Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) clung on to win the overall title at the Tour de l'Ain on Thursday as Antonio Pedrero (Movistar) soloed to a memorable stage victory on a thrilling final day.
Pedrero emerged from a chaotic start to form part of the day's main three-man breakaway, then proceeded to solo to victory from nearly 60km out.
As he made his way over two ascents of the Col de Menthières, he managed to hold off a vastly-reduced and increasingly-panicked yellow jersey group, to the extent that he almost stole away with the overall title.
Having started the day 2:06 down, Pedrero entered the final 5km in the virtual lead of the race but Martin held firm and found just enough cooperation in the chase group to cling onto yellow.
Mattias Skjelmose (Trek-Segafredo) was the Frenchman's main threat, second overall at six seconds, and sprinted away in sight of the line, but by that point George Bennett (UAE Team Emirates) and Harry Sweeny (Lotto Soudal) had sprung clear to mop up second and third place and the associate bonus seconds.
Had they not been ahead, Skjelmose would have won the overall title, bonus seconds tying him for time with Martin and his superior placing on the opening day handing him yellow.
As it was, Martin breathed a huge sigh of relief at the finish.
"It was a big mathematical equation," said the philosophy graduate. "It was very hard physically but also very hard tactically, with lots of gaps to different riders to think about, and then the bonus seconds to factor in.
"I knew it would be complicated to control, with attacks from everywhere, but it was about not panicking and staying calm."
Pedrero's stunning solo victory took root when he slipped into the day's main three-man breakaway alongside world champion Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) and Sylvain Moniquet (Lotto Soudal). Moniquet was the first to fall away on the Côte de Giron after 50km, and then Pedrero went solo on the first ascent of the Menthières - 9.1km at 6.4%.
He increased his lead to four minutes on the descent and then remarkably kept the GC riders at bay on the second time up, even as the group reduced to just a dozen riders. He crested the climb with a lead of 2:45 over the main bunch - enough to take him back down the mountain and up the 10km final drag to the line in Lélex.
Stage victory was all-but assured, but the overall title, against all odds, came into play as he remarkably maintained his one-man stance against the chasers behind.
"I didn't expect this," Pedrero said after crossing the line, stage winner but ultimately 20 seconds shy of the title. "The intention was to get in the break, but to end up like this... I couldn't have imagined it," he added, laughing in apparent disbelief.
Cofidis had tried to control the day but things became unruly on the second ascent of the Col de Menthières, where Bennett hit out for a while and Skjelmose tested Martin with a string of accelerations. They became even more precarious when the race leader's luxury domestique, Remy Rochas, punctured on the descent, leaving him to fend for himself on the 10km uphill run-in.
Martin shut down a dangerous move from Jaakko Hanninen (AG2R Citroën), who was sixth overall at 12 seconds and the next best placed after third-placed Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ) given Mauri Vansevenant (QuickStep) and Ivan Sosa (Movistar) had already fallen away.
Martin had to manage the delicate situation of encouraging collaboration from the chase group, while also making sure Pedrero didn't sneak off with his yellow jersey. Numbers from FDJ and AG2R, who had Sebastien Reichenbach and Valentin Paret-Peintre, respectively, helped cohesion in the chase group, with Skjelmose always willing to turn and barking at others to do the same.
In the end, Martin had the dream scenario when Bennett and Sweeny - not a factor on GC - slipped away to mop up the remaining bonus seconds, removing Skjelmose's main route to victory.
Pedrero fought all the way to the line but the yellow jersey group arrived with 20 seconds to spare. Skjelmose launched one final desperate acceleration, needing to find six seconds of clean air between him and Martin, but the Frenchman, though slightly distanced, did enough to secure the third stage race title of his career.
Results powered by FirstCycling
Thank you for reading 5 articles in the past 30 days*
Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read any 5 articles for free in each 30-day period, this automatically resets
After your trial you will be billed £4.99 $7.99 €5.99 per month, cancel anytime. Or sign up for one year for just £49 $79 €59
Join now for unlimited access
Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1