YONGNING, China (VN) — The rugged mountains north of Beijing served as the backdrop for the major GC battle at the Tour of Beijing and Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) survived with a 17-second grip on the race leader’s jersey despite a stiff challenge from Chris Froome (Sky).
The Vuelta a España runner-up joined an attack initiated by Philip Deignan (RadioShack) and eventual stage-winner Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) over the day’s last in a trio of first-category climbs in the four-summit, 162km third stage from Mentougou to Yongning.
The leading trio never gained more than 20 seconds on the chasing front pack led by HTC-Highroad and the threesome was nearly reeled in at the line, with Roche out-kicking compatriot Deignan for his first win in two years. Froome trailed across third, just one second ahead of the main bunch. With no finish-line time bonuses, Martin’s lead was safe.
With two sprint-friendly stages on tap to round out the five-day race, Martin is in the driver’s seat to win the inaugural edition of the Beijing tour.
“Today was the hardest stage. There are two more stages for sprinters, so we are confident we can hold it until Sunday,” Martin said. “We were confident we could control the stage. The road conditions were excellent and we were always safe.”
Froome climbed into a third-place podium spot at 26 seconds back after Sky teammate Alex Dowsett plummeted to 81st when he lost eight minutes. David Millar (Garmin-Cervélo) remained second at 17 seconds adrift.
“Today was the only chance to race for the GC, so we gave it a go,” Froome said. “I was only interested in the GC today. I knew my condition was good after the Vuelta. We were working together well in the break, but it wasn’t hard enough.”
The peloton got its first taste of climbing on Chinese roads. Conditions were general excellent, with wide, smooth roads and relatively easy gradients despite the first-category classifications of the three of the four climbs.
“I’d really like to see more climbs in future editions, because you can see all the big mountains around here,” Froome said. “It’s been an interesting race so far. It’s been worth the trip. It’s great to see cycling break out of Europe and allow the Chinese people to see a race like this.”
The stage was marred by a crash involving Yannick Elijssen (BMC) after advertising banners were blown off roadside fencing near the summit of the final climb.
It was not clear if the advertising banner was blown off by heavy winds at the summit or by air kicked up by low-flying helicopters.
Elijssen was knocked off his bike and a following motorcycle hit him and the barriers that had blown onto the road. The young Belgian climber was transported to a local hospital, where team officials confirmed a fractured upper jaw.
The stage tackled two climbs early in the route that produced a five-man breakaway. At least one rider crashed on a harrowing descent through a narrow gorge coming off the first Cat. 1 midway through the stage.
The breakaway was reeled on the flats in going into the final two first-category climbs when Deignan opened up the hostilities on the final climb that topped out 12.5km from the finish line.
Deignan ended up second, but was content with the effort. The Irishman struggled through 2010 with knee problems and was satisfied to put in a dig in one of his last races with RadioShack before moving to UnitedHealthcare next season.
“Nicholas has a little more power than me in the sprint,” Deignan said. “I was over-training this year and I was coming into a lot of races tired. On this team, when you’re not in top form, you’re working for others.”
Deignan said the Chinese experience has been an interesting one to say the least and said that he’s looking forward to racing with UHC next season
“Cycling is going more global. I spent most of August racing in Canada and North America. It’s good for the sport. Today was a good parcours and everything’s been very well organized,” he continued. “I will be racing most of the season in Europe next year. I am looking forward to it. I will be able to be one of the leaders for the stage races.”
For Roche, the victory ends a two-year drought that dates back to the 2009 Irish national road race.
The Irishman suffered through an injury-marred season, but was glad to take the win after sticking it out all season despite the setbacks.
“This is the stage win I’ve been waiting for for two years. I’ve taken satisfaction from some great results, but I was missing the win. I’ve taken no satisfaction this season, but I got the win,” Roche said. “It was a nice course today, the climbs were fast. We were working together well in the group and we kept motivating each other because the group was nearly closing down on us.”
RadioShack’s Ben King moved into the young jersey’s rider while Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) slotted into the King of the Mountain’s jersey.
The Tour of Beijing continues Saturday with the longest stage in the 189km fourth stage from Yanqing to the Shunyi Olympic Aquatic Park, which hosted rowing and canoeing Olympic competition in 2008.
The rolling stage features two third-category climbs and one second-category climbs that could bust up the group to set up a reduced bunch sprint.