Peter Sagan (Cannondale) won the feared Porto Sant'Elpidio stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, topping a three-man breakaway with GC contenders Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) on a day in which the rain made a difficult course even more challenging.
The GC was turned topsy turvy, as Nibali took over the race lead. Former race leader Chris Froome of Sky finished about one minute down and dropped to second, at 34 seconds, with Rodriguez third at 37 seconds. Contador fell to fourth, 48 seconds down.
"It was a very hard stage," said Sagan. "When the rain started to fall, the gradients of 30% were hard to get up. I heard Contador say that when he climbed out of the saddle, his back wheel slipped. I rode in the saddle all the time and, in the end, I got away with Vincenzo and stayed away to the finish line."
The day had started out sunny but the heavy rains which had prevailed during so much of the race returned. Combined with the short and vicious climbs of the day, many riders decided to abandon rather than risk injury or illness. The most notable drop-out was Andy Schleck, who left the race in the sunshine less than 50km after the start.
The brutal finale laid bare the strengths and weaknesses of the top names. Sagan, Nibali and Rodriguez showed their good form as the first two were able to jump into the lead, and the Spaniard the only one able to move up to them. Contador could not make the jump and in fact often had trouble holding on to the wheels of his chasing group. Left alone, like most of the other top names, Froome cracked and lost his overall lead.
"The tactic in my head was that, if I was good in the final, I wanted to do something on the last climb," said new race leader Nibali. "I'd looked on the previous passes. I was encouraged when the bad weather came. Other riders suffered in the cold, but I was always OK."
Cadel Evans (BMC) made a surprise appearance in the Froome group, which was the second chasing group which came in 50 seconds down. Even more surprising were Chris Horner (RadioShack) in the Contador group, and BMC's Thor Hushovd in the Froome group.
How it happened
The sun was shining when the riders left Porto Sant'Elpidio but the riders were clearly worried about the 209km in the saddle, the expect rain showers and the numerous short, sharp climbs doted along the stage profile.
The racing started fast with riders keen to get in the break of the day despite five days of tough racing in their legs.
15 riders formed one dangerous move but they were quickly pulled back, and then 16 riders eventually got away after 25km. In the move were Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard), Rinaldo Nocentini, Matteo Montaguti (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Lars Boom (Blanco Pro Cycling), Tom Dumoulin (Argos-Shimano) Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida), Giovanni Visconti and Benat Intxausti (Movistar Team), Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Angel Vicioso (Katusha), Daryl Impey and Stuart O'Grady (Orica-GreenEdge), Mauro Finetto (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia), Matthieu Sprick (Argos-Shimano), and Mirko Selvaggi (Vacansoleil-DCM).
Sergio Henao (Team Sky) was also in the move but he sat up to wait for team leader and race leader Chris Froome. The break opened a three-minute lead, with Team Sky setting a steady tempo at the head of the peloton.
The early climbs began to hurt several riders in the peloton, with Andy Schleck (Radioshack-Leopard) one of the first to throw in the towel and climb off.
The first climb of the Muro di Sant'Elpidio after 70km showed riders the 27% climb they would face twice again later in the stage. And it was a real wall, forcing riders to zigzag to the top to avoid putting their foot down.
Cunego was the first to the top to become leader of the climber's competition, but behind him other riders were suffering, with the arrival of grey skies and rain compounding their pain.
With the stage route passing through the finish twice before the end of the stage, the temptation to climb off was strong. The retirees quickly hit double figures after 90km, with Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) amongst the big-names to quit.
Cunego continued to lead the break on the climbs and was first to the top of the Muro di Sant'Elpidio for the second passage. He was forced to sit in the saddle to stop his back wheel from slipping on the wet roads but had the power and low centre of gravity to make it to the top. Dumoulin was a lot bigger but surprisingly made it to the top with Cunego and formed the front group.
Behind them many of the other riders in the break were suffering and their chances of success were over. Cancellara, Nocentini lost contact and were caught by the peloton. However up front, Cunego, Impey, Visconti, Intxausti, Selvaggi, Martinez formed a determined front group, out to fight for the stage victory.
As the raced passed through the finish area for the last time, the break had a lead of 1:55, with Cannondale Pro Cycling, leading the chase.
The last climb of the Muro di Sant'Elpidio would be decisive in deciding the final outcome of the stage.
Dumoulin attacked out of the group again and again before finally cracking on the last climb. The lead group exploded completely as it faced the nearly 30 percent gradient for the third time. Finally a high-powered quartet of Sagan, Nibali, Samuel Sanchez and Inxausti formed in the front, with Nibali clearly focused on taking control.
