Chris Froome took a superb second place on the Green Mountain summit finish at the Tour of Oman to move into the race lead.
The Brit climbed into the red jersey as the race blew to pieces on the tough climb, latching onto a late attack from stage winner Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) to propel himself up the standings.
Froome was set up superbly by his Team Sky team-mates who kept control of proceedings on the run-up to the decisive summit. Courtesy of finishing just four seconds back on Rodriguez, Froome now moves into the leader’s garment, holding a 24-second advantage with two days remaining.
Also present in the elite selection were Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Alberto Contador (Team Saxo-Tinkoff), the pair finishing just ahead of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) as the big names traded blows for the first time this season.
After the stage Froome was understandably full of praise for his team-mates.
Running through the events of the day he said: “Today started off quite fast from the gun with a strong break up the road. We immediately contributed with one rider to start helping the chase. Christian Knees did a super job in controlling the breakaway.
“Towards the foot of the climb the guys moved me into position. Brad [Wiggins], Pete [Kennaugh] and [Vasil] Kiryienka all did a fantastic job. When you have guys of that calibre and people like Brad pulling for you then it’s hard not to be in a good position. That was really fantastic.
“Then hitting the climb I had Dario Cataldo and Richie Porte with me for the first part of the climb. They even neutralised a few of Contador’s accelerations at the bottom which was a huge help and I think inevitably helped me on the later slopes. I found I still had the legs in the last kilometre compared to the guys who were jumping around at the bottom.”
With the jersey now on his shoulders Froome admitted he is happy with his early-season form and is hopeful of defending the lead all the way to the finish.
“It’s a great position to be in, especially for this time of the year,” he added. “I haven’t necessarily done a lot of high-end training at the moment so it’s a very promising sign this early in the season. I know there is a lot more to come. 24 seconds isn’t the biggest margin and we’ve still got quite a challenging day ahead of us tomorrow. It will be hard to hold onto the jersey but we’ve got a very capable team here and the guys have really come together as a unit.”
After the stage Sports Director Nicolas Portal was understandably pleased with the performance of the team to set up Froome.
"We are really really happy with today," said the Frenchman, "especially to be in a position like this in the first big race of the season for this group. All the big GC contenders are here – it’s like a mini Tour de France. It’s really good for the morale for the team too. Going into big races in the next few months the guys will always remember this.
"Everyone contributed and did an amazing job. Christian was on the front for almost the whole stage with a couple of Saxo Bank riders and an Astana rider. They controlled the five-man breakaway which was impressive. Kiri, Pete and Brad were there at the start of the climb to make sure Chris was in a good position. That was important as it was a really wide road so the pace needed to be kept high. The climbs here aren’t like in Europe.
Contador opened the race on the climb and 90 per cent of the peloton exploded behind. Joe [Dombrowski] and Dario did a very good job and it was also great to see Richie close to Froomey to help him."
Attention now turns to defending the red jersey for the two remaining stage, with Portal adding: “Tomorrow is the last tricky day for us. Chris has shown everybody he is one of the strongest guys here. Tomorrow there is more climbing and we will look to defend the jersey and control the race.”
The most anticipated stage of the race saw the riders tackle 143.5 kilometres from Al Saltiyah in Samail to Jabal Al Akhdhar – the scene of an inevitable showdown on what has become the race’s signature climb.
After 16km the stage had its breakaway as five riders – Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing), Gregory Rast (RadioShack-Leopard), Gatis Smukulis (Katusha), Andreas Schillinger (NetApp-Endura) and Matthias Freidemann (Champion System) – joined forces and pulled out a gap of 4:25.
Team Sky were among the teams looking to set the pace as the race approached the Green Mountain.
Contador was the first to attack, dragging Nibali with him as Froome, Evans and Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R-La Mondiale) all moved into position.
Yet it was Rodriguez who made his attack stick, opening out a four-second gap at the finish yet it was Froome who to took control of the race.