Australia?s Robbie McEwen of the Predictor team is the first leader of the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race after winning the first stage in Civitavecchia on Wednesday.

The 34 year-old from Brisbane has been out of action for almost a month with bronchitis but outfoxed the other sprinters by diving through a chicane, 300 metres from the finish to open a decisive gap that allowed him to cruise to victory with his arms in the air.

Spain?s Oscar Freire was second and Norway?s Thor Hushovd was third but both were ten metres behind McEwen. Stuart O?Grady (CSC) was fourth and Bernhard Eisel (T-Mobile) was fifth. Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) was only eleventh after sitting up in the final metres of the sprint. Petacchi jokingly pulled McEwen?s ear after the finish after being caught by surprise by the pocket rocket Aussie.

?I finished third in the same finish two years ago and after studying the chicane on the internet last week, I decided I?d change my tactic and not wait for the sprint,? McEwen said.

?I told my team mate Rodriguez I wanted to be first into the corners. He took me past the Milram team?s lead out train with about 500 metres to go and then I shouted at him to leave a gap. My tactic went perfectly to plan. The other riders were a little embarrassed after the finish but congratulated me on my win. Some guys think it?s risky to ride like that but I like going through corners fast because it feels like a MotoGP race.?

McEwen has been ill in recent weeks with bronchitis but is now optimistic he can be a contender in Milan-San Remo on March 24.

?Monday was first time I felt strong on the bike for months. I suffered with bronchitis and sinusitis for a long time but I felt good today and was ready to win again,? he said.

?Now I feel like I?m back on track for Milan-San Remo. I know I improve quickly and hopefully this week of racing will improve my fitness. Milan-San Remo is 300-km long and so I have to use every kilometre of racing I can get.?

Thanks to winning the first stage, McEwen will wear the race leader?s jersey during Thursday?s 202-km second stage from Civitavecchia to Marsciano, near Perugia.

Ireland?s Nicolas Roche (Credit Agricole) crashed out mid-way through the stage during a fast decent towards Civitavecchia. He was taken to hospital for treatment and diagnosed with a damaged and badly bruised left quad muscle.