Ineos Grenadiers put their plan of attack into action on stage 4 of Tirreno-Adriatico, but ended the day empty handed after attacks from team leaders Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas didn't stick on the summit finish of Prati di Tivo.
The pair crossed the line in 11th and 12th place, 58 seconds behind stage winner and new race leader Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) while also losing time to Jumbo-Visma's all-rounder Wout van Aert, a rider who wouldn't normally be out-climbing two Tour de France winners.
Both Bernal and Thomas had been on the move lower down the mountain, with Bernal jumping at the eight-kilometre mark after a succession of teammates had worked on the front of the group, then trying once more three kilometres later. In between, Thomas had ventured out in a solo move, but neither man could put in a move to match that of Pogačar, who had caught and passed Thomas en route to victory.
After the stage, both Bernal and Thomas lay their focus on future goals – the Giro d'Italia for the Colombian and the Tour de France for the Welshman – and noted that the week is good preparation in their build-ups to those, even if there won't be a big GC result at the end of it.
"It was a very hard day, but a day that leaves me calm with regards to my preparations," Bernal said after the stage. "I was up there with the others, I tried to attack a couple of times, and that gives me motivation for the following objectives, so I'm happy with my condition and the training I've done.
"I didn't want to pull on the front because I knew Egan was a bit better today," Thomas added. "So, rather than pull on the front, I just attacked and made Van Aert or whoever chase. Unfortunately, Egan didn't quite have the legs but I'm happy with where I'm at. For me, it's all on track for July, really."
With the race's big summit finish out of the way, a couple of stages remain for the GC men either side of a sprint day, starting on Sunday with the tough hilly stage to Castelfidardo. It's one that could favour Bernal, even if more explosive puncheurs will be the top favourite. For Thomas, meanwhile, Tuesday's closing time trial in San Bendetto del Tronto should be the day to look to as another testing ground for his form.
For his part, Thomas said he's feeling better than he expected to at this stage of the season.
"I think I'm better than expected, really," he said "After January I was just sort of riding around Gran Canaria getting the hours in with not too much intensity. So, I've really moved on in the last month. It's nice just to be in the mix and just race a bit differently."
Bernal added that he feels positive about both training and racing blocks so far – he has taken podium spots at the Étoile de Bessèges, Tour de la Provence, Trofeo Laigueglia and Strade Bianche in the past month – and looked ahead to another spell of training in Colombia ahead of the Giro d'Italia and its prep race, the Tour of the Alps.
"I've trained well," he said. "We're trying to manage the training load, trying to build the condition little by little ahead of the Giro d'Italia. It was a good while since I'd raced – since the Tour last year – and I've now done a good block of racing and I believe that'll give me a boost.
"Now I return to Colombia to finish training ahead of the Giro d'Italia, but I'm calm and I have faith in my coach and what we're doing."
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