The Australian (Lotto-Soudal) was perfectly positioned inside the final kilometre, but dropped back on the final straight and had to surge from a long way back to deny Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos) right at the line.
After a quiet day of racing, there were some major crashes in the final that took out a number of general classification contenders, with Pavel Sivakov (Ineos Grenadiers) and Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious) both falling hard, with the latter unable to finish the stage and pulling out of the race.
Alessandro De Marchi (Israel Start-Up Nation) finished in the bunch to lead the race for another day.
How it happened
Stage five of the 2021 Giro d’Italia looked like a slow day of racing on paper, as the peloton took on a pan-flat 177km from Modena in the Emilia-Romagna region to Cattolica on the Adriatic coast.
With no categorised climbs along the route, a motorway bridge being the highest point on the stage, it looked like a certain opportunity for the sprinters, who would be determined to secure the chance after missing out to the breakaway on stage three.
While the course was arrow-straight for the most part, there was no shortage of hazards in the final 5km, with a series of 90-degree turns, before the final sharp right-hand turn just inside the final kilometre.
Early in the stage, only two riders were willing to commit to the breakaway, with Filippo Tagliani (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec) and Umberto Marengo (Bardiani-CSF-Faizinè) attacking from the flag and immediately pulling out a gap.
The Italian pair dangled off the front of the peloton until the intermediate sprint point just over 100km from the finish, before they sat up and rejoined the main group of riders.
There were no more moves from the bunch until 46km left to race, when Simon Pellaud (Androni) and Davide Gabburo (Bardiani) launched a move and went clear, enjoying a modest margin.
With just over 20km to the line, Agr2-Citroen’s Alexis Gougeard tried his luck and attacked from the bunch, bridging across to the late breakaway duo.
But inside 18km the escapees had just 10 seconds on the peloton, as all the sprint teams got into formation to chase down the move.
The string of roundabouts and sharp turns were already causing chaos in the bunch, with Tejay Van Garderen (EF Education-Nippo) taking a fall and other riders forced to take evasive action to avoid the road furniture.
GC riders weren’t safe from the dangers either, as Ineos Grenadiers co-leader Pavel Sivakov was pushed wide on a long straight road, forcing him into a tree and falling hard.
The Russian was able to swap bikes and remount, but looked to be in some pain and wasn’t able to chase the peloton with any conviction, knocking him out of the GC race.
As the race entered Cattolica with 5km left to race, the breakaway trio still had 12 seconds over the bunch, as the twists and turns favoured the smaller group, but the peloton was motivated behind.
Another huge crash came inside the bunch, as three riders hit a traffic island at high speed, with Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious) among those going down, as the Spaniard stayed down and looked injured.
At 3km the break was caught with Lotto-Soudal leading through the turns, Ewan in second wheel, with Bora-Hansgrohe and Peter Sagan next in line.
Hitting the final turn of the day, Bora led with Sagan, Merlier and Ewan all positioned at the front of the bunch.
Inside the final 200m, Cofidis rushed forward for Viviani, who was the first to launch his sprint on the slight uphill gradient.
But Nizzolo hit the wind and looked to have run away with the victory.
Ewan was caught behind Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) who appeared to have a mechanical problem, with Ewan being pushed into the barrier.
Unphased by the moment Ewan launched his sprint from a long way back, cutting across the road to move to the outside and blasting past the slowing Nizzolo in the final 50m to take the win.
The race continues with the first mountain finish of the 2021 Giro,160km to 15km Ascoli Piceno climb.
Giro d'Italia 2021, stage five: Modena to Cattolica (177km)
1. Caleb Ewan (Aus) Lotto-Soudal, in 4-07-01
2. Giacomo Nizzolo (Ita) Qhubeka-Assos
3. Elia Viviani (Ita) Cofidis
4. Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe
5. Fernando Gaviria (Col) UAE Team Emirates
6. Matteo Moschetti (Ita) Trek-Segafredo
7. Andrea Pasqualon (Ita) Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux
8. Dylan Groenewegen (Ned) Jumbo-Visma
9. Manuel Belletti (Ita) EOLO-Kometa
10. Davide Cimolai (Ita) Israel Start-Up Nation, all at same time
General classification after stage five
1. Alessandro De Marchi (Ita) Israel Start-Up Nation, 17-57-45
2. Louis Vervaeke (Bel) Alpecin-Fenix, at 42s
3. Nelson Oliveira (Por) Movistar, at 48s
4. Attila Valter (Hun) Groupama-FDJ, at 1-00
5. Nicolas Edet (Fra) Cofidis, at 1-15
6. Aleksandr Vlasov (Rus) Astana, at 1-24
7. Remco Evenepoel (Bel) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, at 1-28
8. Alberto Bettiol (Ita) EF Education-Nippo, at 1-37
9. Hugh Carthy (GBr) EF Education-Nippo, at 1-38
10. Egan Bernal (Col) Ineos Grenadiers, at 1-39
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