Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling) claimed his second stage win of Tirreno-Adriatico on a dramatic day which saw Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) displace Chris Froome (Team Sky) as race leader.
Sagan outsprinted Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez from a three-man escape group at the end of a brutal 209km stage.
The stage featured a triple ascent of the super-steep Sant’Elpidio a Mare, which has a maximum gradient of 27 per cent, and Nibali attacked on the descent of the final climb, distancing his rivals to take the maglia azzurra from the shoulders of Froome.
Nibali now leads Froome by 34 seconds ahead of Tuesday’s final 9.2km individual time trial, all but securing overall victory for the Italian, with Rodriguez a further three seconds back in third.
Sixteen riders formed the day’s breakaway, including Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack-Leopard-Trek), Lars Boom (Blanco Pro Cycling), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida) and Stuart O’Grady (Orica-GreenEdge).
The punishing stage, which featured a number of short but steep climbs, saw a raft of riders abandon, including Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Andy Schleck (Radioshack-Leopard-Trek), and an even greater number were forced off there bikes due to the severity of the Sant’Elpidio a Mare’s gradient.
The first ascent of the Sant’Elpidio a Mare came after 72km, giving the peloton a taste of things to come, by which time the breakaway had opened up a three-minute advantage.
The parcours began to take its toll, however, and the group was whittled down to seven riders, with a two-minute lead, by the time the lead group passed through the finish for the second time.
Movistar’s Benat Intxausti was the last remaining survivor of the breakaway by the time the peloton reached the Sant’Elpidio a Mare for the third and final time and that prompted Nibali to attack on the technical descent, made even harder by wet, slippery roads.
With Intxausti now out of contention, Rodriguez bridged the gap to Nibali and Sagan on a short climb 10km from the finish, while Contador set the pace in the chasing group, with Froome even further behind.
The Team Sky man, isolated for the first time in the race, set off in pursuit of his rivals and crossed the line only a few seconds behind Contador’s group but, having conceded more than 40 seconds to Nibali, drops to second in the general classification.
Sagan, meanwhile, underlined his incredibly versatility with victory on a supremely tough stage, having earlier in the race demonstrated his straight-line speed by out-pacing Cavendish and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) to win stage three.
Tirreno-Adriatico 2013 – stage six – result
1) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Cannondale Pro Cycling – 5:46.17 hours
2) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana +2″
3) Joaquim Rodriguez (SPA) – Katusha – same time
4) Mauro Santambrogio (ITA) – Vini Fantini-Selle Italia +44″
5) Samuel Sanchez (SPA) – Euskaltel-Euskadi – same time
6) Christopher Horner (USA) – Radioshack-Leopard-Trek
7) Alberto Contador (SPA) – SaxoBank-Tinkoff
8) Jurgen Roelandts (BEL) – Lotto-Belisol +50″
9) Thor Hushovd (NOR) – BMC Racing – same time
10) Simon Geschke (GER) – Argos-Shimano
1) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana – 27:57.26 hours
2) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +34″
3) Joaquim Rodriguez (SPA) – Katusha +37″
4) Alberto Contador (SPA) – SaxoBank-Tinkoff +48″
5) Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) Omega Pharma-QuickStep +58″
6) Chris Horner (USA) RadioShack-Leopard-Trek +1’05”
7) Mauro Santambrogio (ITA) – Vini Fantini-Selle Italia +1’20”
8) Pryzemyslaw Niemiec (POL) – Lampre-Merida +2’54”
9) Andrey Amador (CRC) – Movistar +2’58”
10) Wout Poels (NED) – Vacansoleil-DCM +3’08”