Hello and welcome to stage 5 of this year's Tirreno-Adriatico.
Today's stage from Amatrice to Guardiagrele has an even more pain end to it than Saturday. The riders will be softened up by the 12.3km Passo Lanciano and then the stage ends with the Muro di Guardiagrele, a 610m long wall that climbs at a near vertical average of 22.2%, with some points at 30%.
There is a slight plateau before the final 250m kick up to the line at an easier but still steep 9%. Gear selection and position on the Muro will be vital, with the time gaps likely to be critical for overall victory.
Our man on the ground, Stephen Farrand, reported that "mechanics fitted compact crank sets to team bikes and some tweaked the working of the derailleur arm so it can handle up to a 32 tooth sprocket.
"One mechanic, who Cyclingnews will protect for his own safety in the peloton, said that if riders cannot get up the climb with a 36x28 gear then they should not be professional athletes."
Team Sky mechanic Gary Blem admitted to Cyclingnews that he was worried that one of his riders could have a problem and so the British team has opted for a super low gear.
"We'll be using a compact 34 with a 32 cassette tooth sprocket on the rear. Not all the guys will perhaps use the 32 but the high-cadence guys like Richie Porte probably will," he explained.
"The challenge with that is the clearance of the pulley wheel of the rear derailleur and the 32 sprocket. Shimano doesn't have an 11-speed long-cage derailleur, so we've had to modify the derailleur ourselves to make it work."
"It's a challenge for us because we've never tried it in race conditions yet. We're under pressure to make sure it works because we're going into mountain bike gearing."
Team Sky will have to race without Richie Porte though. The team captain was ill over night and didn't start today's stage. That's certainly a blow for the team as he looked strong yesterday. In other news, Geraint Thomas crashed out of Paris-Nice as well.
The action is already underway today though here in Italy and we've already seen a group go clear of the peloton at the 70km mark they had a gap of 12 minutes over the Omega Pharma led peloton. The riders in the move are Benjamin King (Garmin Sharp), Adam Hansen (Lotto Belisol), David De La Cruz (NetAPP Endura), Matthias Brandle (IAM), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Yaroslav Popovych (Trek Racing Factori), Luca Paolini (Katusha), and Simon Geschke (Giant Shimano).
Brandle was of course in the break yesterday but he was keen to cover the moves earlier today and he's found himself in arguably the strongest break we've seen so far in the race.
Popovych is in the move. 34 years of age now but still in the WorldTour ranks, a lot of his u23 results came here in Italy. Of course he was third in the Giro back in 2003. He's never replicated that form on a grand tour scale since although he did finish in the top 20 in GTs a few times, as well as winning the white jersey in the Tour de France once.
Ben King was 13 when 'Popo' made the podium in the Giro but the American is holding his own in the break today. He's of course an ex-teammate of the Trek man but found himself without a contract at the end of 2013. A move to Garmin Sharp came about, uniting King with his friend Andrew Talansky.
At 37 Luca Paolini is the oldest man in the move. The former Mapei and Liquigas rider is one of the most experienced riders in the WorldTour and always an outside favourite for races at this time of year. He's picked up a number of top ten placings in this race before, as well as a third in Milan-San Remo.
109km remaining from 192km
83km covered and the gap to the peloton is at 12 minutes.
QuickStep still on the front of the peloton but the gap is still around the 12 minute mark.
Adam Hansen is also in the break. The recent winner of the KOM jersey in the Tour Down Under completed all three grand tours last year and picked up a stage win in the Giro as a reward for his efforts. Now 32, he's one of the key riders at Lotto. Formerly of HTC (hence the selection of the jersey to the left) he'll be looking to start and finish all three grand tours this year too.
And it's Hansen who takes a turn on the front now. The gap is down to 10'30 and in about 35km of racing they'll take on the slopes of the Passo Lanciano.
A reminder of where things stood on GC heading into today's stage.
1 Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Omega Pharma - Quick-Step Cycling Team 16:06:42
2 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo 0:00:16
3 Nairo Alexander Quintana Rojas (Col) Movistar Team 0:00:23
4 Richie Porte (Aus) Team Sky 0:00:34
5 Rigoberto Uran Uran (Col) Omega Pharma - Quick-Step Cycling Team 0:00:38
6 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Tinkoff-Saxo 0:00:39
7 Robert Kiserlovski (Cro) Trek Factory Racing 0:00:49
8 Moreno Moser (Ita) Cannondale 0:01:01
9 Mikel Nieve Ituralde (Spa) Team Sky 0:01:02
10 Julian David Arredondo Moreno (Col) Trek Factory Racing 0:01:03
Porte, as we know, is out of the race but Contador and Quintana are capable of putting the race leader Kwiatkowski under pressure today. The Pole put in a fine ride yesterday to hold keep his overall lead but he can't quite follow the brutal increases in pace, instead he likes to keep calm and pace himself back to the pure climbers.
Yesterday we saw Alberto Contador win the stage and all the talk seems to be about the Spaniard looking back to his best. He certainly looked strong on the final climb and he'll be happy to have taken his first worldtour win in over a year but his main objective, the Tour, is still a long way off and one day doesn't change too much. Another win today would add momentum however.
