After winning from a small group in Córdoba, Peter Sagan showed the range of his talent when he led the bunch into Pontevedra. Showing consummate skill as he jumped from wheel to wheel in the final two kilometres, the Liquigas-Cannondale puncheur came into the final straight on the wheel of Leopard Trek's Daniele Bennati, who was being led-out by Fabian Cancellara.
When Cancellara moved aside and Bennati launched his sprint, Sagan surged out on the Italian's left and never looked likely to be caught on the drag up to the line. HTC-Highroad's John Degenkolb pushed him hardest, the German finishing a bike length down on the Slovak, with Bennati fading back in third.
"We looked at the route in the team meeting this morning and thought it would be a good chance for me. I'm delighted to have won the stage and want to say thanks to my teammates for setting me up for it," said Sagan. "There was a great deal of confusion coming into the finish. But I was fortunate in getting on to Bennati's wheel, which put me in a good position."
The high speed, tight bends and gently rising run-in to the finish strung the bunch out to the extent that there were a number of splits. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) and Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) were the two riders to gain among the overall contenders. They finished five seconds ahead of a group containing race leader Bradley Wiggins and his Sky teammate Chris Froome, as well as defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale).
Wiggins, though, remains in the leader's red jersey, but with the four riders behind him now packed in even tighter than ever. Froome is still seven seconds down in second place, Kessiakoff leapfrogged Nibali into third at nine seconds, with the Italian now fourth at 10 seconds. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard Trek) stays in fifth place at 19 seconds, with Mollema now only 36 seconds down in sixth having won the first intermediate sprint of the day that earned him six bonus seconds and edged another five closer to the riders above him at the finish.
Nibali said he was not concerned by the time gained by Kessiakoff and Mollema. "I lost a few seconds because I got onto Marcel Kittel's wheel, and he ended up braking. But I'm not too worried as I didn't lose much time."
The Liquigas-Cannondale leader added that he will waiting to see what his rivals do before making any attacks on the three mountain stages that kick off with tomorrow's tough run into Ponferrada. "The big differences will occur on the Angliru [on Sunday]… I've been told that it's a climb very much like the Zoncolan. This year in the Giro I had a good day there and if my form is the same I will do well there."
Four form the break of the day
The move north into the province of Galicia brought a welcome reduction in the temperature as the riders set off on what was likely to be one of the very few stages left where the sprinters could shine. The early flurries came to nothing, allowing Mollema to pick up a very handy six seconds at that first intermediate sprint with just 7km covered. Another 7km down the road, Adam Hansen (Omega Pharma-Lotto), José Luis Roldán (Andalucia-Caja Granada) and Luis Angel Maté (Cofidis) broke clear. As they pressed on, Vacansoleil-DCM's Ruslan Pydgornyy jumped across to them.
As this quartet went to work, the speed in the peloton eased for a while, allowing the break to build up a lead of more than nine minutes as they climbed the third-category Alto de Moscoso with 50km covered. Pydgornyy led over the summit. After the peloton had crossed this climb, Leopard Trek, Sky and Skil-Shimano combined to reduce the break's advantage. Initially the peloton nibbled at the lead, but when Pydgornyy led over the third-category Alto Ponte Caldeas his group were less than five minutes clear.
That advantage continued to drop steadily. Soon after the riders had passed through impressively big crowds in Pontevedra for the first time with 100km covered, HTC-Highroad added their weight to the chase, helping to reduce the break's advantage to little more than two minutes with 35km remaining.
The sprinters gather their forces
As the gap continued to close, former HTC rider Hansen took off from his three companions, but only gained a handful of seconds on them before he was chased down and dropped, leaving Pydgornyy, Roldán and Maté at the front. Back in the bunch, Garmin-Cervelo, Skil-Shimano and Lampre-ISD were all contributing to the chase in the hope of setting up Heinrich Haussler, Marcel Kittel and Alessandro Petacchi, respectively.
Sensing that the bunch would soon be upon them, Maté, who admitted later that he knew the terrain of the stage well and thought that a break might succeed, made a final attempt to get clear with 13km remaining. That saw off Roldán, but Pydgornyy got back up to the Cofidis rider and the pair continued to work together until they were finally overhauled with 6km remaining.
As they were swept up, Maté's teammate Julien Fouchard countered and briefly got a gap. Vacansoleil-DCM's Santo Anza soon zipped past the Frenchman and managed to hold off the Leopard Trek-led bunch for a kilometre, but the sprinters weren't to be denied.
HTC-Highroad took over from Leopard Trek for a couple of kilometres, then Bennati's men took over on the front once more approaching the final-kilometre kite. Bennati, though, looked to be struggling to hold Cancellara's wheel as the course weaved through Pontevedra. The world time trial champion seemed to misjudge the final left-hand bend slightly, losing a bit of momentum, but then went full throttle up the rise to the line, before peeling over with 250 metres remaining. Bennati drove on, but had no answer to Sagan's impressive acceleration.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.