Joaquím Rodríguez ruled the 21 percent gradients of Tirreno-Adriatico's Montelupone stage in Romitelli for a second consectuive year. The Caisse d'Epargne rider peaked the 1.75km climb ahead of Davide Rebellin (Diquigiovanni-Androni) and Thomas Lövkvist (Columbia-Highroad) at the end of the 171km stage.
Rodríguez succeeded Julien El Farès (Cofidis) at the head of the race overall, and leads by six seconds thanks to the win. The Frenchman, who had held the leader's blue jersey since day one, is now second.
"This type of climb is just perfect for me," said Rodríguez. "I felt great today and I knew I had the legs to win. It's great to win, but tomorrow I know it's almost impossible for me to keep the jersey."
Columbia and Diquigiovanni led the race in the final two kilometres, but Rodríguez exploited their efforts. The Spaniard fired himself, missile-like, on the left-hand side of the road with 600 metres of climbing left to gap Rebellin and Lövkvist and put himself in a perfect position to claim stage honours.
Rodríguez extended the advantage over his two rivals throughout the two sections of 21-percent gradient to secure his victory.
"I looked back at the last corner and I knew I had enough margin to win," said Rodríguez.
Danilo Di Luca (LPR Brakes-Farnese Vini), Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Slipstream) claimed third through sixth.
"He was so much stronger than the rest of us," said Di Luca. The man who finished second last year and has conquered Flèche Wallonne's Mur de Huy in the past, said, "There is not comparison to Flèche's Huy; this one is a lot harder."
Ivan Basso (Liquigas) finished with the front group of close to 25 riders, helping teammate Vincenzo Nibali during the stage.
"It was very hard; I tried to go at my pace, but no way. It is not a climb, it is a wall," said Basso.
The march to Montelupone
The march to Montelupone's wall started in Foligno. After three sprint stages, the day was a day for climbers due to two ascents of the Montelupone climb. It came at the end of the stage in Romitelli with 13.9 kilometres to race and the mountaintop finish.
An escape of five men went clear on the Passo di Cornelli. Giuseppe Palumbo (Acqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo), Johann Tschopp (Bbox Bouygues Telecom), Giampaolo Cheula (Barloworld), Jérôme Coppel (Française des Jeux) and Marcin Sapa (Lampre-NGC), who featured in stage three's escape, gained a maximum of 4:30 minutes on the day.
With 40 kilometres to go (11km to the base of the first ascent of Montelupone), the five had 3:10 on the group being led by Caisse d'Epargne for last year's stage winner Rodríguez. Di Luca's LPR team took over near the base of the Montelupone, with the gap now at one minute.
The escape now numbered four; Sapa lost contact as soon as the road pointed upwards.
A crash at 25 kilometres split the group, but not the pace heading on to Montelupone's slopes. Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank) and Riccardo Chiarini (LPR Brakes-Farnese Vini) and Lloyd Mondory (AG2R La Mondiale) were involved, with the French rider appearing to suffer the most serious injuries.
Petacchi led the bunch with 20km remaining to catch the final escapees and position his teammate Di Luca for the first of two Montelupone punches. Diquigiovanni took over with Michele Scarponi and Gilberto Simoni leading for Rebellin, while dual Giro d'Italia winner Simoni led Di Luca and Garzelli over the top to start the final 13.9 kilometres.
Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) anticipated the final climb with an attack at seven kilometres to go. Daniele Pietropolli (LPR Brakes-Farnese Vini) and rising star Greg Van Avermaet (Silence-Lotto) chased and joined the Italian but the Simoni-led peloton caught them four kilometres later.
Hincapie led the 25-man group, including favourites Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), Michele Scarponi (Diquigiovanni-Androni), Garzelli, Basso, Nibali, Andreas Klöden (Astana) and Fabian Wegmann (Milram) to the base of the Montelupone, with two kilometres remaining, for Columbia teammate Lövkvist. He continued to sacrifice himself through the final 1000 metres of climbing, including a section of 18 percent, to set up the young Swede.
Diquigiovanni took over with one kilometre to go as Simoni and Scarponi briefly controlled for teammate Rebellin before Rodríguez fired the winning shot.
Lövkvist positioned for overall
The race will continue tomorrow with a 30-kilometre time trial that follows the parcours of last year's TT albeit in reverse. Riders will start in Loreto, climb the Colle dell'Infinito and end with the climb up to Macerata.
Lövkvist appears to be the danger man in fourth overall behind Rebellin. The Swede can time trial and climb, which makes him a perfect candidate to win the overall title on Tuesday.