By Alasdair Fotheringham
SERRA SAN BRUNO (Reuters) - Enrico Battaglin led an Italian 1-2-3 to win the fourth stage of the Giro d'Italia on Tuesday as Britain's Bradley Wiggins lost time in a testing finale.
The Tour de France champion lost 17 seconds as the peloton split in the final kilometers that included a quick descent followed by a flat section, which riders tackled in heavy rain with a cobbled section in the home straight.
Wiggins dropped from second to sixth overall, 34 seconds adrift of Italian Luca Paolini who retained the pink jersey after finishing safe in the bunch.
The Briton was one of several riders held up behind a crash involving Juan Manuel Garate, Cristiano Salerno and Laurent Pichon, which happened with less than two kilometers left in the stage.
International Cycling Union (UCI) regulations state that a rider who is held up in this way in the final three kilometers - with the exception of uphill finishes - is credited with the same time as the main bunch.
Herve Broecke, president of UCI commissaires on the Giro, explained, however, that the "three-kilometre" rule could not be applied to Wiggins as he had already dropped back.
"Wiggins was already behind the bunch when the crash took place because there was a split in the peloton, which was very strung out," he told reporters.
"The crash took place with less than three kilometers to go, we watched to see who had been affected by this crash and they were given the time of the riders they were with."
Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford played down the impact of Wiggins's time loss.
"It's like anything, you'd prefer it not to happen, but I don't think it's race changing," he told reporters.
"It puts him back on a par with everyone else. I think the big gaps will appear in the time trials and the big mountain stages, that's where this race is won and lost.
"On these early stages, you win some seconds here, and you lose seconds there."
Other pre-race favorites Cadel Evans of Australia, Italian Vincenzo Nibali and defending champion Ryder Hesjedal of Canada came home safe after a 246-km undulating trek from Policastro Bussentino.
Paolini leads Colombian Rigoberto Uran of Team Sky by 17 seconds with Spain's Benat Inxausti in third 26 seconds off the pace for Movistar.
Nibali and Hesjedal leapfrogged Wiggins and are now fourth and fifth, 31 and 34 seconds off the pace respectively.
Nibali, however, survived a scare with 35 kilometers remaining when he suffered a mechanical problem but managed to get back into the bunch after team mate Valerio Agnoli gave him his wheel.
With the second-category Croce Ferrata climb looming, several riders, among them Frenchman Sylvain Georges, tried their luck, jumping away from the main pack.
Team Sky moved to the front of the peloton, set a decent pace and toyed with the Frenchman.
Danilo Di Luca, the 2007 Giro winner, and Robinson Chalapud of Colombia also attacked and whizzed past Georges but the Italian was reined in the final straight as Battaglin launched a perfectly-timed sprint.
Fabio Felline (Androni Giocattoli) and Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) finished second and third respectively.
"I knew that this finale was tailor-made for me," Battaglin told TV channel BeIn Sport.
"I knew it was now or never for me to win a stage."
Wednesday's fifth stage takes the peloton over 203 kilometers from Cosenza to Matera.
(Reporting by Alasdair Fotheringham; Writing by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis)