CHERASCO, Italy -- Mark Cavendish sprinted to victory in the 13th and longest stage of the Giro d'Italia on Friday, and favourite Vincenzo Nibali retained the overall lead to boost his chances of a first victory in his home country's biggest cycling race.
Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and defending champion Ryder Hesjedal withdrew from the race before the stage began. Wiggins's team cited a "worsening chest infection." Hesjedal is more than 32 minutes behind and his team says he pulled out because of a "deteriorating physical condition."
Cavendish won in a time of 6 hours, 9 minutes, 55 seconds to claim a second straight stage victory and the fourth in this year's Giro. The Briton was, as always, quick to praise his Omega Pharma team.
"I'm so tired, I don't know how I'm going to recover from this before the mountains," Cavendish said. "It's a common misconception that sprinters are lazy. But the amount of effort it takes to do that, especially when you're on the limit, it really damages you for a few days.
"I had to go from 350 metres after that hard day. I'm on my knees but all I could do was go. I had to go and not look back after what the guys had done all day. I actually didn't want to go for the sprint today but the guys stayed with me on the climbs. You saw the work they did: the guys ride and ride until their legs won't go anymore, and I'm so proud of that."
Giacomo Nizzolo was second, with Luka Mezgec third in the 254-kilometre (158-mile) leg from Busseto to Cherasco.
Nibali, who finished third and second in his two previous Giro d'Italia races, maintained his 41-second lead over Cadel Evans. The mountain stages are coming at the weekend, which is the Australian's preferred terrain.
After heavy rain throughout the race, the weather improved Friday with the sun shining for most of the trek.
There was an early break by seven riders and they built a lead of nearly 14 minutes after 87 kilometres (54 miles).
The peloton, powered by Cavendish's Omega Pharma team, started to reel in the break about halfway through the leg and reduced the gap to little more than a minute at the base of the only classified climb, a category-3 ascent.
Lars Bak, Nicola Boem and Pablo Lastras -- who had been part of the original break -- opened up a lead of 24 seconds at the top of the Tre Cuni, and although the gap increased slightly, they were eventually caught.
Lastras was part of the nine-group escape inside the final 12 kilometres.
Giampaolo Caruso attacked off the front with 5 kilometres (3 miles) to go but was reeled in. Cavendish began his sprint 700 metres from the line, holding off Nizzolo and Mezgec for his 101st career victory.
Saturday's stage will feature riders climbing Sestriere and Bardonecchia across a 168-kilometre (104-mile) route from Cervere.
The race ends May 26 in Brescia.