In the first true summit finish of 2014 among the heavy hitters of pro cycling, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) won stage 4 of Tirreno-Adriatico on Saturday, one second ahead Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
Daniel Moreno (Katusha) finished third, five seconds down, just ahead of Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Richie Porte (Sky).
Race leader Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) finished seventh on the stage, 10 seconds behind Contador, and, due to time bonuses at the finish line, Kwiatkowski saw his overall lead drop from 36 seconds over Contador to 16 seconds ahead of the Spaniard and 23 seconds head of Quintana.
American Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida) finished ninth on the stage, 11 seconds in arrears of Contador.
The 244-kilometer stage from Indicatore to Cittareale ended with a 14km climb of Cittareale, which served as an early season check for grand tour contenders.
A six-rider breakaway became three — Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), Matthias Brandle (IAM Cycling) and Lloyd Mondory (Ag2r La Mondiale)— and then two when Mondory crashed dramatically while attacking on a descent with 25km to go. With Movistar chasing, Lutsenko and Brandle were swept up at the base of the climb.
The climb of Cittareale saw several big names dropped early, including Cadel Evans and Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), as well as points leader Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and 2012 Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins, who had ridden into the climb to set up his Sky teammate, Porte.
At the front, an early attack by Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani-CSF) drew out Benat Intxausti (Movistar) and then Kreuziger. The three rode together on the early section of the climb, until Intxausti dropped off the pace. Behind, Wout Poels and Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma) drove the chase for teammate Kwiatkowski.
Kreuziger rode away from Pirazzi, and briefly looked poised to win the stage, holding a 25-second advantage inside 3km to go, but he eased up and — whether it was due to fatigue or tactics — he instead waited for Contador, who was bridging up in a chase group with Quintana, Michele Scarponi (Astana) and Robert Kiserlovski (Trek Factory Racing).
Kwiatkowski could not match the pace, and was forced chase after his last teammate, Urán, was dropped.
“It was really hard. I had so much support from the team, and especially Wout Poels and Urán, on the last climb,” Kwiatkowski said. “I’m happy to not lose too much time. I expected some big attacks. Congratulations to Alberto.”
An attack from Quintana saw the Movistar rider and Contador distance themselves from Scarponi and Kiserlovski, however as the gradient eased off, Porte bridged across, dragging Scarponi with him.
Sensing a bunch sprint, Contador attacked in the final 250 meters, and while Quintana attempted to chase it down, the Spaniard was clearly the strongest man on the day.
“There was no plan before the stage,” Contador said, when asked about Kreuziger’s tactics. “When the final climb began, Roman said he was feeling strong and wanted to attack. I thought it might be a good opportunity: if no one chased him down, he could take the stage win and move up in the GC. If they worked to bring him back, I could save energy in the group and then attack at the stage finish. Roman did a great job today, and so did the rest of my team mates, as they have from day one. I’m very happy with each and every one of them.”
Sunday’s fifth stage will cover 192km between Amatrice and Guardiagrele.
Though it starts with a 150km segment that is almost all downhill, during the final 40km the riders tackle Passo Lanciano, arguably the hardest single climb of the race, and then a far shorter, but much more difficult ascent to Guardiagrele, with slopes averaging 22 percent and reaching 30 percent in places. The Guardiagrele climb is considered the hardest single ascent in all of Italy, in terms of gradient.
Kwiatkowski heads into the stage with a 16-second lead over Contador, with Quintana 23 seconds down, and Porte 34 seconds back.
“I don’t know if 16 seconds is enough,” Kwiatkowski said. “I think tomorrow is going to be the last opportunity for the climbers to gain time, and I think everything is going to be close, but you see everyone looking for time bonuses. Those 10 seconds are really important, so winning the stage may be more important than dropping other riders. I expect some big attacks form the best climbers and we’ll see how it goes.”