Ben Swift (Team Sky) won stage five of the Tour of the Basque Country, outsprinting Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) after surviving an undulating stage.
A much-reduced leading group crested the final climb – the Aiastia – after Movistar in particular set a ferocious climbing pace.
Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) hit the front under the flamme rouge to lead out Kwiatkowski, but Swift – who had done superbly to stay in touch with the leading group – timed his sprint perfectly.
Valverde was the only rider who even got close to the Yorkshire sprinter, but with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) safely in the leading group it is El Pistolero who holds a 12-second advantage ahead of Saturday’s final time trial stage.
Earlier, Benat Intxausti and Jon Izagirre (Movistar) were among a hugely strong break to go up the road from the off, with world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) joining them.
Josh Edmondson (Team Sky), Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE), Pieter Serry (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), Amael Moinard (BMC Racing), Koldo Fernandez (Garmin-Sharp), Pavel Brutt (Katusha), Cyril Gautier (Team Europcar) and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Belisol) also attacked, while Amets Txurruka and Antonio Piedra (both Caja Rural) joined them.
Perhaps wary of the strength of the break after Tony Martin’s stage two victory, and suspicious of Movistar’s ambitions, the peloton reacted quickly to reel them back in again after just 20 kilometres however.
Bob Jungels (Trek Factory Racing) was next to try his luck, while a series of attacks behind failed to halt the momentum of the peloton.
It was more than 40 kilometres into the stage by the time a large group went clear, but it
Jungels, Wellens, Serry, Sicard, Albasini and Koldo Fernandez were again part of it, while Ruben Plaza (Movistar), Nelson Oliveira (Lampre-Merida) and Xabier Zandio (Team Sky) were also there.
Bauke Mollema (Belkin) was another strong rider to make the split, alongside Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana), Davide Malacarne (Team Europcar), Luis Leon Sanchez and Omar Fraile (both Caja Rural) and Daan Olivier and Warren Barguil (both Giant-Shimano).
Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) also bridged as Tinkoff-Saxo led the chase with Movistar in tow behind them, keeping the large front group within two minutes.
As Movistar gathered at the front in a bid to isolate Contador, the pace forced the gap right down again, prompting Oliveira to attack off the front.
At the back, the peloton was almost halved thanks to the Spanish team’s pace and the break was also shattered as they hit the Isua for the second consecutive day.
Mollema, Wellens and Jungels stayed clear as Movistar put the hurt on but Contador remained locked to Valverde’s wheel.
Jungels’ rapid descending split the leading three, with Mollema in particular suffering, but in the bunch Valverde was still unable to rid himself of Contador’s attentions.
As the road levelled out Wellens and Mollema made the junction to rejoin Jungels but the gap had been brought down to just 18 seconds with 13.5 kilometres.
His descending marked Jungels down as a favourite for the stage, but his hopes were hit when he and Mollema lost Wellens on the day’s final category two climb of the Aiastia.
Movistar led the vastly reduced bunch behind however, cutting the two leaders’ advantage into single digits before Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEDGE) attempted to bridge.
Weening became the sole leader thanks to his attack but Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) led the chase at a high pace to neutralise his move and stop Movistar attacking.
As they hit the steepest ramps of the climb Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) took over at the front, with Michal Kwiatkowski on his wheel.
Kreuziger’s efforts proved too much meanwhile, isolating his team leader in the greatly reduced leading group – prompting more attacks from Valverde.
He and Contador took off as they approached the top of the climb, cresting together with stage four winner Wout Poels in pursuit – the Dutchman joining them on the descent.
The twisting, technical descent saw Valverde put everything into the downhill but as he has throughout the stage, Contador responded every time.
Poels found himself distanced as Valverde put the hurt on, but all three were back together under the three kilometres to go kite.
Further back Cadel Evans and Samuel Sanchez worked to bridge the gap, bringing the leading group back together for the final 1500m.
Weening attacked again but it was short-lived and the group was together again under the flamme rouge, with Martin hitting the front once more at pace.
Kwiatkowski, Cunego and Swift trailed the German, with the Pole the first to kick.
Swift opened up his sprint immediately however, hitting the front with a superb acceleration to take a stunning stage victory.
Tour of the Basque Country 2014: stage five – result
1) Ben Swift (GBR) – Team Sky – 3.57.36hrs
2) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar – ST
3) Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
4) Tom-Jelte Slagter (NED) – Garmin-Sharp
5) Damiano Cunego (ITA) – Lampre-Merida
1) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo – 20.30.31hrs
2) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +12″
3) Damiano Cunego (ITA) – Lampre-Merida +36″
4) Cadel Evans (AUS) – BMC Racing – ST
5) Jean-Christophe Peraud (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale
6) Yury Trofimov (RUS) – Katusha
7) Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +41″
8) Mikel Landa (ESP) – Astana +54″
9) Wout Poels (NED) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +55″
10) Samuel Sanchez (ESP) – BMC Racing +56″