Thibaut Pinot wins Tour de Suisse stage seven as Sergio Higuita takes the overall lead
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) rolled back the years with a strong climbing performance that saw him clinch stage seven of the Tour de Suisse.
The Frenchman, who was in the day's early breakaway, left Ion Izagirre behind on the climb to the line in Malbun, Liechtenstein, eventually winning by 25 seconds from Óscar Rodríguez (Movistar).
Alexey Lutsenko, another rider who featured in the day's early break, came across the line in third.
The Groupama-FDJ rider earned his second win of the season, after a similar style stage win at the Tour of the Alps in April.
In the battle for the yellow jersey, Sergio Higuita (BORA-hansgrohe) attacked the GC group with 2km to go and finished 11 seconds ahead of Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers).
The Colombian holds the overall lead over Thomas by two seconds, however, the Welshman will be favourite going into the final day's individual time-trial.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The final road stage of this year’s Tour de Suisse saw a coronavirus-stricken peloton of just 84 riders take to the start line in Ambri.
Three more riders had become victims of the coronavirus outbreak at the race overnight, as Marco Haller (BORA-hansgrohe), Quentin Pacher (Groupama-FDJ) and Sander Armée (Cofidis) did not start the penultimate stage.
For the riders that did start, a 194.6km route stood between them and the summit finish in Malbun, Liechtenstein, with 3,811m of climbing set to make it a very challenging stage for the GC teams to control.
A high-speed downhill start to the day made it tricky for a break to form. A group finally escaped as the foot of the day’s first climb, the Lukmanierpass, came into sight.
The first-category test, averaging 5% for 29.2km, allowed for almost a quarter of the bunch to forge a gap.
A 19-man group got away, including: Clément Champoussin, Clément Berthet, Nicolas Prodhomme (AG2R Citroën), Alexey Lutsenko, Gianni Moscon (Astana Qazaqstan Team), Michael Matthews, Jack Bauer (Team BikeExchange-Jayco), Ion Izagirre (Cofidis), Thibaut Pinot, Lewis Askey (Groupama-FDJ), Sylvain Moniquet (Lotto Soudal), Nelson Oliveira, Óscar Rodríguez (Movistar Team), Fausto Masnada, Ilan Van Wilder (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl Team), Gavin Mannion (Human Powered Health), Matheiu Burgaudeau, Paul Ourselin (TotalEnergies), and Yannis Voisard (Switzerland).
With 142km to go, Lukas Rüegg (Switzerland) stepped off the bike, making him the 70th abandonment in the eight-day race.
As the first-category climb was tackled, the large break began to split, with Bauer, Moscon, Askey, Ourselin and Voisard dropped by the stronger climbers in the lead group.
The gap back to the peloton fluctuated between four and seven minutes as the riders summited the Lukmanierpass.
Clément Berthet was first over the top of the first-category climb as Ineos Grenadiers and Israel-Premier Tech worked together to prevent the time-gap getting out of hand with 120km still remaining in the day.
By the time the third-category climb of Flims, 6.5km at 5.8%, was dealt with at 66km to go, the break had an advantage of just above four minutes.
Michael Matthews comfortably extended his lead in the points classification at the intermediate sprint in Domat/Ems with 50km left of the stage.
The gap to the break steadily fell, as the race reached the penultimate climb of the day, St. Luzisteig, with 22km to go.
As the lead group took on the 2.5km test that averaged 7.6%, they held an advantage of three and a half minutes.
Perhaps keen to keep himself healthy for the Tour de France, Luke Rowe swiftly stepped into the team car after finishing his turn on the front with 20km left.
With 13km to go, the highest category climb to the finish line in Malbun came into view as the breakaway began to be whittled down.
The 12.6km climb had an average gradient of 8.7%, however ramps of 10% throughout, and a 13.2% kicker inside the flamme rouge, made it a gruelling test for the riders.
Lutsenko, Van Wilder and Izagirre managed to create a small gap with 11km to go.
Izagirre then attacked again as Pinot attempted to bridge across to the leaders.
Meanwhile, the bunch had been whittled down by the testing gradients too.
Max Schachmann (BORA-hansgrohe) came to the fore of the GC group to set a testing pace for his teammate Higuita.
It was now a stage comprised of two races as the Spaniard had built up a gap of over 30 seconds with 5km to go as Lutsenko and Pinot attempted to hunt him down, with the GC contenders still three minutes in arrears.
However, Izagirre appeared to hit the wall on the leg-sapping gradients of final kilometres up to the mountaintop finish line.
His gap rapidly fell to Pinot, the strongest of the chasing pack behind him.
Pinot caught the former Spanish champion with 2.5km remaining, attacking out of his saddle to prevent the Cofidis rider from even holding onto his wheel.
The Groupama-FDJ rider continued his effort right up to the line, finishing 25 seconds ahead of Movistar’s Óscar Rodríguez to secure his second victory of the year.
Meanwhile, inside the final 2km for the GC contenders and Daní Martinez (Ineos Grenadiers) had put most of the group to the sword with a huge pull at the front.
However, just as the Colombian rider finished his turn, his countryman Higuita attacked and neither Jakob Fuglsang (Israel-Premier Tech) nor Geraint Thomas could respond.
Thomas finally left Fuglsang behind with 500m to go, yet Higuita still crossed the line with enough of an advantage to secure the yellow jersey.
The BORA-hansgrohe rider heads into the final day’s time-trial with a slender advantage that he’ll do well to hold onto against an accomplished time-trialist in Thomas.
TOUR DE SUISSE, STAGE SEVEN: AMBRI TO MALBUN (194.6KM)
1. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, in 5-06-39
2. Óscar Rodríguez (Spa) Movistar, at 25 seconds
3. Alexey Lutsenko (Kaz) Astana Qazaqstan Team, at 38s
4. Sergio Higuita (Col) BORA-Hansgrohe, at 1-19
5. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Ineos Grenadiers, at 1-30
6. Nicolas Prodhomme (Fra) AG2R Citroën Team, at 1-40
7. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Israel-Premier Tech, at 1-48
8. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux, at 1-59
9. Sébastien Reichenbach (Swi) Groupama-FDJ, at 2-09
10. Neilson Powless (USA) EF Education-EasyPost, at 2-19
GENERAL CLASSIFICATION AFTER STAGE SEVEN
1. Sergio Higuita (Col) BORA-hansgrohe, in 32-38-38
2. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Ineos Grenadiers, at 2 seconds
3. Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Israel-Premier Tech, at 19s
4. Neilson Powless (USA) EF Education-EasyPost, at 1-16
5. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux, at 1-37
6. Sébastien Reichenbach (Swi) Groupama-FDJ, at 2-09
7. Stefan Küng (Sui) Groupama FDJ, at 2-19
8. Bob Jungels (Lux) AG2R Citroën Team, at 2-31
9. Felix Großschartner (Aut) BORA-hansgrohe, at 2-47
10. Andreas Leknessund (Nor) Team DSM, at 2-59