Austria's rising talent Marco Haller (Katusha Team) created a surprise by taking stage four of the Tour of Beijing in a chaotic sprint on Friday.
I am unbelievably happy to win today, on an UCI WorldTour event. I never expected to beat riders like Viviani, Petacchi or Boasson Hagen.
He out-sprinted famed Italian fastmen Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) and Elia Viviani (Liquigas-Cannondale) after a 165.5 kilometre stage from Yanqing to Changping Stadium.
"I am unbelievably happy to win today, on an UCI WorldTour event," Haller said. "I never expected to beat riders like Viviani, Petacchi or Boasson Hagen."
In the last hundred meters Petacchi was passed by Haller, who explained: "I had a high speed and felt quite easy. I was thinking: 'My God! It’s possible to win! It’s really possible!' And I won!"
Just 21-years-old, Haller is a novice at UCI WorldTour level as he signed for Katusha Team last winter. He says he likes Classics even more than mass sprints. In the road race of the UCI World Championships he came third as a junior in 2009 and fifth as an under-23 last year.
Boasson Hagen was fighting for a top three placing in the sprint, which would have allocated him a time bonus and thus helped him to a spot on the podium of the general classification. Led by his Sky team-mate Luke Rowe in the final kilometre, the Norwegian crossed the line ninth, to leave him 4th overall.
For his part Haller had support from Rüdiger Sellig and he then took Petacchi’s wheel with 300 meters to go.
The Italian veteran admitted that he launched his sprint too early. "It was too far but this is because I wanted to win so much! Hopefully I will do better tomorrow."
Before taking part in the bunch sprint, Boasson Hagen expected to grab some seconds in the first intermediate sprint, on kilometre 24. However Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) who was just ahead of him in the general classification sent a team-mate Alex Howes up the road at about kilometre 17.
The breakaway took shape with Howes, Australia's Mitch Docker (Orica-GreenEdge), Russia's Timofeiy Ktitskiy (Katusha), France's Jérémy Roy (FDJ-BigMat), and Alex Dowsett (Team Sky).
The gap went up to six minutes and thirty seconds but the men in front were facing two issues.
Firstly, Omega Pharma-Quick Step was receiving strong support from sprinters' squads Liquigas, Lampre and RadioShack-Nissan at the front of the chasing peloton.
The men in front didn't work together perfectly either with Dowsett, acting as a sentinel for Boasson Hagen, and thus unable to take strong turns.
"I put in a lot of work to get into this breakaway, this is why I felt like I was on the back foot most of the time,” explained Dowsett.
Instructed to go into the leading group not soon after it had gone, the British rouleur showed his sense of the sacrifice once again by stopping his effort while the peloton was coming back, in order to support Boasson Hagen.
France's Roy thought Dowsett was sent in front in order to sabotage the group and favour a bunch sprint.
"If Dowsett had have given everything, we perhaps could have won,” Roy said.
The FDJ-Big Mat rider was obviously stronger than his escape companions on the category three climb after a 113 kilometre ride. His team manager Marc Madiot advised him to attack on the last hill but Roy anticipated by dropping his rivals on the descent just before, with about 35 kilometres to go to the finish.
"It was easier to manage my effort alone," he explained. "Riding in the technical downhill, I was thinking I had a good chance to win, but then I struggled on the false flat sections while the peloton was wild behind me."
With 15 remaining kilometres, Roy was 1'36" ahead of the bunch and his escape companions had just been caught.
The Frenchman was riding through the tombs of the emperors of the Ming Dynasty, when the peloton absorbed him with five kilometres to go.
Improving as an individual time triallist, Roy will wrap up his season with the Chrono des Herbiers on October 21st, and his 30-kilometer solo attempt awarded him the most aggressive rider's prize for the stage.
Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) had a difficult day and, as he is still recovering from a hip injury, he crossed the line 17'03" down on Haller.
Stage five on Saturday brings the Tour of Beijing to a close, with a 182.5 kilometre undulating route from Changping Stadium to Pinggu. The main hill (5.4km at 5.9%) doesn't seem strong enough to overturn the rankings but, contrary to last year's conclusion, the riders won't leave China after a criterium dedicated to pure sprinters.
The finish is potentially dangerous for Tony Martin: the top of the main climb is 28.5 kilometres away from the finish, the same distance as it was on Wednesday when he took control with a solo attack. The hill is twice as long as it was that day, however, and is made more difficult by a ramp positioned just before its foot, 3.1km long with a an average gradient of 6.7%.
Boasson Hagen, however, doesn't think he can dislodge Martin.
"It's not possible to win the general classification, the gap is too big," he said.
The Norwegian strong man, ranked fourth in GC, stays 52 seconds down on Tony Martin, two seconds behind the third overall, Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and a further 10 seconds behind second placed Francesco Gavazzi (Astana).
Asked if he is targeting the stage victory or a place on the final podium Saturday, Boasson Hagen said: "If possible, I will go for both."
The final stage will be a great opportunity to say goodbye to the northern area of Beijing and its jewels like the Great Wall, the tombs of the Ming Dynasty and the green ecological barrier of the Pinggu District.
Stage 4: 165.5km: Yan Qing Gui Chuan Square - Chang Ping Stadium
1 Marco Haller (AUT) Katusha 3hr 35min 39sec
2 Alessandro Petacchi (ITA) Lampre-ISD
3 Elia Viviani (ITA) Liquigas-Cannondale
4 Lucas Sebastian Haedo (ARG) Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank
5 Daniele Bennati (ITA) RadioShack-Nissan
6 Francesco Chicchi (ITA) Omega Pharma-Quickstep
7 Klaas Lodewyck (BEL) BMC
8 Allan Davis (AUS) Orica GreenEdge
9 Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR) Sky
10 Dominique Rollin (CAN) FDJ-Big Mat
1 Tony Martin (GER) Omega Pharma-Quickstep 13hr 11min 31sec
2 Francesco Gavazzi (ITA) Astana 0:00:40
3 Daniel Martin (IRL) Garmin-Sharp 0:00:50
4 Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR) Sky 0:00:52
5 Eros Capecchi (ITA) Liquigas-Cannondale
6 Rinaldo Nocentini (ITA) AG2R La Mondiale 0:00:56
7 Tomasz Marczynski (POL) Vacansoleil-DCM
8 Rafal Majka (POL) axo Bank-Tinkoff Bank
9 Rui Alberto Faria Da Costa (POR) Movistar 0:01:00
10 Tim Wellens (BEL) Lotto Belisol