Chris Froome (Team Sky) won the fifth stage of the Tour of Oman to strengthen his hold on the race leader's red jersey, but that bare fact tells nothing of a dramatic stage that was ignited by Alberto Contador and his Saxo-Tinkoff team.
Froome said after taking the lead on Green Mountain on Thursday that he expected his rivals to "throw everything" at him on this penultimate stage, which included three short, steep climbs of Bousher Alamrat, each time tackled from a different direction, on the finishing circuit.
But the offensive began much earlier, with a nine-man break that included Contador's teammate, Jesus Hernandez, as well as Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick-step), who posed an outside threat on general classification.
It took all of Froome's seven teammates to keep this group "at bay," as he later put it, allowing them a lead of up to three-and-a-half minutes, but the effort left Sky a diminished force as they tackled those three climbs.
On the approach to the second one the break was down to eight riders, about a minute ahead of a 20-man group led by Saxo. And it was here, said Froome, that "the bunch was blown to pieces." Contador attacked alone to reach the summit just 15 seconds down on the leaders, but there was a re-grouping on the descent.
The Spaniard wasn't finished and had another go on the third and final time up the climb, initially with Cadel Evans (BMC), then alone. "Contador attacked and [Joaquim] Rodriguez and I were just behind him and we managed to close the gap by the top of the climb," said Froome.
He continued: "The three of us rolled through together and the last 2km were tactical with a lot of attacking. But I could see the sprint was a head/crosswind and I was on the front, so I thought I'd start it."
Froome opened up the sprint, taking the inside line as the road curved towards the finish, meaning Contador and Rodriguez had to come the long way round. Neither managed, leaving Froome to claim the victory with Contador second. "I think they were surprised how much of a headwind it was when they tried to come past me," said Froome.
Winning the stage gave him a time bonus to increase his lead over Contador to 27 seconds. Behind them, Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge) led home a chase group that included Evans just four seconds later. It means that Evans remains third at 39 seconds, with Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) the main loser. The Italian conceded 34 seconds to slip to 7th overall.
Contador's manager, Bjarne Riis, admitted that his rider had started the day with a gameplan to claim the lead back from Froome. "We know that when Alberto is in a race he wants to try, and it was an objective of his to go well and to win. But Froome is at a very good level at the moment. [Contador] wasn't super yesterday, but he didn't give up and he was there, and today he tried again."
Asked if the result in Oman had any bearing on the Tour de France in July, Riis said: "If we have to read [into it] then right now we'd have to say that [Bradley] Wiggins is preparing to help Froome in the Tour. But he might not agree."
Tour of Oman 2013, stage five: Al Alam Palace to Ministry of Housing in Bosha, 144km
1. Chris Froome (GBr) Sky
2. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo-Tinkoff
3. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at same time
4. Daryl Impey (RSA) Orica-GreenEdge at 4 secs
5. Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
6. Rinaldo Nocentini (Ita) Ag2r
7. Johann Tschopp (Swi) IAM Cycling
8. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing
9. Jesus Hernandez (Spa) Saxo-Tinkoff at same time
10. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Ag2r at 8 secs
30. Steve Cummings (GBr) BMC Racing at 34 secs
52. Peter Kennaugh (GBr) Sky at 1-51
75. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky at 8-07
116. Erick Rowsell (GBr) NetApp-Endura at 12-48
120. Russell Downing (GBr) NetApp-Endura at 12-48
Overall classification after stage five
1. Chris Froome (GBr) Sky in 20-04-13
2. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo-Tinkoff at 27 secs
3. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing at 39 secs
4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 50 secs
5. Rinaldo Nocentini (Ita) Ag2r at 1-13
6. Johann Tschopp (Swi) IAM Cycling at 1-13
7. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana at 1-19
8. Kenny Elissonde (Fra) FDJ at 1-34
9. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Ag2r at 1-44
10. Maxime Bouet (Fra) Ag2r at 2-00
16. Steve Cummings (GBr) BMC Racing at 2-39
68. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky at 18-46
70. Peter Kennaugh (GBr) Sky at 19-02
96. Russell Downing (GBr) NetApp-Endura at 27-18
103. Erick Rowsell (GBr) NetApp-Endura at 28-09
Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome
Joe Dombrowski heads the bunch for Sky
Jesus Hernandez leads Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans
Chris Froome in the lead group with Alberto Contador (right) and Joaquim Rodriguez (left)
Chris Froome takes the stage win from Alberto Contador
Tour of Oman 2013 stage five photo gallery
Tour of Oman 2013: Preview and coverage index
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