Tour of Croatia: Ruffoni takes stage 4

The Bardiani CSF rider sprinted to victory in Umag ahead of Riccardo Minali (Astana) and Ivan Savitskiy (Gazprom-Rusvelo), denying a stubborn break in the final moments of the day. Early escapee Alan Marangoni (Nippo-Vini Fantini) held out until the last 100 metres, but was caught and passed by the fast finishers just before the line.

In the battle for the overall title, Caja Rural’s Jaime Roson found himself on the wrong side of a small split during the sprint, allowing Astana’s Vinceno Nibali to leapfrog him on GC and take over control of the leader’s jersey. Coming into the day five seconds down, the Italian now leads the Spaniard by two seconds.

A day after his Bardiani squad delivered him perfectly for a bunch sprint victory, Ruffoni again attributed the stage win to his teammates following Friday’s more hectic finale.

“The most uncertain moment during the race was at five kilometres to the finish. Narrow and tricky roads, the breakaway one minute in front of us but no chance to see them. On the long straight at four kilometres to go we put the escapees in our sights but the catch seemed hard,” he said. “[Mirco] Maestri did a strong effort leading with other sprinters’ team. I relied on [Nicola] Boem and [Paolo] Simion for the sprint and they did again an amazing job. Nicola kept us in front while Paolo was great driving me in the bagarre of the last kilometre.”

Marangoni, Johannes Schinnagel (Team Felbermayr – Simplon Wels), Daniel Turek (Israel Cycling Academy) and Antonio Di Sante (GM Europa Ovini) jumped clear of the peloton around 20 kilometres after the pack set out from Crikvenica for the 171km stage 4. The escapees were given a bit of space, with a gap growing out to around four minutes. With a flat finish on tap, however, several teams were interested in keeping the move under control to set up a potential sprint finish.

With Roson wearing the leader’s jersey, Caja Rural did much of the early pace-setting to keep the gap to the break steady at or around four minutes for an hour or so.

With around 40 kilometres to go, the peloton began to eat into the breakers’ advantage, with Trek-Segafredo, Bahrain-Merida, Bardiani CSF and Astana pitching in at the front. The four riders up the road worked well together, but the gap was down to two minutes with 25 kilometres left to race.

The breakers took a little over a minute into the final 15 kilometres, but then the chase stalled ever so slightly, giving the quartet off the front a bit of hope at staying clear all the way to the line. With the gap at 25 seconds at five kilometres to go, it was still anyone’s game.

The difference was just 10 seconds with two kilometres to go, which spurred Marangoni to push clear from the break and attempt a solo victory. The other three were caught, but Marangoni passed under the flamme rouge banner still clinging to a small gap.

A charging peloton would not be denied, however. Winding up to full speed, the sprinters rapidly closed down Marangoni’s small advantage on the finishing straight. Ruffoni led the charge as the quick men swallowed up Marangoni in the final moments of the stage, and the Bardiani rider held on ahead of the other sprinters to cross the line first for the second day in a row.

“I’m not a sprinter who likes long progression and I knew could be a risk,” said Ruffoni of leading the sprint from 250 metres out. “The road was going little downhill in the finale, Marangoni was still on the front but I was sure I could catch him. On the other side, I was worried for riders behind me and their return. Well, today I’ve been rewarded for my audacity … if you want to win a sprint, you need this as well.”