Chris Froome (Team Sky) was narrowly beaten by Katusha’s Simon Spilak in a two-up sprint at the end of the third stage of the 2014 Tour de Romandie.
Last year, the Tour de France champion had gifted Spilak stage four after the pair finished in similar proximity. Froome went on to claim the overall win by 54 seconds from Spilak.
Today, however, there was no quarter given, but Froome found himself on the wrong side of the narrowest reverse.
The Team Sky leader is unlikely to be too concerned, however, with the defence of his overall title of greater importance, and a deficit of just one second to Spilak on the general classification.
And with the pair having ridden clear of the other GC contenders, including Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) and Giro d’Italia champion, VIncenzo Nibali (Astana), Froome’s injury-disrupted season could have reached a turning point.
The race in detail
A break formed early in the stage, Marcel Wyss (IAM Cycling), Jack Bobridge (Belkin), Tom Veelers (Giant-Shimano), Elia Favilli (Lampre-Merida), Boris Vallee (Lotto-Belisol), and Europcar duo Cyril Gautier and Davide Malacarne going up the road.
Andriy Grivko (Astana) bridged to join the leading group, while Team Sky led the bunch behind them.
Veelers and Vallee were dropped early by their breakaway companions, while Bobridge and Grivko also sat up as the day’s climbs began to take their toll.
It was not just the escapees struggling either, with overall leader Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE) and second-placed Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) among the riders dropped by the peloton.
Garmin-Sharp took charge of the bunch, with the Europcar duo the only two riders from the initial break to stay clear of the bunch.
Their lead – which had fallen to within 30 seconds at one point – was allowed to stretch back out again to more than three and a half minuted, with the respite in pace allowing Kwiatkowski to rejoin the main group.
His return was short-lived however, as his rivals sensed their opportunity and put the hurt on at the front, Rohan Dennis (Garmin-Sharp) leading the way as Malacarne and Gautier were finally reeled in.
The numbers in the peloton reduced on every climb, with just a small selection of riders left when King of the Mountains’ leader Johan Tschopp (IAM Cycling) launched a solo attack.
Maxime Mederel (Team Europcar) bridged to join the Swiss rider, with Mikael Cherel (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Sander Armee (Lotto-Belisol) in tow.
Sky led the reduced peloton, remaining unperturbed when Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) went off the front on the lower ramps of the Vilars-sur-Dilon.
With selections being made on the climb, Froome bridged to the Italian with Simon Spilak (Katusha) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) happy to sit in just behind.
Sensing Nibali was at his limit however, Froome attacked – initially dragging the Italian with him before leaving him behind with 25 kilometres to go.
Spilak spotted the move and set off in pursuit behind, with Froome dragging out his advantage before waiting for the former to catch up.
Behind, Nibali appeared in a world of hurt but was given some impetus when Mathias Frank (IAM Cycling) bridged to him, allowing the Italian the chance to ride in his slipstream for a bit.
An attack by Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) further back brought together a strong chasing group however, Nibali’s team-mate Jakob Fuglsang rejoining his leader.
Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), Benat Intxausti (Movistar), Majka, Frank, and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) were also involved, though Jesus Herrada (Movistar) was unable to stay with the group.
Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) was also distanced as the Belgian super team’s race plan unravelled before them, while a dropped chain for Talansky could not have come at a more ill-opportune moment as the chasing group kicked on up the climb.
The chasing group soon fractured however, with Intxausti making a dig off the front, and Nibali and Frank countering.
The length of the climb left riders spread all over the road, but Froome and Spilak continued to lead, setting a comfortable rhythm.
Pinot and Majka crashed just short of a false flat section on the climb to upset their chase, with Herrada and Talansky catching them, but Frank, Nibali and Intxausti joined together up the road, sat just less than a minute behind the two leaders.
Froome and Spilak’s lead held at 55 seconds over the summit as the chasing group – with Costa back among them – hit the wet descent hard.
Nibali worked hard on the descent but Spilak and Froome remained safe, their lead never wavering, as they got on to the drier roads leading the way to the finish.
Neither rider gave an inch in the run in to the finish, Froome leading the way under the flamme rouge.
With Spilak sat on his wheel, Froome led the sprint out – the Russian quickly passing him.
But with Froome picking the better racing line, they remained neck-and-neck until the finish, Spilak winning by less than half a wheel length.
It was almost a minute before the chasing group crossed – Rui Costa winning the kick for third.
Tour de Romandie 2014: stage three – result
1) Simon Spilak (SLO) – Katusha – 5.09.23
2) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky – ST
3) Rui Costa (POR) – Lampre Merida +57″
4) Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) – Astana – ST
5) Benat Intxausti (ESP) – Movistar
6) Mathias Frank (SUI) – IAM Cycling
7) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana
8) Jesus Herrada (ESP) – Movistar +1.41
9) Thibaut Pinot (FRA) – FDJ.fr
10) Andrew Talansky (USA) – Garmin-Sharp
1) Simon Spilak (SLO) – Katusha – 11.30.25
2) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +1″
3) Rui Costa (POR) – Lampre Merida +1.02
4) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana +1.06
5) Mathias Frank (SUI) – IAM Cycling +1.10
6) Benat Intxausti (ESP) – Movistar +1.13
7) Jakab Fuglsang (DEN) – Astana +1.14
8) Jesus Herrada (ESP) – Movistar +1.30
9) Joz Izaguirre (ESP) – Movistar +1.48
10) Andrew Talansky (USA) – Garmin-Sharp +1.50