Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) conceded defeat on the slopes of Green Mountain at the Tour Oman after Chris Froome (Sky) distanced them in the final kilometre and gained enough time to take the overall race lead.
The two had gone clear on the first part of the climb but then hesitated and slowed, each unsure of the other's form and ability on the final steep section to the finish line.
Their hesitation allowed Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Froome to get back up to them and then jump away to win the stage and take the red jersey, respectively. Contador and Nibali are now 25 and 34 seconds behind Froome. They will have to accept defeat unless they can blow the race apart on Stage five.
Contador was in no mood to talk immediately after crossing the line. The Team Saxo-Tinkoff riders had worked all day to chase the breakaway and set up their team leader for the mountain finish, but he stuttered when it was his time in the spotlight.
"I'm happy because my legs were good, but I'm sorry that I couldn't do better than what I did, but the big objective of the season is not the Tour of Oman. It's important to keep that in perspective," he said after getting changed at the bottom of the climb before the long drive back to the hotel in Muscat.
"It was a very hard fast day but overall it was ok. My legs just aren't up to going all out on a climb of this calibre. We were at the front all the way, and it was a very difficult climb to tackle the whole thing alone."
"Tomorrow I'm not expecting much, not many possibilities to change things overall. I think it'll be a fairly calm stage. Today was much more decisive."
From 2012 winner to 2013 big loser
Nibali won the stage to Green Mountain in 2012, but admitted he had got his tactics wrong this year.
"Contador attacked right at the start of the climb, while I preferred to ride more at my own pace. We perhaps controlled each other too much and then in the finale of the climb perhaps we both felt it," he said.
"After we got away, Alberto sat up and I wasn't sure how well he was going. In theory he's the best climber and so I decided to mark him. We perhaps underestimated Rodríguez because Contador, Froome and I, were more focused on each other. Yet whoever had a bit more was able to accelerate and go away."
The 'Shark from the Straight of Messina' tried to stay optimistic and look at the bigger picture of the whole cycling season and the bigger goals later on.
"I'm satisfied. My form's growing. Perhaps I'm not as strong as last year but I'm ok with that," he said, while virtually conceding defeat in this year's race.
"Friday's stage will be different to last year. There are some climbs where attacks are possible but it'll be difficult to pull back a lot of time on Froome now."