Francesco Gavazzi wins stage 3 of the Tour of Beijing. (Graham Watson)

Courtesy of tourofbeijing.net

Italy’s Francesco Gavazzi (Astana) won stage three of the Tour of Beijing, in a close uphill sprint finish at the Great Wall on Thursday.

Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) retained the lead but he was put under strong pressure by Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) in the final kilometers.

This “queen stage,” 162.5 kilometers long from Mentougou to Badaling-Great Wall, provided a dramatic finish.

Boasson Hagen threatened Martin’s leader’s jersey by attacking with three kilometers to the finish and taking almost twenty seconds advantage.

The German rouleur responded by ensuring a powerful chase in front of the peloton.

“I knew it was going to be a difficult day and I’d lose some time,” Martin said. “I only lost ten seconds, which is a bonus. I feel I am in a stronger position to retain the leader’s jersey to the finish after today’s stage than I was yesterday. I had great support from my team since the numerous attacks from the start.”

Boasson Hagen, who reconnoitered the course before the race said: “I was full gas, thinking to try to gap off and get as much seconds as possible. If Martin hadn’t gained time yesterday, then maybe I could have waited for the sprint.”

Norway’s all-rounder was caught within sight of the line and battled the final few meters to finish third in the stage. He took six seconds in time bonuses and is now fourth on the general classification, 52 seconds behind Tony Martin.

Ireland’s Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) was first from the peloton to catch Boasson Hagen but he crossed the line second, passed by Gavazzi.

“When Boasson Hagen attacked I thought it was over because this style of finish perfectly suits him,” Gavazzi said. “I just stayed on the wheels: to wait was the single thing I could do. I felt I could win and I needed to break the ice.”

Second on stage two yesterday, Gavazzi narrowly missed victory three other times this year. A winner of a stage at 2011 Vuelta a Espana, the 28-year-old Italian secured second position on the general classification, with Tony Martin 40 seconds ahead of him.

The first part of the stage went off at high speed and no attempted attack succeeded before the top of the first climb, at kilometer 19, where Valentin Iglinskiy (Astana) out-sprinted king of the mountains leader Dan Martin.

Between the descent and the foot of the following climb, a group of seven riders broke away with Vacansoleil-DCM’s Johnny Hoogerland and Pim Ligthart, as well as George Bennett (RadioShack-Nissan), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Matthieu Ladagnous (FDJ-BigMat), Christian Meier (Orica-GreenEdge) and Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi).

The men in front took up to 4’35″ over the peloton led by Omega Pharma-Quick Step.

They seemed to work pretty well together, fighting at the top of the climbs (Ligthart scored two wins ahead of Meier) and the intermediate sprints (Ladagnous won the first one, like he did on stage one, while Ligthart was fastest in the second).

The category 1 ascent in Gao Ya Ku (10.8km at 6.4%) provided an epic, twenty-kilometer twisty downhill thrill, like some mythical hills of the Dolomites in Italy.

“The road was wide and beautiful but very technical. There were some curved corners like on a velodrome!” observed former track rider Ladagnous.

The breakaway’s advantage was 1’30 at twenty kilometers from the finish. “We should have had one minute 30 at the bottom of the last climb to be able to win,” Ladagnous told.

The seven riders were caught with ten kilometers to go.

Just before the junction, Meier went alone for three more kilometers. “At that point we can’t say I had saved energy but I saw an opportunity and took it,” said the Canadian.

When all the riders were together, 2012 Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) launched an attack but was controlled. French “baroudeur” Sylvain Georges (AG2R-La Mondiale) also tried a solo… and even fought a wind gust created by a truck driving on the parallel road.

Team Sky, however, was firmly leading the peloton to prepare Boasson’s Hagen brutal acceleration.

A member of yesterday’s leading group, Georges was happy to show himself. “The Tour of Beijing is important for our team to gain UCI WorldTour points and for me to be reassured after I had some family and health problems this year.”

Several riders, whether they were in breakaways or in the peloton, emphasized how difficult the Tour of Beijing is, notably because some teams like Euskaltel-Euskadi and AG2R-La Mondiale are chasing points.

Meier saw another reason behind that hard battle: “The race is pretty intense in the mountains because just a very few teams brought their climbers rather than their sprinters. Garmin-Sharp and Euskaltel-Euskadi did it, and they go flat out in the mountains.”

The riders were happy to finish at the foot of the Great Wall, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and the Badaling site is one of the most popular parts within among the 6,700 kilometers in total.

Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) went 132nd in the stage at 15’43″ to Gavazzi.

Luxemburg’s star had a minor crash before the start on the way from his hotel, as his front wheel touched a little stone on the road. Schleck cut his forearm while his team-mate Hayden Roulston was also involved in the crash and superficially injured his knee.

Chinese-based team Champion System Pro Cycling had a good day with three riders finishing in the main bunch. “When the field shredded the guys stayed in front as long as they could,” said directeur sportif Ed Beamon. “They showed they have improved a lot since the beginning of the year.”

Stage four on Thursday from Yanqing to the Changping Stadium, will go to the north of Beijing, over a 165.5 kilometer distance, through the Jundu Mountains and the tombs of the emperors of the Ming Dynasty.

The finale concentrates three category three climbs but with 2.3 kilometers and a smooth gradient on each and with a 31-kilometer downhill from the summit of the last one to the finish line, the match between the possible breakaways and sprinters’ teams will provide an intriguing show.