65km remaining from 192km
Into the last 65km of racing and the gap to the leaders is at 10'30.
And it's Contador's Tinkoff team who are now on the front and setting the pace. They'll look to put Kwiatkowski under pressure on the first major climb and then try and soften him up before the finish. The gap is now down to 8'30.
Movistar have Quintana's interests of course and the pint-sized climber is protected near the front of the peloton. Can he get the better of Contador today? The climb to the line really suits him. Another rider is former Fleche winner Moreno. We know he can handle uphill finishes and if he can time his acceleration well, he could play a part today.
But it's Contador's team that are setting a furious pace at the moment. The Danish/Russian squad have the leaders at 6'30. It was over 12 minutes earlier.
Brandle takes the intermediate sprint but Tinkoff Saxo are continuing to close the gap.
Over in Paris-Nice both Boonen and Steegmans have abandoned on the final day of racing.
It's just King and Geschke who are on the climb who are left but....
36km remaining from 192km
Contador, Quintana have gone clear. Anton is trying to follow but it looks like he's blown
36km remaining from 192km
There are 36km to go and the two leaders are on the climb with a gap of 3'48 over the peloton. No sign of the bunch though and if Quintana and Contador are still clear. They are and now Omega have to respond.
Contador and Quintana are chatting and Evans has blown and been dropped.
Kwiatkowski just needs to keep with his team and set a steady pace at the moment. He can't afford to panic or try and follow the first set of attacks.
A couple of riders are coming to Contador and Quintana, who dont look to be riding at 100 per cent at the moment.
Up ahead the two leaders are working well together. Contador and Quintana have about 10 seconds. Kwiatkowski still has Uran and Poels with him.
Horner is in the main field too but Omega have been hit by Contador and Quintana and there's still around 6km to go until the summit.
One rider from AG2R has made it to Contador and Quintana.
But the bunch has caught Contador and Quintana.
The Kwiatkowski group is down to around 25 riders with 34km to go. The pair had a gap but didn't persist with the move for whatever reason.
The peloton are picking up remnants of the early break but King and Geschke are looking strong up ahead. Their lead is still at 4;07.
Movistar have put a man on the front of the Kwiatkowski group. The pace increases and the race leader is starting to show the strain.
Kwiatkowski has both Quintana and Contador on his wheel.
Pirazzi is the latest rider to be dropped.
Contador is checking out the competition. He looks confident as he follows Quintana who puts in a shallow dig before sitting up.
Nieve is on the front. Not sure who is working for with Porte out of the race. Contador is in second wheel and the pace is frantic.
Kwiatkowski can't react again and this move could be telling. Contador leads now with Quintana on his wheel. Nieve has sat up and Scarponi is now slipping back.
And Uran is he attacking or going backwards? He's dropped.
And Contador with a huge attack with 32 km to go.
He goes from the back of the group and even Quintana can't match him. He's trying to chase now though and Kwiatkowski is in trouble.
Poels is there to help him but the loss of Uran could be huge.
Quintana is still not with Contador and is struggling to make contact.
Moreno and Nieve are a little further back
Contador's gap isn't huge though, maybe 10 seconds at the moment.
Horner is with Kwiatkowski and Krueziger.
Contador, out of the saddle, has Quintana just behind him, the gap around 4 seconds.
Contador is waiting for the Movistar rider.
Contador keeps looking back for Quintana but he's not letting up as he continues to push on now.
King and Geschke have been joined by de la Cruz but their gap is at 1'44
As Contador sits in the saddle and pushes again. He's well clear of Quintana now.
Quintana will have to wait for the Horner and Kwiatkowski group and work with them.
There's a long, long descent coming up and Contador will need every second once he crests the top of this climb.
Contador is about to pass Hansen, who was in the break earlier.
Hansen goes with Contador.
How long can the Australian hang on? Contador would certainly welcome the help on the descent and in the valley before the final climb.
23 seconds before Contador and Quintana. The Movistar rider is clear of the Kwiatkowski group, so Contador is the virtual race leader on the road.
Contador now has 30 seconds on Quintana.
Hansen is digging in though, and is staying with Contador as the approach the top of this climb. The Lotto rider will work with the Spaniard on the descent.
The three leaders have one minute on Contador and Hansen.
It's Ben King who leads over the top of the climb.
Hansen has indeed made it over the summit with Contador.
How soon before Contador ushers Hansen through to take a turn? Kwiatkowski is still on the climb and he's struggling but at least Poels is still with him.
He's over three minutes down on Contador though. His overall ambitions are all but over. Contador, you have to say, has turned this race upside down.
It's a pretty tricky descent though as Contador leads Hansen. The Australian thought about taking a turn but then changed his mind and drifted back.
Kwiatkowski is stil climbing though. Uran is with him but it's not going to make much difference at this stage.
The three leaders have 44 seconds on Hansen and Contador, the race leader is at 4'45.
Quintana has been joined by a group containing Nieve, Caruso and Peraud.
