Chris Froome battled hard on the final ascent to move into the race lead after stage five of Tirreno-Adriatico.
The Brit was again backed up superbly by his Team Sky team-mates on the run into Chieti to open up a 20-second lead at the top of the standings.
The general classification contenders once again went toe to toe on the brutally steep streets and it was Froome who pushed the pace as overnight leader Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step) began to suffer.
Sixth on the stage among a group of elite favourites was enough to propel Froome into the Maglia Azzurra after Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) took a solo stage victory.
The Spaniard kicked on the steep ramps of the Via Salomone to win by eight seconds over Bauke Mollema (Blanco Cycling) and Alberto Contador (Team Saxo-Tinkoff).
Contador was once again active and, after taking a clutch of bonus seconds, becomes Froome’s nearest rival on the GC, 20 seconds back and level on time with Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
Blue is the colour
After the stage we caught up with Froome who admitted he was happy to have the jersey on his back.
“Every day we come in with a pretty solid plan and it seems to keep coming off,” he said. “That’s not a position you find yourself in too often so it’s a really cool feeling to be part of a team like this who can go out and not only stick to the plan but get a result out of it too.”
On the moment he took the lead on the road Froome added: “I had heard [Kwiatkowski] was slipping back which did motivate me a little bit more, but to be honest I was already going full gas.
“The team took it up with about 45-50km to go on the last couple of climbs and really ripped it apart. We put a lot of pressure on the leader’s jersey and I think it paid off at the end of the stage as he eventually cracked on that final climb and I was able to get a gap over him.”
With two stages to go and a 20 second lead, the team will set about trying to mirror the success of the Paris-Nice squad.
“It’s a great position to be in – defending,” he admitted. “I’d rather be doing that then trying to gain time over some one. But tomorrow I’m expecting them to throw everything at us. I think the weather is going to take a turn for the worst too. The course is up and down all day so it’s not going to be easy for us.
“Then the final day there is a 9.2-kilometre time trial to cap things off so there’s going to be fighting all the way to the line.”
Another chance for the GC to receive a shake-up, stage five saw the riders tackle a tough 230 kilometres from Ortona to Chieti.
An eight-man group including Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida), Valerio Agnoli (Astana) and Stijn Devolder (RadioShack-Leopard) broke clear of the peloton after rolling out of Ortoni and built up an eight-minute advantage.
However, Team Sky began to set a fierce pace on the front of the main bunch and the gap consequently plummeted to around three minutes.
That prompted Cunego to attack his fellow escapees on the climb of Passo Lanciano with 50km to go and although he still had a healthy advantage going over the summit, the Italian lost ground on the descent and was eventually caught 6.8km from the line.
Team Sky once again ramped up the speed and split the peloton to pieces for the second day running, Joe Dombrowski taking up before handing over for Dario Cataldo to again do much of the damage on the climb.
An already reduced front group was halved on the day’s penultimate climb, the Pietragrossa as Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Urán took it up, but attacks always looked likely.
Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Andrey Amador (Movistar) took it up and opened out a small gap, but they were reeled in at the bottom of the steep climb up Via Salomone where Rodriguez made his move.
Sports Director Marcus Ljungqvist summed up the feelings within the team when he told us: “It is a really amazing day for the team and it’s great to see everyone on a roll.
“The guys here in Tirreno are riding really really well. They are nice and calm, no panicking and really trying to use the strength at the right time. We want to make sure we can always come into the final with numbers and that way we can set Froomey up. That’s what we’ve done all race.
“In the end today it was every man for himself. Every ounce of energy you could save throughout the day you used there. We all knew Rodriguez would be the guy to beat there but the GC was the main thing for us. So naturally we were happy that we could distance a few contenders and take the jersey.”
With the tough task of defending blue next on the agenda the Swede added: “We have a good team and we will do whatever we can to defend the jersey.”
Overall, Froome leads Contador by seconds. Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali third, also 20 seconds back.
After an easier stage Monday, the race ends Tuesday with an individual time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto.
Stage 5 Brief Results:
- Joaquim Rodriguez (Spain / Katusha) 6:06:43″
- Bauke Mollema (Netherlands / Blanco) +8″
- Alberto Contador (Spain / Saxo – Tinkoff)
- Mauro Santambrogio (Italy / Vini Fantini)
- Chris Horner (U.S. / RadioShack)
- Chris Froome (Britain / Team Sky)
- Vincenzo Nibali (Italy / Astana) +17″
- Przemyslaw Niemiec (Poland / Lampre) +22″
- Roman Kreuziger (Czech Republic / Saxo – Tinkoff)
- Daniel Martin (Ireland / Garmin) +28″
General Classification After Stage 5:
- Chris Froome (Britain / Team Sky) 22:11:53″
- Alberto Contador (Spain / Saxo – Tinkoff) +20″
- Vincenzo Nibali (Italy / Astana)
- Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland / Omega Pharma – Quick-Step) +24″
- Chris Horner (U.S. / RadioShack) +37″
- Mauro Santambrogio (Italy / Vini Fantini) +52″
- Joaquim Rodriguez (Spain / Katusha) +55″
- Rigoberto Uran (Colombia / Team Sky) +57″
- Roman Kreuziger (Czech Republic / Saxo – Tinkoff) +1:27″
- Sergio Henao (Colombia / Team Sky) +1:51″