Team Sky took control of Tirreno-Adriatico on stage 3's steep uphill finish to Trevi. Their many big rivals will now have to throw caution to wind and attack on Saturday's stage 4 mountain finish in Sarnano Sassotetto if they want to have any chance of overall victory when the seven-day stage race ends on Tuesday with a 10km individual time trial.
Team Sky showed a sign of weakness when they failed to win the opening team time trial. However they were back to their best on the rolling roads across Tuscany and Umbra to Trevi. The first time over the steep 1.5km climb to the centre of the village shook out the peloton, but Team Sky were able to line out the peloton with all seven riders, including Gianni Moscon, who had crashed hard with 30km to go.
The climb to the line and Primoz Roglic’s solo attack tested everyone to their limit but Geraint Thomas finished fourth and so took the overall race lead. Moscon finished seventh despite his crash, Froome was 12 after showing some signs of weakness, with Michal Kwiatkowski 16th after doing a lot of the hard work on the front.
Their overall rivals were amongst them, but Team Sky now dominated the overall classification with Thomas in the lead (tied on time with runner-up BMC's Greg Van Avermaet), Froome third at three seconds and Kwiatkowski fifth at nine seconds. Everyone else is behind them, spread across a minute, meaning the 14.2km climb to the 1,335m high finish at Sarnano Sassotetto has been transformed into a handicap race, with attacking the only form of defence against the Team Sky juggernaut.
The best of the rest
Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) is now best placed in sixth place at nine seconds. Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) is seventh at 19 seconds, with teammate Tom Dumoulin ninth at 33 seconds. They arguably still have a shot at a podium place thanks to their time trial skills but will have to perform on Saturday’s mountain finish and the finish up to Filottrano on Sunday.
Everyone else’s overall hopes look minimal, many have already thrown in the towel and can only hope for a day of grace and a stage victory or a top-ten overall and so some consolatory WorldTour ranking points.
Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) is 10th overall at 39 seconds, Mikel Landa (Movistar) is 12th at 44 seconds, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) is 15th at 49 seconds, Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) is 19th at 53. Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) brings up the rear at 58 seconds after AG2R La Mondiale's poor team time trial.
They perhaps will know things could be far worse. Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is on form but lost 1:13 due to the crash on stage 2. On stage 3 Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) lost 13 minutes after crashing hard as the pace picked up in sight of Trevi, while Rohan Dennis (BMC) cracked due to the long 239km day of racing and the huge effort required for the final. The Australian, who finished second overall at Tirreno-Adriatico in 2017, lost 7:29.
Team Sky seem in control on Tirreno-Adriatico, as they like to be and as they so often do in other stage races. Their rivals can only hope that their confidence proves to be their downfall as has also happened in the past.
The time gaps mean several riders will have nothing to lose and so will attack early on Saturday’s 14.2km climb to the finish. We can expect Bardet, Uran, Aru, Nibali, Landa and Yates to attack to try to win the stage and split the 'Sky bots'.
Recent editions of Tirreno-Adriatico have proven it can be done. Indeed the unpredictability of the March race is one of its biggest attractions.
In 2013, Nibali managed to crack Froome in the rain on a hilly stage to Porto Sant-Elpidio. In 2015, Nairo Quintana won alone in the snow on Terminillo. He started the stage 34 seconds behind Wout Poels but put a minute into his rivals, enough to defend the lead in the final time trial. Last year, he did the same thing. He gained less time but still won the overall after a determined ride in the time trial.
Thomas faces big test on the road to Sarnano Sassotetto
Thomas finished fifth overall in 2017 after Team Sky lost 1:42 in the team time trial when Moscon crashed at speed. He managed to pull back 44 seconds during the race, but it was not enough to close the gap on Quintana.
This time the Welshman is in the driving seat and wearing the leader’s blue jersey. He and Team Sky will face their biggest test on Saturday’s 219km stage to Sarnano Sassotetto.
The stage profile includes three categorised climbs, but dozens of others as the stage passes through the area struck by earthquakes last summer. The climbs will hurt and accumulate lactic acid before the ascent to the finish, making for a testing second consecutive day in the saddle.
The climb from the village of Sarnano up to the Sassotetto finish is 14.2km long and averages 5.8 per cent. Take out the opening 2.5km, and the average gradient rises to 7.1 per cent. A four-kilometre middle section climbs at 8.8 per cent and includes eight hairpins. One point touches 13 per cent with the gradient only easing in the final two kilometres.
"I think for it's the hardest climb of the week, so it's going to be crucial for the final GC. There are lots of strong climbers here, and so I’m sure the race will explode," Jungels predicted to Cyclingnews.
"My best scenario is not to lose any time before the final time trial. But I'll do my best and try not to lose too much. Every second will count and every day will count. Until the last time trial in San Benedetto del Trento, nothing is decided."