu van der Poel kept hold of the pink jersey.
Cavendish, who rides for Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, raised his arms over his head and beamed broadly after crossing the line just ahead of Arnaud Demare and Fernando Gaviria.
It was a 16th stage win in the Giro for the 36-year-old Cavendish, who hasn’t ridden the Italian race in nine years.
It was also a 53rd win in the three grand tours for the sprint superstar from the Isle of Man, inching him closer to Mario Cipollini, who is second in the table of stage winners on 57. Eddy Merckx won 64 stages.
“I just want to carry on winning, it doesn’t matter how many, I just love racing my bike, I love being with my mates and I’d like to win some more,” said Cavendish, who turns 37 during the Giro.
There was little change in the overall standings at the end of the flat 201-kilometer (125-mile) route along Lake Balaton from Kaposvár to Balatonfüred. Most of the general classification contenders crossed the line with the same time after a slow and unremarkable day in the saddle.
Dutch cyclist Van der Poel remained 11 seconds ahead of Simon Yates and 16 ahead of 2017 Giro winner Tom Dumoulin.
It was the last of three stages in Hungary and the race has its first rest day on Monday as the riders transfer to the Italian island of Sicily.
“We did a very nice job as a team,” Van der Poel said. “We knew Cavendish was one of the favorites for today. After the Tour de France last year I think we all know he can win stages again.
“I’m happy to bring the maglia rosa to Italy. It’s been an amazing past few days here in Hungary and I’m going to enjoy it in Italy as well.”
Three riders escaped shortly after the start. Italians Mattia Bias, Filippo Tagliani and Samuele Rivi easily built a lead and their advantage hovered around the three-minute mark for most of the day.
They were caught with a little under 30 kilometers (19 miles) remaining as the teams in the peloton began setting up their riders for the sprint.
With the main contenders jostling for position, Cavendish had to launch his sprint early but “The Manx Missile” managed to hold off his rivals.
“I’m very happy. It’s nice to win. I wanted to do good in the first sprint,” Cavendish said. “I have an incredible group, I’ve said that before the race, and they delivered today.
“I had to go long, I had to go with 300 to go. I’m happy I could hang on that long for the win.”
The riders face their first serious test on Tuesday as the fourth stage culminates in a category-one climb up Mount Etna after a 172-kilometer (107-mile) route from Avola.
The Giro finishes on May 29 in Verona.
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