Chris Froome pulled out a sensational performance to win stage five at the Tour of Oman and extend his race lead.
The Brit was placed under immense pressure in the closing stages by Alberto Contador but dug deep to not only retain his lead, but win the three-man sprint at the finish in fine style.
A brutally tough penultimate stage saw the peloton split to pieces after Team Sky had worked tirelessly to set Froome up over three passes of the Bousher Alamrat climb.
Second on the day, Contador (Team Saxo-Tinkoff) had made his intentions known with repeated attacks on the stage, the GC contenders aware that this was realistically the last opportunity to put time into Froome.
Only Froome and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) could hang on and the trio attacked each other on the run into the finish at the Ministry of Housing. The win for Froome also saw him move into the green points jersey for good measure.
Lying second overnight, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) arrived home four seconds later in a six-man chase group, the peloton decimated after a tough day of racing. Froome now holds a 27-second lead over Contador with one flat final stage remaining on Saturday.
After the stage Froome talked us through the day and how it was teamwork which set up the victory.
He explained: “After yesterday I didn’t have much time to play with but the team controlled the race from the start and got on the front with Christian Knees and Joe Dombrowski. This is Joe’s first race as a professional so he did an outstanding job to get to the first mountain pass having worked on the front and also to take us over that climb.
“The team tried to keep things together as well as they could and coming towards the final two climbs Saxo Bank and our rivals lit up the race and made it very hard. That left me isolated with Richie Porte to look after me. He did a fantastic job, taking me up to the final climb where I was able to cover the moves from Contador.
“It was a really exciting finish coming down to a sprint between me, Alberto and Rodriguez. Luckily I just managed to get the better of them on the line."
With one final stage remaining in the race Froome is hopeful that the carrot of a bunch finish will entice other teams into helping control the race.
“Tomorrow hopefully the sprinters’ teams will take advantage of the flatter profile and it should end in a sprint if all goes to plan. I’ve extended my lead to 27 seconds so it puts us in a good place going into tomorrow’s stage.”
The penultimate stage always looked likely to be a testing one but few realised just how testing as the peloton headed towards three relentless climbs of the Bousher Alamrat.
Saxo-Tinkoff were among the teams to put a rider up the road in an eight-man break which headed off early into the 144km test.
Team Sky controlled the front of the peloton on behalf of Froome as the climbs approached, the race splitting up first time over the peak, before completely exploding second time up – an elite group of 22 all that remained of the peloton.
Just as he had done a day earlier, Contador was the first to light the blue touch paper and attack, putting in a burst of acceleration which put Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) into difficulties. The move was shut down over the top of the second summit.
A strong chase group featuring the likes of Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) also massed ranks behind to start to cut the gap, yet up ahead Contador had other ideas and attacked again.
Froome was forced into action for the second time as he looked to claw his way back, finally making contact over the final summit alongside Rodriguez, the trio surviving to the line where it was Froome who finished in style.
After the dust had settled we caught up with Sports Director Nicolas Portal who said: "It was a fantastic day for us – a hard stage which we controlled from beginning to end.
"Christian and Joe managed that first break perfectly – and that’ll give Joe plenty of confidence with it being his first race as a pro. Then, on that finishing circuit, Pete [Kennaugh], Vasil [Kiryienka] and Bradley [Wiggins] all stepped up and did a very good job. When Contador made his initial move, Evans and Nibali both blew but Richie paced Froomey brilliantly, and then on that final climb when Contador went again, Froomey managed his efforts in a really controlled manner, and then produced a great sprint to get the win.
"That calmness from Froomey is what pleased me the most. When guys like Contador and Rodriguez attack, there is the tendency to make an instinctive reaction and chase, but Froomey stayed in control all the time, keeping himself relaxed, and gradually reeled him back. That was perfect to see and I’m really happy for him.
"Tomorrow is a much easier stage and I think a few of the sprinter’s teams will step in to help us control. Degenkolb and Kittel are looking strong so I’d imagine Argos-Shimano will do their bit towards the end, and we’ll work hard early on to ensure we are happy with the break that goes away and then monitor things from there."