Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) dominated the adverse weather conditions and treacherous parcours to claim glory on stage six of the prestigious Italian stage race Tirreno-Adriatico.
The former team mates showed that the friendship they had built up during their days at Liquigas was still strong as they worked well together in the closing stages of the race to eventually cross the line in first and second position.
Sagan claimed the stage, his second of the race, while Nibali took the overall lead from a disappointed Chris Froome (Sky) who had cracked on the vicious climbs earlier in the day.
The pair had managed to escape the field during the last lap of the finishing circuit with only Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez strong enough to bridge across. The tireless Spanaird finished third.
The damage was done on the vicious Muro di Sant’Elpidio climb which peaks at 27% and was crossed three times.
With heavy rain falling and the climb little more than a slippery slide, riders struggled to control their bikes, zig zagging across the road as they tried desperately not to put their feet down.
After the race Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) spoke of how his rear wheel would slip every time he got out of the saddle to climb.
Some riders were forced to get off their bikes and push, as their gearing ratios weren’t enough to get them over the hill.
Contador was unable to follow the elite breakaway of Sagan, Nibali and Rodriguez, finding himself in the first chasing group which contained Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Mauro Santambrogio (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) and the evergreen Chris Horner (RadioShack Leopard). Even then he struggled at times to maintain contact. His group crossed the line 44 seconds behind the leaders.
But the big news of the day was the loss of time by Froome. Unable to jump when the others did, he found himself in a larger second chase group which also included Thor Hushovd and Cadel Evans. He crossed the line at the back of his group, 50 seconds down.
Being leader of a team that prides itself on doing the little things that count to bring about all those marginal gains it was somewhat surprising to hear Froome complain after the race of a poor bike set up and lack of warm clothing.
“I felt I was a little over-geared (for the 27 % gradient) and I don’t think I was dressed warmly enough for the weather,” he said after the race.
“There was only really one chance to go back and get the jackets. I chose a short sleeve one and I think that was probably the wrong choice.”
It was a rookie mistake from the Tour de France aspirant.
In contrast, Nibali was full of praise for his team and the amount of study and preparation they put into this particular stage.
“It wasn’t an easy stage. We raced well. The bikes were prepared for this stage and we didn’t get anything wrong. We spoke about the 30% wall and so I knew it was hard. We were well prepared.”
The Italian had lost time to the leaders on the previous two stages and needed a good performance here to get back into contention.
“The tactic in my head was that I’d go if I felt good on the last climb. I’d looked at it on the previous times up it. Then I felt better when the weather got worse. I felt better and better.”
For Sagan, whose form is building nicely for this weekend’s Milan- San Remo, it was about being smart on the climbs.
“It was a very hard stage. 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.”
Australia’s Cadel Evans, out of contention for the overall after losing time on the previous two mountain stages, found himself working for team mate Thor Hushovd.
“After a brief spell in the first break-away, I came around for the final time up the slippery ascents,” he stated on his website after the race.
“Putting my 29 cog to good use, I got into a good position to get our Viking Thor to the line. I could not quite close the gap which was a bit disappointing, close but not close enough.”
An indication of the impact that the weather and tough course had on the peloton was evident by the high amount of withdrawals throughout the stage. More than 50 riders failed to finish, including Andy Schleck (RadioShack Leopard) who pulled out just 50 kilometres into the stage.
Evans cracked his own joke about the brutal stage, saying: “I am sure many would have had at least brief thoughts of quitting the sport… Stock standard tough Tirreno day I suppose.”
For Froome, a race win appears to be all but gone. With only a 9.2 kilometre individual time trial to go, the 34 seconds he requires to retake the lead from Nibali will be a big ask.
While not as good a time trialler as Froome, the Italian is still no slouch when racing against the clock, and should be able to hold off any challenge over such a short course.
General Classification after stage six
1 – Vincenzo Nibali (Cannondale) 27:57:26
2 – Chris Froome (Sky) @ 34 seconds
3 – Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) @ 37 seconds