Miguel Ángel López (Astana Qazaqstan) won stage 4 of the Tour of the Alps after he caught and passed lone escapee Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) a kilometre from the finish at Kals am Grossglockner.
Pinot, who has been blighted by injury in recent seasons, was part of the day's early break and he dropped his companions at the bottom of the 12.5km haul to the finish. He had 40 seconds on hand on the chasing peloton when he struck out alone, and he initially looked set to withstand the pursuit, which was being led by Ineos Grenadiers.
López, however, attacked with purpose from the chasing group with 4km to go, and he gradually clawed back his deficit on Pinot on the approach to the finish, catching the Frenchman beneath the flamme rouge and then clipping away almost immediately.
Pinot, who was seeking his first victory since he won atop the Tourmalet on the 2019 Tour, took second place at 7 seconds, while Romain Bardet (DSM) beat race leader Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) in the sprint for third place, 15 seconds down on López.
The time bonus means that Bardet has sliced his deficit on Bilbao in the overall standings to just two seconds ahead of Friday's final stage. Attila Valter (Groupama-FDJ) lies third at 12 seconds, while Pavel Sivakov (Ineos) remains fifth at 16 seconds.
But while the jersey stays with Bilbao and the stage win fell to López, the story of the day belonged to Pinot, who for so long looked set to turn the page on years of heartache with a stylish solo victory.
Instead, Pinot's hopes were dashed within sight of the line, and his disappointment was palpable when he spoke to reporters moments after the finish.
"It pisses me off because it would have been good for me after the last two years I've been through," Pinot said. "I could have turned that shitty page and moved on to something else."
At the podium, meanwhile, López was celebrating the first victory of his second coming with Astana Qazaqstan, having rejoined the team after a turbulent hiatus in the colours of Movistar. The Colombian had made an unsuccessful long-range offensive on stage 2, but he chose his moment more carefully here, posting teammates Sebastian Henao and Fabio Felline in the early break and then biding his time for the finale.
"We were convinced today that it was a really good finish for us," López said. "I'm really happy with what I did at the end. Having riders in the break helped me and I was pretty happy in the group behind. We knew it was going to be close, and when I saw the possibility, I went for it."
How it unfolded
As the Tour of the Alps crossed into Austria, the early climb Kartitscher Sattel provoked a flurry of attacks, with stage 1 winner Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R Citroën) claiming the mountains points at the summit. It took some time, however, for a stable break to establish itself, with the day's key move eventually forging clear after 60km.
Pinot was joined at the front by Sebastian Henao, Fabio Felline (Astana Qazaqstan), Andrey Amador, Ben Swift (Ineos Grenadiers), Matteo Fabbro, Anton Palzer (Bora-Hansgrohe), Jonathan Caicedo, Merhawi Kudus (EF Education-EasyPost), Omer Goldstein (Israel-Premier Tech), Abner Gonzalez (Movistar), Natnael Tesfazion (Drone Hopper-Androni Giocattoli), Igor Arrieta (Equipo Kern Pharma), Unai Iribar (Euskaltel Euskadi) and Nicolas Prodhomme (AG2R Citroën), and they established a lead of over two minutes by the summit of Gailberg Sattel.
That gap began to drop slightly on the valley road that led to the base of the final climb, and the cohesion of the move also began to fragment, with Swift, Iribar, Caicedo and Goldstein drifting off the front inside the final 15km.
Once they swung left onto the climb towards Kals am Grossglockner, Goldstein took off alone, but he wouldn't last long at the head of the race. Pinot's quality told on the steepest section of the ascent, as he danced across to Goldstein with Henao and Tesfazion before pressing on alone with 10km to go.
By that point, Pinot had 45 seconds in hand on a reduced peloton, which was now led by Ineos after DSM had set the tempo in the valley. Although the pace was high behind, Pinot held his own on the most demanding section of the ascent and he entered the final 6km still with his 45-second lead intact.
Ineos had Richie Porte and Eddie Dunbar working on behalf of Sivakov, who would make an unsuccessful attempt to shake off Bilbao in the final kilometre. The only telling attack from the group, however, came from López, who powered clear with 4km to go after the remnants of the break had been caught.
By then, Pinot's lead had been cut to less than half a minute, and López would set about steadily whittling down that advantage on the approach to the finish, swooping past with 1,000 metres to go.
After Sivakov's attack petered out, thoughts turned to the sprint for bonus seconds, and Bardet showed his sharpness to beat Bilbao to third place, thus setting up a tense finale to the Tour of the Alps on Friday.
That GC battle, however, felt a side issue to Pinot's personal drama on the Grossglockner, where any satisfaction at his fine solo effort seemed to have been overwhelmed by his disappointment at missing out on the win. Famously, the Frenchman has a tattoo of the slogan 'Solo la vittora è bella.' It won't have felt like it on Thursday, but defeat can be beautiful in its own way too."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.