Italian Damiano Cunego pulled on the race leader's yellow jersey after a superb climbing display in the Tour de Suisse's third stage, won by Slovakian Peter Sagan on Monday. Lampre rider Cunego had been part of a main peloton containing overnight leader Juan Mauricio Soler of Colombia which had been left behind early on the first of two climbs by a 30-strong group.
As the race progressed and legs began to tire, Cunego struck out near the foot of the 20km climb to the summit of the Grosse Scheidegg to single handedly close the gap to a dwindling group of leaders. The diminutive Italian went solo across the summit and was followed by only a handful of racers, later being joined by Liquigas rider Sagan for most of the 10km descent into Grindelwald. Sagan, who had been part of the early breakaway, had seen Italian team-mate Christiano Salerno lying on the ground after a crash on the descent and admitted the sorry sight had spurred him on.
"Salerno was in front of me but I didn't see his crash, I just saw him lying on the ground," said Sagan. "That's when I said to myself I had to risk everything to try and catch Cunego."
In the closing meters of the downhill finish into Grindelwald, the Slovakian easily had the measure of the Italian climber, adding: "I really wanted this win. I don't have a lot of victories this season and this is a major stage race. You don't give anything away." Soler had tried in vain to match Cunego's earlier attack but trailed over the line 1:04 in arrears alongside Leopard's reigning champion Frank Schleck and Tejay Van Garderen of HTC-Highroad. Cunego now holds a 54-second lead on Soler ahead of Tuesday's 198km fourth stage from Grindelwald to Huttwil. But while the Italian hopes to enjoy the race lead over the next two, easier days he knows overall victory is far from assured.
"I surprised myself how good I was going up the (second) climb. When you have good form, you just don't feel the pain as much," said Cunego, who did not compete at the Giro d'Italia because he is focusing on the Tour de France. "I hope to keep the yellow jersey over the next two days, which are not too difficult, but there are some tough mountain stages left and a finishing time trial."
Among Cunego's main rivals are American Van Garderen, who is fifth at 1:21, Luxemburger Schleck (1:25) and Italian Danilo Di Luca, who sits eighth at 1:53, two places ahead of American Levi Leipheimer, at 2:10.
Sagan, meanwhile, was rewarded for joining the breakaway which, after just 14km of racing, parted company with the peloton and went on to build a one-minute lead on Soler's peloton amid increasingly bleak conditions near the top of the category one Grimselpass climb. He then had Schleck's younger brother Andy to thank for helping drag him up most of the Grosse Scheidegg, where one kilometre from the summit the two-time Tour de France runner-up began trailing.
"The (climb to) Scheidegg was very difficult," added Sagan. "I don't consider myself a climber but I had good legs and I was fortunate to be in a group with Andy Schleck, who kept a pretty regular rhythm throughout."
Tour de Suisse Stage 3
1. Peter Sagan (SVK/LIQ) 3:09:47
2. Damiano Cunego (ITA/LAM) s.t.
3. Jakob Fuglsang (DEN/LEO) @ .21
4. Laurens Ten Dam (NED/RAB) s.t.
5. Giampaolo Caruso (ITA/KAT) @ .48
6. Tejay Van Garderen (USA/THR) @ 1:04
7. Frank Schleck (LUX/LEO) s.t.
8. Bauke Mollema (NED/RAB) s.t.
9. Juan Mauricio Soler (COL/MOV) s.t.
10. Francis De Greef (BEL/OMO) s.t.
General Classification After Stage 3
1. Damiano Cunego (ITA/LAM) 7:43:16
2. Juan Mauricio Soler (COL/MOV) @ .54
3. Bauke Mollema (NED/RAB) @ 1:16
4. Laurens Ten Dam (NED/RAB) @ 1:19
5. Tejay Van Garderen (USA/THR) @ 1:21
6. Frank Schleck (LUX/LEO) @ 1:25
7. Jakob Fuglsang (DEN/LEO) @ 1:32
8. Danilo Di Luca (ITA/KAT) @ 1:53
9. Steven Kruijswijk (NED/RAB) @ 2:00
10. Levi Leipheimer (USA/RSH) @ 2:10