Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) out-rode a selection of the biggest Grand Tour stars to take the victory and race lead on stage three of the 2017 Abu Dhabi Tour on Saturday.
The decisive stage featured the only climb of the four-day race: the 11km haul up Jebel Hafeet coming at the end of the stage.
It was expected that the win could come from the likes of Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Fabio Aru (Astana) or Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), but in the end the big stars seemed more concerned with each other than taking the stage win and potentially the overall victory.
That’s not to detract from former world champion Costa, who joined forces with Russian Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) to contest the victory with a strong show on the ascent.
Costa now leads the race four seconds ahead of Zakarin with just one, flat stage to go – and barring disaster, should seal the victory on Sunday.
The day started with a four-man group breaking free from the peloton almost as the flag dropped.
Simone Andreetta (Bardiani), Pavel Brutt (Gazprom-Rusvelo), Stephen Clancy (Novo Nordisk) and Alan Marangoni (Nippo-Vini Fantini) maintained a three to four minute gap for the majority of the stage.
With the first 175km of the stage run on flat desert roads before the final 11km climb of Jebel Hafeet, the break had no problem keeping together.
However, as the race approached the final 30km, the GC contenders teams started to mass near the front of the bunch and the catch was made with 14km to go.
As the bunch hit the foot of the craggy climb, former race leader and stage one winner Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) was one of the first to drop back.
Quintana tested his rivals early, putting in an acceleration with 9.3km to go. At such an early stage, the Colombian’s surprise move created a bit of panic among his rivals, and the peloton started to fragment.
Quintana then eased back into the bunch, and there was a lull in the action until Costa clipped off the front with 7km to go. He was later joined by Zakarin, and the duo opened up a significant gap of over 20 seconds.
Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) put in a committed chase as they headed towards the steepest 11-per-cent section of the climb, but could not catch the two leaders.
Behind, Quintana, Contador, Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Romain Bardet (Ag2r) and Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) all put in attacks but did not make any headway in catching the leaders.
Costa dropped Zakarin towards the line to take the victory, with Dumoulin settling for third. Quintana finished in 10th place at 58 seconds.
The 2017 Abu Dhabi Tour concludes with a short stage on Sunday around the F1 Yas Marina circuit. This promises to be another day for the sprinters, and a chance to see a final showdown between Cavendish, Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors), Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) and André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal).
Abu Dhabi Tour 2017, stage three: Al Ain to Jebel Hafeet, 186km
1. Rui Costa (Por) UAE Team Emirates, in 4-34-08
2. Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin, at same time
3. Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Team Sunweb, at 10 secs
4. Bauke Mollema (Ned) trek-Segafredo, at 28 secs
5. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors, at 46 secs
6. Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana
7. Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe
8. George Bennett (NZl) LottoNL-Jumbo
9. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Ag2r, at same time
10. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, at 58 secs
General classification after stage three
1. Rui Costa (Por) UAE Team Emirates
2. Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin, at 4 secs
3. Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Team Sunweb, at 16 secs
4. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Trek-Segafredo, at 38 secs
5. Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 56 secs
6. George Bennett (NZl) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 56 secs
7. Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana, at 56 secs
8. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Ag2r, at 56 secs
9. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors, at 56 secs
10. Romain Bardet (Fra) Ag2r, at 1-08