Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) confirmed he is a favourite for next Saturday?s Milan-San Remo by winning the fourth stage of the Tirreno-Adriatico in Civitanova Marche on Saturday.

The 166km hilly stage had a nasty climb just eight kilometres from the finish and Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) dragged a group of 20 riders clear but Petacchi?s Milram team lead the chase and then the powerful Italian paid them back with an impressive sprint.

Oscar Freire (Rabobank) was second and Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) was third despite both being in the late attack. Mark Cavendish (High Road) did not contest the sprint, finishing 115th at two minutes.

Petacchi was beaten by Freire in Wednesday?s opening stage in Civitavecchia but equalled the score to 1-1 with his sixth victory of the year out of seven sprints he has contested.

?This win has shown I?m on track for Milan-San Remo,? Petacchi said after celebrating his win.

?The stage was only half the distance of Milan-San Remo but it was hilly all day. I felt good and I?m definitely feeling a lot better than I did last year when I was still recovering from a fractured kneecap.

?Milan-San Remo is always a lottery and depends on so many factors but I just hope everything goes right and hope I can have a perfect day like I did in 2005 when I won it.?

The up and down stage sparked several attacks but the bunch was all together when Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) attacked on the last climb of the stage, eight kilometres from the finish, and dragged a group of 20 riders clear. Freire, Pozzato, Paolo Bettini, Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Gerald Ciolek and George Hincapie (High Road) were all there but Petacchi?s Milram team quickly closed the gap with two kilometres to go before setting up Petacchi for the sprint.

?It was a good attack but we were confident that we?d catch them,? Petacchi said.

?The stage finished in the same place as two years ago but this time there was a tailwind. I started my sprint early but followed my instinct and got it right. Freire came up close to me at the line but I knew I?d won.?

Sunday?s fifth stage is a 26km individual time trial from Macerata to Recanati and is likely to decide the overall winner of the weeklong stage race.

World time trial champion Fabian Cancellara is favourite to win the stage and is only 54 second behind race leader Niklas Axelsson but the lanky Swedish rider is hoping to keep the race leader?s blue jersey.

?I?ve only got a 10 or 20% chance of keeping the race lead but I?m going to give it everything,? the Swedish rider said.

Tirreno-Adriatico ends on Tuesday before the riders head north for next Saturday?s Milan-San Remo.

TIRRENO-ADRIATICO STAGE FOUR

1 Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) 166km in 3hrs 59mins 58secs
2 Oscar Freire (Rabobank)
3 Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas)
4 Gerald Ciolek (High Road)
5 José Joaquin Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne)
6 Daniele Pietropolli (Lpr)
7 Enrico Gasparotto (Barloworld)
8 Maximiliano Richeze (CSF Navigare)
9 Heinrich Haussler (Gerolsteiner)
10 Tom Boonen (Quick Step) all same time

TIRRENO-ADRIATICO: OVERALL

1 Niklas Axelsson (Serramenti PVC)
2 Enrico Gasparotto (Barloworld) at 10secs
3 Joaquim Rodriguez (Caisse d’Epargne) at 18secs
4 Linus Gerdemann (High Road) at 24secs
5 Danilo Di Luca (ILPR) at 32secs
6 Thomas Lövkvist (High Road) at 40secs
7 Markus Fothen (Gerolsteiner) at 50secs
8 Emanuele Sella (CSF Group Navigare) at 54secs
9 Tadej Valjavec (AG2r)
10 Fabian Cancellara (CSC) all same time.