Team Sky and Edvald Boasson Hagen have lost the race lead of the Tour of Oman after a spectacular mass attack in the final hour and the Norwegian's halt for a call of nature combined to leave him stranded in a second echelon.
The stage was won with a gutsy sprint by HTC-Columbia's first year pro. Leigh Howard. Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) was second but has the consolation of moving into the overall lead, whilst Quick Step's Tom Boonen was third, Britain's Roger Hammond (Cervélo) showed strong form with fourth and Alex Dowsett (Trek-Livestrong) was back in the mix once again with twelfth.
Despite Sky's best efforts to bring back the front group of 41 riders, Boasson Hagen and his team-mates crossed the line over a minute down on the front echelon.
Although the former Tour of Britain winner remains the key favourite to win the final time trial, with a gap of over a minute on riders like Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) and Marco Pinotti (HTC-Columbia), Boasson Hagen's chances of taking the overall are now very limited.
Sky were forced to work hard to defend Boasson Hagen's lead after an early break of six had opened up a margin of nearly seven minutes.
The peloton pounded through the feed zone at over 60 kmh in search of the half-dozen breakaways, but there were still three riders ahead with 60 kilometres to go.
It looked as if Oman was on for its fourth full bunch sprint in as many days, but just as the race entered its final hour with crosswinds picking up, Boasson Hagen decided to drop back to answer a call of nature.
He later called this a mistake, and it certainly left him stranded at a crucial moment, given that - rightly or wrongly - the bunch split in the crosswinds at almost exactly the same point.
Sky played the game as strategically as they could, dropping back to give their leader all their assistance possible.
However, once the penny dropped amongst the other teams that Boasson Hagen was vulnerable, the pace went up in the front group with Saxo Bank, Cervélo and HTC-Columbia all combining to gain as much time as possible on the race favourite.
Forty kilometres later, Boasson Hagen was out of the lead, with some squads saying at the finish they considered the split when the leader had stopped for a pee with 55 kilometres to be unfair, particularly as Sky had asked - as is standard practice - some big names and their teams to take it easy whilst he did so.
However, other teams claimed that the echelon came about after Sky had been lining out the bunch out to catch the break and driving hard all day, including through the feed zone, and that Boasson Hagen's decision to drop back had nothing to do with the split forming at all.
The jury is out on what actually happened and the ethics of such attacks, probably permanently. But the upshot is that with Boasson Hagen now taking a back seat on gc, with just two days to go the battle for the overall in Oman is once again wide open.
Tour of Oman 2010, stage four
1. Leigh Howard (Aus) HTC-Columbia in 4-11-31
2. Daniele Bennati (Ita) Liquigas-Doimo
3. Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step
4. Roger Hammond (GB) Cervelo
5. Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin-Transitions
6. Stijn Vandenbergh (Bel) Katusha
7. Sebastien Hinault (Fra) Ag2r La Mondiale
8. Marcus Burghardt (Ger) BMC Racing Team
9. Michael Schar (Swi) BMC Racing Team
10. Robert Hunter (RSA) Garmin-Transitions all at same time.
12. Alex Dowsett (GB) Trek-Livestrong at same time.
78. Daniel Lloyd (GB) Cervelo at 1-05
89. Geraint Thomas (GB) Team Sky at 1-15
94. Ian Stannard (GB) Team Sky at 1-36
Overall classification after stage four
1. Daniele Bennati (Ita) Liquigas-Doimo
2. Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin-Transitions at 6secs
3. Gatis Smukulis (Lat) Ag2r
4. Leigh Howard (Aus) HTC-Columbia at same time
5. Nikolay Trusov (Rus) Katusha at 11secs
6. Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step at 12secs
7. Cyril Lemoine (Fra) Saur-Sojasun at 14secs
8. Bernhard Eisel (Aut) HTC-Columbia at 16secs
9. Sebastien Hinault (Fra) Ag2r
10. Roger Hammond (GB) Cervelo at same time.
37. Alex Dowsett (GB) Trek-Livestrong at 1-06
57. Daniel Lloyd (GB) Cervelo at 1-21
86. Ian Stannard (GB) Team Sky at 2-37
87. Geraint Thomas (GB) Team Sky at 3-27
Matti Breschel and Tom Boonen head up the bunch
Leigh Howard takes the win
Tour of Oman stage three: Boasson Hagen takes stage win
Tour of Oman stage two: Boasson Hagen moves into lead
Tour of Oman 2010, stage two photo gallery by Graham Watson
Dowsett in escape group in Oman stage 2
Tour of Oman, stage one report: Boasson Hagen secondTour of Oman 2010, stage one photo gallery by Graham Watson
Tour of Oman 2010: Preview and guide
Edvald Boasson Hagen: Rider Profile
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