Peter Sagan (Cannondale) sprinted to stage three victory at the Tour de Suisse, prevailing on the tough, uphill finish as his love affair with Switzerland continued.
The undulating stage had resulted in a very select bunch forming on the final climb but Sagan kept himself safely in the bunch – tucking in several positions back at the head.
Coming forward inside the final 500 metres, Sagan was pushed wide on the final corner but refused to be locked out – outsprinting Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE) and the returning Sergio Henao (Team Sky) to take a ninth career victory in the race.
Attacks dominated the stage and the first riders to earn a gap were Steven Kruijswick (Belkin Pro Cycling) and Martin Kohler (BMC Racing) who went clear early on the undulating stage.
Their lead stretched to more than four minutes, but with the climbs seeing their lead come down, Orica-GreenEDGE led the chase and brought them back with more than 70 kilometres remaining.
With the bunch back together, the attacks and counter attacks quickly restarted – Nino Schurter (Orica-GreenEDGE) taking advantage of his team’s chase to instigate a new break in his home country.
Laurent Didier (Trek Factory Racing) and King of the Mountains Bjorn Thurau (Team Europcar) both bridged to the Swiss rider but the latter never looked confortable, repeatedly talking into his race radio.
The attacks further back continued apace, with Danilo Wyss (BMC Racing) next to have a go off the front – bridging to join the leaders who held a slender lead.
Daniele Ratto (Cannondale) was unable to make the bridge however, with Omega Pharma-Quickstep leading the bunch as they countered his move.
Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) and race-leading team-mate Tony Martin remained safely in the wheels, with Tom Boonen leading the way.
Thurau’s day in the break came to an end as they built their lead up to a maximum of around 80 seconds, but Valerio Agnoli (Astana) and Tosh van der Sande (Lotto-Belisol) bridged across.
Back in the bunch, Garmin-Sharp took over the chase – upping the pace on a tricky, technical section of the route to drop several of the pure sprinters, Cavendish among them.
Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida), home favourite Fabian Cancelleara (Trek Factory Racing) and Team Sky’s best-placed rider Philip Deignan were also among the riders dropped.
Garmin-Sharp continued to press hard, Johan van Summeren showing his anger as the race motorbikes cramped their space with road furniture causing problems.
Not all of the fast men were dropped – John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) staying safe, as would be expected on a course well-suited to them.
Van der Sande, Agnoli and Schurter continued to protect a small lead at the front of the race however, before the Lotto-Belisol man launched a solo attack off the front on the fast-paced final descent.
Agnoili angrily beckoned Schurter forward, flicking his elbow furiously as he desperately looked for assistance in chasing van der Sande down.
When that got little response, he even beckoned the Swiss rider through – waving him round – but again to no avail.
With van der Sande attacking the descent hard, Agnoli had no choice but to do the same but it proved to be his undoing.
Blood boiling from the lack of co-operation from Schurter, Agnoli went too hard, sliding out spectacularly on one corner before coming to rest on the grass verge.
Though able to get back up, the crash – and the obvious pain he was in – put paid to both his own and Schurter’s chances for the stage to leave van der Sande as the lone escapee in front of the bunch.
Further back Martin, in the yellow jersey, came forward to protect his position on the tricky descent, though white jersey Rohan Dennis (Garmin-Sharp) and Sir Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) both found themselves towards the back of the strung-out bunch.
FDJ.fr pulled a big shift on the front of the bunch, catching van der Sande – riding with his tongue out – with 7.5 kilometres remaining.
Giant-Shimano also took over at the front – Degenkolb riding at the nose, suggesting he was not going to be the man contesting the uphill finish for them.
Martin was brought forward as the tough final ramps kicked in, sitting second wheel under the three kilometres to go flag – Matteo Trentin leading the way.
Three-time Tour de Romandie stage winner Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE), world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) and BMC Racing duo Cadel Evans and Marcus Burghardt also gathered near the front.
At the back, several riders were shelled out – Peter Kennaugh launching an attack with two kilometres to go as he and Georg Priedler (Giant-Shimano) earned a gap.
Kennaugh looked around for support, but the Team Sky man – who was happy to pull on the front of the bunch when his move was checked – found support lacking.
Henao was safely in the bunch, but Wiggins was among the riders to have missed the split.
The Manxman soon dropped off the front however as riders jostled for positoon in the final kilometre.
Evans took up the pace with 400 metres to go, Sagan on his wheel, as the Australian put in a huge effort.
Both Albasini and Sagan passed him however, as did Henao, and from that point there was only ever going to be one winner.
Albasini pushed Sagan hard – forcing him wide on the final corner, but the Slovakian would not be denied yet another Tour de Suisse stage victory.
Further back, Tony Martin finished safely in the bunch but it was more than two minutes later that Wiggins crossed the finishing line as his opportunity to force his way into the Tour de France squad diminished.
Tour de Suisse 2014: stage three – result
1) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Cannondale – 5.22.09hrs
2) Michael Albasini (SUI) – Orica-GreenEDGE – ST
3) Sergio Henao (COL) – Team Sky
4) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling
5) Cadel Evans (AUS) – BMC Racing
6) Jose Joaquin Rojas (ESP) – Movistar
7) Rui Costa (POR) – Lampre-Merida
8) Thibaut Pinot (FRA) – FDJ.fr
9) Mathias Frank (SUI) – IAM Cycling
10) Roman Kreuziger (CZE) – Tinkoff-Saxo
General classification (provisional)
1) Tony Martin (GER) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep – 10.44.34hrs
2) Tom Dumoulin (NED) – Giant-Shimano +6”
3) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Cannondale +14”
4) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin Pro Cycling +17”
5) Tom-Jelte Slagter (NED) – Garmin-Sharp +23”
6) Davide Formolo (ITA) – Cannondale +27”
7) Jon Izaguirre (ESP) – Movistar – ST
8) Roman Kreuziger (CZE) – Tinkoff-Saxo +28”
9) Mathias Frank (SUI) – IAM Cycling +29”
10) Mattia Cattaneo (ITA) – Lampre-Merida – ST