Today's stage was one to watch as many of the favorites for the Tour de France in two months time tackled four category one climbs over 163 kilometers, including a summit finish at Champex-Lac. Add to that a second day of cool rain and the racing could prove to be exciting indeed.
Though many were expecting a battle between Tour de France favorites Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana, it was instead the younger Thibault Pinot who emerged victorious at the end of the day after attacking early on the final climb. The steepest slopes of the climb to Champed-Lac came in the first half of the climb and it was here, with five kilometers to go, that Thibault made his move, prying open a gap that never crossed the thirty second mark. But, while the group of favorites splintered behind under the pressure of attacks by Quintana and then a steady chase by Froome, Pinot's gap survived until the more gradual final two kilometers of the climb and pulling the flying Frenchman back proved too hard. Surprisingly, it was not Froome or Quintana who came closest to catching Pinot but the young Ilnur Zakarin of Katusha, who jumped away from the chase with two kilometers to go and crossed the line seven seconds in arrears of Pinot.
As Jens wrote earlier, the Tour of Romandie is almost perfectly placed on the calendar to witness full-on racing between Tour de France contenders who may hold back some come June, and after today one wonders if Vincenzo Nibali will be able to find last year's form in time for the Tour or if he is simply in a year of jours sans. The former Tour champion was distanced early on the climb and crossed the line 53 seconds in arrears of Pinot and 33 behind Froome and Quintana after being towed up the climb by teammate Michele Scarponi. Froome, too, seemed out of sorts at the beginning of the climb, struggling to maintain contact with the front group as Quintana attacked numerous times early in the climb, but as the pace steadied he seemed to recover and led the chase of Pinot in earnest.
After his efforts, Zakarin moved into the overall lead, taking the "Katusha rider who inexplicably rides well in Romandie" award away from teammate Simon Spilak, who crossed the line with Froome and Quintana. Though Zakarin will enter the final stage with a six second buffer over Pinot and 14 seconds over Froome, he is likely to lose the leader's jersey to one of the two in the 17 kilometer rolling time trial. That is, unless he discovers the time trial legs that made him a Russian time trial champion in 2013 at the age of 23.