Contador looks to be clear of Hansen as well. He's taking perfect lines through the corners as Kwiatkowski starts the descent.
21km remaining from 192km
21km to go as Contador takes another four seconds of the leaders' gap.
Contador looks back to see if Hansen is close but the key group for the Spaniard is the one that contains Quintana. The overall is not yet secure with Quintana just 7 seconds down on GC.
With time bonuses up for grabs at the finish the Movistar rider might be hoping that the three leaders stay away.
Kwiatkowski is sandwiched between Poels and Uran Pozzovivo is in the Caruso/Nieve/Quintana group. Is that enough firepower to bring Contador back?
Horner looks to be in a group between Quintana and Kwiatkowski
15km to go and Contador is 33 seconds behind the leaders.
Contador keeps looking behind him though, he's still concerned with the position of Quintana.
Peraud and Pozzovivo are joined on time in GC so the final climb will be important for them too. They could make the podium in this year's race.
Kwiatkowski isnt giving up though and he's taking risks through every corner as he tries to bring the race back into his grasp. It's a huge ask though.
Contador has over a minute on the Quintana group, with 11km to go. That's huge.
Hansen has made it back to Contador as well and the pair are trading turns.
King and co have 25 seconds on Contador and Hansen.
Into the final 10km as Contador and Hansen can see the leaders.
This is Contador at his best. The leaders wait, they watch, as Contador hits the front.
They all fall in line, as the Spaniard kicks out of the saddle, and sets the pace.
Into the final 8km and the chasers are at 1'44.
Astonishing. Contador hasnt' even asked for any help. He simply doesn't need it.
It looks like de la Cruz has cracked and he's off the back.
7km to go. Hansen thinks about giving a turn but the gap has come doen to 1;37 so Quintana and his group aren't out of it yet.
6.8km to as Contador continues to set the pace. The chasers are working well together though with two AG2R riders eyeing the podium now.
As Contador gobbles down a gel. The gap is holding at 1'35.
Into the final 6km of racing as Quintana takes a turn. The brutal climb is still to come.
And as the road kicks up Contador gets out of the saddle once more. Peraud is leading the chase group currently.
5km remaining from 192km
Just 5km to go.
There are 30 per cent sections on the final climb as Geschke sits on the back of the lead group.
There's a short descent first but with 3km to go Contador continues to set the pace. The chasers seem to have given up on catching the leaders.
And we're onto the lower slopes of the climb. Guess who is on the front?
The Quintana group is at 1'53.
Ben King is in second wheel as Hansen starts to drift back.
It looks like King has cracked.
No. He's attacked. King is on the move.
And with 1.8km to go he has a good gap too.
But Hansen has blown big time.
King wants a gap before the climb hits the really steep sections but he's also looking for the win. What a win it would be too.
And now King hits the climb proper.
And Contador is closing.
King is closing on King, Geschke is hanging on
All three riders are weaving all over the road but Contador is now back in the lead of the race.
And Contador is clear with 1.2km to go.
Geschke isn't out of it just yet though.
Contador is fighting the gradient though and the stage isnt' finished yet.
And into the final 1000m and Geschke is closing on Contador.
He's done it!
And Contador goes again!
He's just sprinted clear. That's impressive.
And Contador is heading towards the stage win. Ben King is still third on the road. He deserves a top finish today.
But here comes Contador 250 to go.
Out of the saddle, and it's two stage wins in a row, and the leader's jersey for Alberto Contador. He's back.
Geschke is second.
And Ben King is indeed going to hang on for third.
Peraud is clear of the chasers meanwhile so he's on for a podium place.
Hansen takes fourth on the stage, Peraud is on his way to fifth.
He's 1'25 down on Contador.
And Quintana has cracked on the climb.
Quintana loses nearly two minutes.
Horner is next over the line at 2'05.
There's still no sign of Kwiatkowski though.
1 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo
2 Simon Geschke (Ger) Team Giant-Shimano
3 Benjamin King (USA) Garmin Sharp
4 Adam Hansen (Aus) Lotto Belisol
5 Jean-Christophe Peraud (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale
6 Giampaolo Caruso (Ita) Team Katusha
7 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Tinkoff-Saxo
8 Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) AG2R La Mondiale
9 Julian David Arredondo Moreno (Col) Trek Factory Racing
10 Rinaldo Nocentini (Ita) AG2R La Mondiale
Here's the overall after today's stage
1 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo
2 Nairo Alexander Quintana Rojas (Col) Movistar Team
3 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Tinkoff-Saxo
4 Julian David Arredondo Moreno (Col) Trek Factory Racing
5 Jean-Christophe Peraud (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale
6 Mikel Nieve Ituralde (Spa) Team Sky
7 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Team Katusha
8 Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) AG2R La Mondiale
9 Giampaolo Caruso (Ita) Team Katusha
10 Robert Kiserlovski (Cro) Trek Factory Racing
Kwiatkowski has dropped out of the top ten.
There was nothing that could be done though, not with Contador in such fine form.
Thanks for joining us today. You can find our report, photos and results from a dramatic stage, right here.
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