Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) dropped out of the top 20 at the Giro d’Italia after crashing in treacherous conditions and losing more than a minute to his rivals on stage seven.
The Tour de France champion slid out on the final descent and rolled across the line one minute and 24 seconds behind a group which included Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and new race leader Benat Intxausti (Movistar).
“Bradley’s fine. There’s no physical injury,” said Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford. “Ultimately when you have difficult conditions like these and hard racing this type of thing can happen. It’s the Giro.”
Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol) won the stage, soloing to his first Grand Tour victory as the last remaining survivor of the day’s six-man breakaway.
After Thursday’s pan-flat stage, won by Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), stage seven saw the peloton tackle a 177km route littered with short, steep climbs.
The shark’s tooth stage profile made it a day for any rider with general classification ambitions to remain vigilant but heavy rain and slick roads combined to wreak havoc.
Hansen, Dominique Rollin (FDJ), Emanuele Sella (Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela), Ioannis Tamouridis (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Maarten Tajallingii (Blanco Pr Cycling) and Pim Ligthart (Vacansoleil-DCM) formed the day’s breakaway 30km after leaving San Salvo.
The group built up a lead of more than seven minutes but, with Vini Fantini-Selle Italia at the front of the chasing peloton, that advantage dropped to less than three minutes ahead of the category three Chieti-Pietragrossa climb with 39km to go.
Hansen then forced the pace on the next climb, shredding the breakaway group, and only Sella was able to follow the Australian.
Rain fell on and off through the stage but became heavy as the finish approached and Sella hit the deck after locking up his brakes to leave Hansen out front on his own.
Hansen hit the penultimate climb, the category three ascent to Santa Maria de Criptis, with less than 90 seconds over the peloton, which in turn was split by a move prompted by 2007 Giro d’Italia champion Danilo Di Luca (Vini Fantini).
Nibali and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) briefly followed but the move was soon shut down by the peloton, only for Nibali to have another dig on the subsequent descent.
Nibali is known as one of the best and more fearless descenders in the peloton but the Italian’s move backfired when he crashed and slid across the road after misjudging a left-hand bend.
Hansen continued to forge a lone path onto the two kilometre San Silvestro ascent, which reaches a maximum gradient of 14 per cent, and it was on the descent of that final climb that Wiggins’ hopes of winning the Giro title were dealt a significant blow.
The 32-year-old was one of a number of riders to crash on the slick roads and, after gingerly remounting his bike, the Team Sky leader creeped down the remained of the decent.
Team-mates Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao dropped back to pace Wiggins and the trio hitched back onto a group of approximately 20 riders which also included Paolini, who saw his time in the maglia rosa come to an end after three days.
By then, however, the damage had already been done and the Wiggins group crossed the line more than two and a half minutes behind Hansen, who has forged a reputation as one of the most reliable domestiques in the peloton having ridden all three Grand Tours in 2012, but, more significantly, one minute and 24 seconds behind Nibali, Hesjedal and Evans.
Wiggins now lies 23rd overall, one minute and 32 seconds behind Intxausti, going into Saturday’s 54.8km individual time trial, which will give the Olympic champion an opportunity to get his bid for a second Grand Tour title back on track.
Brailsford added: “You can have good days and bad days and you have to wait until the end to tot them all up and see where you are.
“It’s a setback, but Brad’s still very much in the hunt. We’ve now got to take each day as it comes, focus on fully recovering tonight and hitting the time trial hard tomorrow. We’ll see where we are tomorrow night and take stock of the situation then.”
Giro d’Italia 2013 – stage seven – result
1) Adam Hansen (AUS) – Lotto-Belisol – 4:35:49 hours
2) Enrico Battaglin (ITA) – Bardiani Valvole-CSF Inox +1’07”
3) Danilo Di Luca (ITA) – Vini Fantini-Selle Italia – same time
4) Mauro Santambrogio (ITA) – Vini Fantini-Selle Italia
5) Damiano Caruso (ITA) – Cannondale Pro Cycling
6) Cadel Evans (AUS) – BMC Racing
7) Stefano Pirazzi (ITA) – Bardiani Valvole-CSF Inox
8) Arnold Jeannesson (FRA) – FDJ
9) Pieter Weening (NED) – Orica-GreenEdge
10) Ryder Hesjedal (CAN) – Garmin-Sharp
1) Benat Intxausti (SPA) – Movistar – 28:30:04 hours
2) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana +5″
3) Ryder Hesjedal (CAN) – Garmin-Sharp +8″
4) Damiano Caruso (ITA) – Cannondale Pro Cycling +10″
5) Mauro Santambrogio (ITA) – Vini Fantini-Selle Italia +13″
6) Cadel Evans (AUS) – BMC Racing +16″
7) Robert Gesink (NED) – Blanco Pro Cycling +17″
8) Ivan Santaromita (ITA) – BMC Racing +19″
9) Pieter Weening (NED) – Orica-GreenEDGE +29″
10) Robert Kiserlovski (CRO) – Radioshack-Leopard +34″
23) Bradley Wiggins (GBR) – Team Sky +1’32”