Luis Leon Sanchez continued Astana’s hot streak at the Tour of the Alps, taking the team’s third stage win of the five day race as Chris Froome (Team Sky) continued to go on the attack on the race’s fourth stage.
Froome was unable to distance race leader Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), or his other GC rivals Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) despite going on the attack on several occasions in the final 10km.
Froome’s attacking on the descent of the final climb and along the flatter section to the finish provided a springboard for Sanchez to launch the winning move once the Brit had been forced to stop driving the pace on the front.
He launched with 1.5km to go and by that point, it seemed the GC contenders were content to let him go. Only George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) pursued, but the chase was in vain, with Sanchez quickly establishing enough gap that he was able to comfortably sit up and celebrate over the line.
Pinot retains the overall lead with one stage to go, with 15 seconds over Pozzovivo in second and Lopez in third, and 16 over Froome in fourth place.
How it happened
The Tour of the Alps peloton rolled out of Klausen under sunny skies, with the riders looking forward to the least hilly stage of the race, albeit one which still included two categorised ascents and more than 2,000m of climbing in total.
The aggressive racing of stage three carried over to Thursday, with a fast start to the stage as it took more than 30km for a breakaway to move away from the bunch.
The move finally went clear on the second-category climb of Terento, with eight strong riders in the break: Hubert Dupont (Ag2r La Mondiale), Ben Hermans (Israel Cycling Academy), Mikel Bizkarra (Euskadi-Murias), Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data), David de la Cruz (Team Sky), Kristijan Durasek (UAE Team Emirates), Mark Padun (Bahrain-Merida), Felix Großschartner (Bora-Hansgrohe), and Davide Villela (Astana).
By the top of the first climb of the day with 100km remaining their lead was around 30 seconds, and that went out quickly over the following kilometres, hitting nearly two minutes by the feed zone with 70km to go.
However just as quickly as the gap went out, it came back down again, with the breakaway riders only holding a 30 second lead by the time they hit an unclassified climb to Anras with 33km remaining.
That climb, four kilometres in length with an average gradient of seven per cent , saw action at the front of the breakaway and the front of the bunch, as Bizkarra attacked from the break, while Przemyslaw Niemiec (UAE Team Emirates) tried to escape from the group.
Neither of these moves were successful, but Niemiec’s attack was countered by Sebastian Henao (Team Sky) and George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) a potentially threatening move with Bennett sitting sixth in the general classification.
Bennett made quick work of the diminishing gap to the break, dropping Henao before the junction was made, but still didn’t find himself at the front of the race as Bizkarra attacked again dragging Villela with him.
That duo opened a slender gap as Bennett and the remains of the breakaway were swept up with 27km remaining, before Bizkarra and Villela themselves were caught on the approach to the final climb to Bannberg.
However before the peloton could get there and attack by Markus Eibegger (Felbermayr-Simplon Wels) split things up, with around 15 riders following the move before Nicola Conci (Italy) launched a counter-attack on the lower slopes of the second-category climb.
And there were attacks too back in the main group, with Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) attacking on the steep lower slopes and riding across to team-mate Vegard Stake Laengen, a move which prompted no initial response from the rest of the GC contenders as Sébastien Reichenbach (Groupama-FDJ) continued with the pace setting for race leader Pinot.
Aru caught and passed most of the leaders, before, with stage two winner Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) in his wheel, working his way up towards Conci and then to LottoNL-Jumbo’s Koen Bouwman who had moved to the front of the race, reaching the Dutchman with two kilometres remaining on the climb
However their lead was a small one, and it quickly got a lot smaller as Kennny Elissonde (Team Sky) accelerated off the front of the bunch with Chris Froome in his wheel, closely shadowed by Pinot, Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida), and Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana).
That group quickly caught the Astana group, before Froome briefly went on the attack with just under 12km to go. Just as had been the case with his attacks on stage two, that Froome acceleration were quickly neutralised.
The attacks continued to fly on the upper slopes of the climb as George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana), and Pozzovivo all tried their luck, but without any success.
Pozzovivo led onto the descent with 10km to go, but Froome quickly moved to the front to try once again to gap his rivals.
With that move neutralised, it wasn’t until 4.8km to go that another move broke off the front, with Pozzovivo and Sanchez getting away. Froome set off in pursuit and joined them, riding straight past Pozzovivo on the flatter roads to the finish.
Neither of those riders were willing to work with Froome though, and the four-time Tour de France winner continued to hammer the pace at the front despite Fabio Aru and Pinot helping drag the chasers back up to the leading duo.
As soon as Froome sat up, that allowed Sanchez to try and break clear again with 1.5km to go, a move that ultimately proved successful and handed Astana their third stage win of the race, with Pello Bilbao winning stage one and Miguel Angel Lopez winning stage three.
None of the key GC contenders picked up time bonuses, with LottoNL pair Bennett and Koen Bouwman taking second and third with Pinot rolling in for fourth place.
Tour of the Alps 2018, stage four: Chiusa/Klausen to Lienz, 134.3km
1 Luis León Sanchez (Spa) Astana Pro Team, at 3-19-59
2 George Bennett (NZl) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 6s
3 Koen Bouwman (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 11s
4 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ
5 Fabio Aru (Ita) UAE Team Emirates
6 Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Bahrain-Merida
7 Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team
8 Nicola Conci (Ita) Trek-Segafredo
9 Pello Bilbao (Spa) Astana Pro Team
10 Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky, all same time
General classification after stage four
1 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, in 12-29-00
2 Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Bahrain-Merida, at 15s
3 Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team, st
4 Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky, at 16s
5 Fabio Aru (Ita) UAE Team Emirates, at 50s
6 George Bennett (NZl) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 1-06
7 Luis León Sanchez (Esp) Astana Pro Team, at 1-10
8 Ben O’Connor (Aus) Dimension Data, st
9 Giulio Ciccone (Ita) Bardiani-CSF, at 1-45
10 Jan Hirt (CZe) Astana, at 1-55