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Tirreno-Adriatico GC still tight entering the final two stages

Twenty-four seconds separate the top four GC riders at Tirreno-Adriatico, so the race could come down to Tuesday's finishing time trial

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This weekend’s back-to-back mountain stages in Tirreno-Adriatico saw the sport’s top stage racers test one another’s early-season form, with Chris Froome (Sky) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) taking decisive victories on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

But with just 24 seconds separating the top four riders on the general classification, the race is hardly over.

Froome leads by just 20 seconds over both Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), and the Briton has 24 seconds in hand over Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma–Quick-Step).

American Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) is fifth, 34 seconds back.

“It’s a great position to be in defending,” Froome said. “I’d rather be doing that than trying to gain time over someone. But [Monday] I’m expecting them to throw everything at us. I think the weather is going to take a turn for the worse, too. The course is up and down all day, so it’s not going to be easy for us.

“Then the final day there is a 9.2km time trial to cap things off, so there’s going to be fighting all the way to the line.”

Monday’s 209km stage takes the peloton over a jagged course profile replete with short but leg-breaking hills. Tuesday’s final-stage individual time trial will likely see the race for overall honors come down to the very last kilometers.

With valuable time bonuses still available en route to the race’s conclusion in San Benedetto del Tronto, riders such as Contador and Nibali will look for ways to upset the Sky leader any way they can.

“Tomorrow’s another day and there’s still a time trial waiting for us,” Contador said. “The small time differences make it possible to still climb the GC.”

Froome and Co. rule queen stage

In Saturday’s stage 4 from Narni to Prati di Tivo Sky executed what is becoming a familiar game plan.

It marshaled its strongest mountain men to the front of the peloton at the most critical point in the race and had them dish out a steady but searing pace that discouraged rivals from attacking, as it did in the 2012 Tour de France when Bradley Wiggins took top honors.

Toward the end of the 173km stage, with two of the day’s big mountains covered, the peloton hit the bottom of the 14.5km Prati di Tivo, and soon, with 11km to go, Sky was controlling the front with no fewer than five riders.

Just halfway up the climb, Sky had whittled the group down to a half-dozen men, yet it still had three riders working in support of Froome — Dario Cataldo, Sergio Henao, and Rigoberto Uran.

The other favorites still in the selection were isolated with no teammates to protect them from attacks or headwinds. Overnight leader Kwiatkowski, defending race champion Nibali, Rodriguez, 2012 race runner-up Horner, and Contador were all hanging onto the Sky train as it flew toward the summit.

Contador managed to put in a couple of attacks, but with Sky keeping its cool and just pressing along, those digs were short-lived.

Froome eventually jumped clear with a kilometer to go, and by the time he crossed the line he had gained valuable seconds over Kwiatkowski and his main rivals.

Purito capitalizes in Chieti

Sunday saw another tough climbing day that ended with a dramatic battle up the steep streets of Chieti. But again Froome never looked to be under any real pressure.

After the day’s main break of eight riders, which included Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida), was reeled in by Sky, climbing specialists Henao and Uran again delivered Froome to where he needed to be, this time to the steep ramps of the Via Salomone in Chieti.

There, a selection of favorites — including Froome, Contador, Rodriguez, Nibali, Kwiatkowski, and Horner — began eyeing one another closely. But soon came the expected attack from Rodriguez, whose specialty is punchy finishing climbs, and no one could match his huge effort.

Purito went on to win the stage solo, though he was still nearly a minute down on Froome at day’s end. Eight seconds behind, Froome finished well ahead of Kwiatkowski to handily take over the race lead. It was yet another example of Sky’s dominance as a well-oiled team.

Said Froome: “The team took it up with about 45km to 50km to go on the last couple of climbs and really ripped it apart. We put a lot of pressure on the leader’s jersey, and I think it paid off at the end of the stage as he eventually cracked on that final climb and I was able to get a gap over him.”

Contador rode strongly to finish third, just eight seconds down on Rodriguez, and with the time bonus he is just 20 seconds behind Froome heading into stage 6.

Moving up closer to Froome in the GC has given Contador renewed motivation to put in an excellent time trial and slip into the leader’s jersey come Tuesday.

If stage 6 fails to change the top of the GC, it’s going to be difficult to predict who among the overall favorites will be in the best position to take advantage in the time trial and win the overall title. Kwiatkowski, Froome, Contador, and Nibali all go well against the clock, so it could come down to who is most motivated.

Certainly Froome appears to have the advantage with 20 seconds in hand over the others, and he’ll definitely want to establish himself as the best stage racer of 2013 early in the season with a big win.

Sky continues to dominate

With Richie Porte’s victory in Paris-Nice on Sunday and Froome’s recent win in the Tour of Oman, Sky continues its wining ways from 2012. If Froome can keep his lead in Tirreno-Adriatico it’ll be his biggest win to date and another important victory for white-hot Sky.

Froome said he appreciates being in a position to win for the team.

“Every day we come in with a pretty solid plan and it seems to keep coming off,” he said.

The 100th Tour de France doesn’t start for another four months, but until then Tirreno-Adriatico has given us a good preview of what we can expect to see in July. And if Italy’s weeklong Race of the Two Seas is any indicator, Froome looks as if he’s going to be the man to beat in France.