Team Sky endured a quiet day on stage six at Tirreno-Adriatico with a number of riders climbing off on a tough day in Offida.
After six days of hard racing on a particularly heavy course, a number of riders withdrew at the start/finish area as the laps ticked down, including Mark Cavendish and Bernhard Eisel (Team Sky) with a view to Milan-San Remo at the weekend. Team-mate Chris Sutton also abandoned after succumbing to knee issues.
Earlier in the day Cavendish had made his way into a six-man move after three kilometres, the world champion enjoying a hit out which saw the group build up 20 seconds before being dragged back.
A thinned-out squad now heads into Tuesday’s final 9.3-kilometre time trial around San Benedetto del Tronto which brings the curtain down on the ‘Race of Two Seas’.
Joaquim Rodriguez launched a stinging attack inside the final kilometre to take victory on stage six.
The Spaniard (Katusha) worked his way into an elite group on the final tough ascent before kicking as the race headed under the flamme rouge, narrowly holding on to victory on the line in Offida.
Vincenzo Nibali edged closer to the lead via a time bonus gained for second place after his Liquigas-Cannondale team-mate Peter Sagan sacrificed his own chances of a stage win in the finale.
Danilo Di Luca (Acqua & Sapone) rounded out the podium places while Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) clung on to the Maglia Azzurra with fourth place.
The result means Horner heads into the final stage time trial with a margin of five seconds over Roman Kreuziger (Astana), with Nibali a further second adrift.
A tough series of circuits around Offida were the order of the day as the prestigious Italian stage race continued.
The day began with a non-start for Edvald Boasson Hagen of Team Sky, a precautionary measure following the Norwegian’s crash on Saturday.
After a number of failed attacks a band of seven men were eventually allowed clear, the escapees taking advantage of the undulating parcours to secure an advantage of 4:30 out on the road.
Unfortunately for the break a determined Liquigas-Cannondale put the power down on the front in a bid to secure bonus seconds for GC contender and Sunday’s stage winner Nibali.
With the break whittled down, four men continued before Serge Pauwels (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), Andrey Amador (Movistar), Carlos Betancourt (Acqua & Sapone) and Arthur Vichot (FDJ-BigMat) were finally swept up with 5.2km to run.
Attacks fired off inside the final five kilometres as Di Luca attacked on the steep climb with Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) on his wheel, forcing an elite selection which went to the finish.
After the stage Sports Director Servais Knaven explained the team’s decision to take Cavendish and Eisel out of the firing line.
He said: “It was a really hard day today. With an eye on Milan-San Remo we took the decision to stop today for Cav and Bernie. CJ is also having a bit of a problem with his knee so that is why he pulled out.
“But the guys feel they are ready for San Remo and they didn’t want to go too deep, take any risks and require the extra recovery.”
Knaven also explained why the world champion was off the front briefly, adding: “Cav was off the front for a bit at the start. It wasn’t on purpose but he went quickly down the descent at the start and they let him go so that was why he was in the breakaway. They were taken back by the climb but it was a really hard day today. It’s been hard all week.
“We have the time trial tomorrow with Jez, Mat and Ian and then the guys go to Milan to prepare for the race. They are really motivated for that so it looks good for Saturday.”