"On Prati di Tivo, I was on the defensive for most of the day and I only attacked in the final 2km," said Nibali. "Yesterday I wasn't great and I didn't think I'd be able to recoup the seconds I lost. But today it all came good for me. But we new at the start of the race there was a 27% climb coming, so our bikes were set up for it and we were well prepared."
"[Nibali] asked me how I was," said Sagan. "I said I didn't know if I'd be able to stay at the front. In the end we were both still there. Even I wasn't interested in the overall lead, as Vincenzo's friend, I still took turns at the front. And I was very happy to see him in the move today."
Contador made the pace in the chasing group as all struggled on the difficult course. Froome had fallen back, but was still in play as Nibali and Sagan took off in front.
Joaquim Rodriguez was the first to struggle his way up to the two leaders. Behind them, the top names were scattered in little groups all over the road, with Froome looking to have been dropped with 10 km to go. Even Contador had trouble staying up with his small group.
With 6km to go, Froome was in a distant chase group, just over one minute back. The Contador group was at 25-30 seconds behind the leading trio.
The final run-in was flat, but no one was able to catch up to the three in front. Rodriguez led under the flamme rouge, and the other two were happy to let him stay in the lead as long as possible. Sagan opened the sprint with 300 m to go and easily took the win, with Nibali second and Rodriguez third.
Behind them, the Contador group crossed the finish line about 40 seconds later, with the Froome group at about 50 seconds. But the damage had already been done.
Already looking ahead to the weekend's Milan-Sanremo, Sagan said, "Every year I'm the favourite, but I still haven't won it. Everyone can be beaten. Cycling is beautiful because you need to think on the spot. One mistake can cost you the race. We'll see on Sunday."
|#||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale Pro Cycling||5:45:17|
|2||Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana Pro Team||0:00:02|
|3||Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Katusha||Row 2 - Cell 2|
|4||Mauro Santambrogio (Ita) Vini Fantini-Selle Italia||0:00:44|
|5||Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi||Row 4 - Cell 2|
|6||Christopher Horner (USA) RadioShack Leopard||Row 5 - Cell 2|
|7||Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Team Saxo-Tinkoff||Row 6 - Cell 2|
|8||Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Lotto Belisol||0:00:50|
|9||Thor Hushovd (Nor) BMC Racing Team||Row 8 - Cell 2|
|10||Simon Geschke (Ger) Team Argos-Shimano||Row 9 - Cell 2|
|11||Daniele Pietropolli (Ita) Lampre-Merida||Row 10 - Cell 2|
|12||Andrey Amador Bakkazakova (CRc) Movistar Team||Row 11 - Cell 2|
|13||Wouter Poels (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team||Row 12 - Cell 2|
|14||Bauke Mollema (Ned) Blanco Pro Cycling Team||Row 13 - Cell 2|
|15||Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) AG2R La Mondiale||Row 14 - Cell 2|
|16||Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Omega Pharma-Quick Step||Row 15 - Cell 2|
|17||Przemyslaw Niemiec (Pol) Lampre-Merida||Row 16 - Cell 2|
|18||Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team||Row 17 - Cell 2|
|19||Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling||Row 18 - Cell 2|
|20||Matteo Rabottini (Ita) Vini Fantini-Selle Italia||0:01:55|
|21||Arthur Vichot (Fra) FDJ||Row 20 - Cell 2|
|22||Daryl Impey (RSA) Orica-GreenEdge||0:01:56|
|23||Sergio Luis Henao Montoya (Col) Sky Procycling||Row 22 - Cell 2|
|24||Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Team Saxo-Tinkoff||0:02:16|
|25||Kristijan Koren (Slo) Cannondale Pro Cycling||Row 24 - Cell 2|
|26||Juan Jose Cobo Acebo (Spa) Movistar Team||Row 25 - Cell 2|
|27||José Joao Pimenta Costa Mendes (Por) Team NetApp-Endura||Row 26 - Cell 2|
|28||Miguel Minguez Ayala (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi||Row 27 - Cell 2|
|29||Jonathan Castroviejo Nicolas (Spa) Movistar Team||Row 28 - Cell 2|
|30||Mirko Selvaggi (Ita) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team||Row 29 - Cell 2|
|31||Francisco José Ventoso Alberdi (Spa) Movistar Team||Row 30 - Cell 2|
|32||Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Katusha||0:03:06|
|33||Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team||Row 32 - Cell 2|
|34||Benat Intxausti Elorriaga (Spa) Movistar Team||Row 33 - Cell 2|
|35||Hayden Roulston (NZl) RadioShack Leopard||0:04:18|
|36||Damiano Caruso (Ita) Cannondale Pro Cycling||Row 35 - Cell 2|
|37||Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Merida||Row 36 - Cell 2|
|38||Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Team Argos-Shimano||Row 37 - Cell 2|