Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) had looked so good on the early stages of the Tour of Oman that there was almost an air of resignation among his rivals ahead of the decisive summit finish on Green Mountain. Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) was one of the few clinging onto a sense of optimism, but the last vestige evaporated as he watched the Kazakh champion surge away from him in the last 150 metres.
Pozzovivo had started the day fifth overall, 27 seconds down on Lutsenko, and quickly emerged as the closest challenger on the double-digit climb to the finish.
After the field had been blown into small fragments, Lutsenko attacked with just over 1.5km to go, and Pozzovivo was the only rider who could stay with him. Third-placed Jesús Herrada (Cofidis) did for 200 metres or so but Lutsenko kicked again and it was down to two. Pozzovivo didn't manage to overhaul Grellier and so settled for third on the stage and second place overall, with the standings unlikely to change on Thursday's final stage on the Mattrah Corniche.
"Lutsenko has been very strong, and today it was not possible for me to beat him," Pozzovivo told Cyclingnews after riding back down the mountain.
"I tried to stay with him, and maybe in the finale, if he didn't want to win all the stages here then I could try to win, but there was also Grellier from the break, so that changed my plan a little.
"It was a very hard climb. It started fast, with CCC setting a good pace, and that was important because the breakaway was still far away. After that there was a bit of tactics, where I think the breakaway didn't lose anything. Then Lutsenko started accelerating and we went as two. It was so hard towards the end, we did our best not to blow up but to arrive close to the man out front, but the final bit it was very hard to keep a good speed."
Pozzovivo described the way Lutsenko skipped away from him as "amazing", but with the caveat that the climb suited him better. The average gradient may have been a searing 10.5 per cent, handing the lighter Pozzovivo an advantage on paper, but it was a short climb, at 5.7km, and the only difficulty of the day, suiting Lutsenko, who's less of a pure climber.
"20 minutes is for him is at the limit of his possibility," Pozzovivo explained, "but still in the range of his characteristics."
Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a Espana
Pozzovivo's display in Oman has made it a good start to the season for the 36-year-old Italian. It started in the worst way, with a frightening crash at 70km/h during a training ride. He wasn't seriously injured and was able to ride the Tour Down Under before coming to the Middle East.
"I'm only disappointed because I didn't win. From the point of view of my form, I am very happy," he said.
"For me, it was a good climb. I don't have bad legs for the month of February. I did the power that I thought I'd do, because I train a lot on 20-minute climbing efforts."
Pozzovivo's season will be geared around the Giro d'Italia in May and the Vuelta a España in August and September. He has finished in the top 10 of the Giro on six occasions but this time he'll be supporting Vincenzo Nibali, before leading the line himself at the Vuelta. Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he has twice finished fifth, is also a target shortly ahead of the Giro d'Italia.
"There's a bit of change for me. It will be a season where I'll be at the start of some races that I've never raced. It'll be interesting to be at the start of Paris-Nice, for example, Flèche Wallonne, Tour de Romandie. It will be a change," he said.
"I will go to the Giro not as leader but to help Nibali, then for me at the Vuelta I will get my chance. Liège is, I think, the Classic that suits me best. I haven't raced it a lot of times but every time except one time I've been top five or top 10. We'll see with team what my role will be but I think I can do a good race."