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Chris Froome (Sky) faces the toughest stage of the Tour of Oman today, the 'queen' stage with a finish atop Jabal Al Akhdhar - Green Mountain.
Froome goes into Thursday's stage four in 13th place overall, 36 seconds behind race leader Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
Sagan is likely to lose the race lead on the 10.5 per cent average, 5.7-kilometre Green Mountain climb, and Froome's biggest rival for the overall win is Alberto Contador (Saxo Tinkoff), who starts the day in seventh overall and a four second advantage over Froome.
The Spaniard stayed in contact with Sagan on Wednesday's punchy finish, crucially putting time into both Froome and the other main contenders, notably last year's winner and runner-up Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). It was a canny piece of riding.
Froome, by his own admission, could not match Contador's acceleration in the finale yesterday: "On the finish I didn't have the legs to follow Sagan and Contador. But I'm happy with my form," he told Cycling Weekly.
On the same stage to Green Mountain last year, Nibali attacked solo to win the stage but still did not put enough time into Velits to take over the race lead. The Slovakian won the race ahead of Nibali by just one second.
Today's finale should see a sizeable group of Grand Tour contenders in the first real mountain showdown of the season - Contador, Froome, Nibali, Velits, Cadel Evans (BMC) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) are all likely to be in the mix. Contador may have already won a mountain stage in the Tour de San Luis in Argentina earlier this year, but wasn't in the same illustrious company.
Froome has arguably the strongest squad in the race, and can count on the support of 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, Richie Porte and Christian Knees to set a high pace to the foot of Green Mountain. Sky will then have to mark Contador's trademark accelerations, and launch Froome on a counter-attack to try and put time into the Spaniard to hold any chance of taking over the general classification top spot.
Froome will be Sky's leader for the Tour de France this July as Wiggins is aiming for the Giro d'Italia in May. Today will lay down the groundwork for the season to come.
Tour of Oman overall contenders in the general classification going into stage four
Race leader: 1. Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale (-32 secs on Contador)
2. Tony Gallopin (Fra) RadioShack-Leopard at 16 secs (-16 secs on Contador)
7. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo-Tinkoff at 32 secs
8. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana at 33 secs (+1 sec on Contador)
9. Peter Velits (Svk) Omega Pharma-QuickStep at 35 secs (+3 secs on Contador)
13. Chris Froome (GBr) Sky at 36 secs (+4 secs on Contador)
25. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing at 40 secs (+8 secs on Contador)
Chris Froome: Rider profile
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