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Peter Sagan (Cannondale) won stage 6 of Tirreno-Adriatico in Porto Sant’Elpidio, Italy, on Monday.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) took the overall lead with the 9.2km final-stage time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto remaining.
“I’m very happy for another victory,” said Sagan, who earlier won the bunch sprint in stage 3. “Today it was a very hard race, a very hard parcours.”
Sagan and Nibali attacked late in the stage with Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and pushed ahead of overnight leader Chris Froome (Sky) and the other GC contenders. Sagan jumped the group at the line for the win, but Nibali and Rodríguez rolled onto the GC podium, now first and third, respectively, with Froome second.
“Everybody was tired today, but I was lucky. I had hard work from my team,” said Nibali. “I’m very happy with this, but of course, tomorrow is going to be a very hard day.”
Riders churned over the super steep, wet climbs around the Adriatic fishing town under heavy skies. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida) and Tom Dumoulin (Argos-Shimano) rode out of the early, 16-man breakaway and fought for top KOM points on the Sant’Elpidio a Mare with 46km to go. Cunego rode away from Dumoulin in the saddle midway up the climb and locked up the mountains classification. Cunego rode over the top of the climb with just over two minutes’ advantage on the peloton.
The 365-meter, 27-percent ramp featured three times on the circuit around Porto Sant’Elpidio and saw many riders “paperboying,” winding up the climb back-and-forth across the road.
“It was very hard because of the very steep hills,” said Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff). “Sometimes you don’t believe it’s possible to go up on the bike.”
The breakaway began to come back together inside 40km to go, with seven riders regrouping on the 14km stretch of flat roads between the final two climbs of the Sant-Elpidio a Mare. Joining Cunego and Dumoulin at the head of the race were Giovanni Visconti (Movistar), Benait Intxausti (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge), and Mirko Selvaggi (Vacansoleil-DCM).
Behind them, Cannondale, working for Sagan and Moreno Moser, and Vini Fantini-Selle Italia, working for Mauro Santambrogio, sixth on GC, shared the work at the head of the peloton. The neon-green Italian squad ratcheted the pace up and began cutting deeply into the escapees’ advantage. With 22km to go, the gap was down to 1:13.
“In the breakaway were too many riders. Sky was on the front all of the race,” said Sagan. “When I [felt] good to make a good stage, I [told] my riders go on the front to pull.”
Dumoulin put in a dig on a long false flat with 22km remaining and his breakaway mates behind looked at each other to chase. The Argos rider, his white jersey soaked and covered in road grime, pushed his advantage out to just shy of 20 seconds in three kilometers.
Intxausti jumped away in pursuit on the 4km ramp leading into the final pass over the Sant’Elpidio a Mare. The Movistar rider pushed his way across the gap in under a minute and rode onto Dumoulin’s wheel. Cunego and Impey were the next to go, but couldn’t shake their three companions, and the five chasers started the climb just three seconds behind the two leaders.
But the peloton was even closer to the chasers and erased most of the breakaway by the halfway point of the climb. Dumoulin was next, with Intxausti just holding on to the summit. The rain, which had subsided for roughly an hour, began falling again on the descent from the climb.
Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), just 20 seconds out on GC, attacked the peloton over the top and onto the wet, technical descent, catching Intxausti.
“When it started to rain I was grateful, because I’m a better rider in the wet and cold weather, and I knew that the course was too tough for open team tactics,” said Nibali. “It was the kind of day that came down to being in the right place at the right time and making the attack.”
Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) joined Nibali and Intxausti to make four at the front of the race with 14km remaining.
“The tactic in my head was that, if I was good in the final, I wanted to do something on the last climb,” said Sagan. “I’d looked on the previous passes. I was encouraged when the bad weather came. Other riders suffered in the cold, but I was always ok.”
Behind the leaders, Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), second overall and tied on time with Nibali, led a 12-man chase group just eight seconds behind the leaders.
Intxausti blew at the foot of the final, short ramp outside of Porto Sant’Elpidio. Nibali and Sagan led up the climb, with Sánchez also falling off the piece.
Overall leader Chris Froome (Sky) was not among the chasers, nearly a minute behind Nibali and Sagan over the top of the climb with 10km remaining. The blue jersey was in trouble on the race’s penultimate day.
“As soon as the weather came down, conditions got even harder and trying to control a really big group up the road like that was really hard work,” Froome told Cycling Weekly. “I didn’t have the legs in the final. I think Vincenzo Nibali took advantage of that, he did a great ride with [Peter] Sagan to now go into the leader’s jersey.”
Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), seventh overall at 55 seconds, rode past Sánchez and bridged across to Nibali and Sagan high up on the climb, making a three-man lead group headed for the line on the Adriatic coast.
Nibali, renowned for his descending skills, led the attackers off the climb, pushing the pace when possible, but rolling gingerly through tight, hairpin corners.
With 6.8km to go, Contador, Sánchez, Santambrogio, and Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) chased at 22 seconds. Froome was at 58 seconds, his blue jersey lead erased.
“I felt good on the last climb,” said Horner. “I just couldn’t go down as fast as I would have liked.”
The leaders rotated smoothly and pushed away, expanding their advantage to more than 30 seconds as they passed the 5km to go banner. Sagan lowered his head at the front, pushing on for a shot at his second stage win of the race. Nibali and Rodríguez worked hard for their shots at the final GC podium.
“[Nibali] asked me how I was. I said I didn’t know if I’d be able to stay at the front. In the end we were both still there,” said Sagan. “Even I wasn’t interested in the overall lead, as Vincenzo’s friend, I still took turns at the front. And I was very happy to see him in the move today.”
The Contador group simply lacked the power to close on the leaders on the flat, 4km approach to the finish. With 2km to go, the gap was 40 seconds. Nibali was the virtual leader and Rodríguez was riding toward the third step on the overall podium.
“In the final we lost time with the head of the race, but it’s ok,” said Contador. “I’m happy.”
Up ahead, Sagan turned his attention to the stage honors with 1.2km to go and began skipping turns. The Slovak champion, without GC hopes, sat at the back of the group. Rodríguez led out the finale, Nibali behind him.
Sagan opened the sprint with 250 meters to go and easily distanced his mates. Nibali came through second, 10 bike lengths behind, with Rodríguez third.
Santambrogio led the chasers across the line at 43 seconds, with Horner sixth on the stage.
“To finish in the front today was really good,” said Horner. “I was there with Contador and Sanchez. I thought we would come back to the three, but we couldn’t catch them. Sagan must have been putting out some real watts today.”
The Froome group came through at 48 seconds, good enough for Froome to hold onto second overall by three seconds, 34 seconds behind Nibali.
Editor’s note: Early results from Tirreno-Adriatico had Froome falling to third overall. Final results have Froome in second overall, with Rodríguez third.