By Anthony Tan
After one of the most riveting stages in the twelve-year history of Tour Down Under, André Greipel (HTC-Columbia) has managed to defend his leader’s ochre jersey, and is now an assured winner in the 2010 edition of the Australia’s premier stage race.
“If you saw the pictures today on the television,” Greipel, the winner in 2008, said, “you can see how hard it is to race your bike. But if you have some team members like I have, they are just so strong and you just need to stay on the wheel.
“They’ve supported me the whole week, and we’ve reached the goal. I think with a strong team like we have, we can hold onto the jersey.”
But if Saturday’s stage had been just two or three kilometers shorter than its 148km length, the German gorilla – who his team-mate Michael Rogers flatteringly described as “Hulk Hogan on a bike” – would have conceded his lead – and most likely, overall victory – to stage winner Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d’Epargne) or world road champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing).
When Sanchez’s teammate Alejandro Valverde lost a valuable 17 seconds in Friday’s windswept stage to Goolwa, effectively erasing his hopes of winning overall, Caisse d’Epargne sport director Neil Stephens hatched a plan.
“I must admit, I was a bit depressed after the stage finish (Friday) when I find out Alejandro Valverde had lost 17 seconds,” Stephens said.
“It took a bit of fire out of our tactics; the two guys (Valverde and Sanchez) were up there with a chance to go 1-2 (on GC). But today, we thought, ‘Well, we got to go for the stage win or try and get Luis up on the podium.’”
A plan put into motion
On the final of two ascensions of the day’s main obstacle known as Old Willunga Hill, Valverde and Sanchez bridged across to the lead pairing of Evans and Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Doimo) a kilometer from the summit of the 3km climb, and 20km from the stage finish in Willunga.Said Evans: “It put us in an interesting situation: two Caisse d’Epargne’s – one’s a very fast finisher, one’s a strong finisher, it put me in a bit of a difficult situation.“The last thing I wanted to do was lead Sanchez out for the stage because he was breathing down my neck for GC. But so was the entire peloton, so I thought, ‘Better play for something than lose everything.’ One’s against me for GC, one’s against me for the stage, but I thought to better try for an opportunity than have nothing at all.”
From there, this all-star trio-plus-one-intruder worked their proverbial butts off to methodically pare away at Greipel’s lead. Twenty-six seconds ahead of Evans and 30 in front of Leon Sanchez at the start of the day, the race leader had effectively lost his ocher jersey after some power riding by this awesome foursome, gaining a maximum 37-second lead 15km from home.
“There was no point panicking,” said Greipel. “There was no time to panic – we were 40 seconds behind over the top of the climb.”
Said Stephens: “It really was a dream breakaway – the two of our guys, Cadel Evans and the Liquigas guy; that was fantastic.”
And provided they kept more than 26 seconds’ advantage over Greipel, if Leon Sanchez – on paper, the fastest of the four – were to win the stage and Evans finish second, they would go into Sunday’s final circuit race tied with the race lead.
A momentum shift
But as the kilometers cruelly ticked by for the front four and Greipel’s team-mates Rogers, Matt Goss and Hayden Roulston caught their breath, the momentum began to shift like a change in the wind.
Eight kilometers out, the gap was 33 seconds. Six kilometers out, the gap was 31 seconds. Three kilometers out, it was 27 seconds. Two kilometers out, 21 seconds. The GC was no longer up for grabs.
It became time for Caisse d’Epargne to think only of a stage win.
Sagan, who probably spent the last 20km asking himself what he was doing here, was spent. The Spanish team had therefore only to think about Evans – and when Leon Sanchez launched himself down the right-hand side of the road, the Aussie world champion, despite looking resplendent in rainbow all day, was unable to follow.
While Leon Sanchez barely held on for the stage win – his victorious right arm circling like a lasso and left hand beating the Caisse d’Epargne logo on his chest – a kilometer from the line, Luke Roberts (Milram) had jumped out of the 45-man chase group.
Briefly tacking on before going straight through the break’s three remaining members, the soon-to-be 33 year-old South Australian local managed to steal second in front of Valverde, Evans and Sagan, the top five placegetters all finishing on the same time. Nine seconds behind, Greipel’s 17th place was enough for the German to finish the day 11 seconds ahead of Leon Sanchez and 17 seconds ahead of Roberts on the overall classification.
By consequence, his team’s all-out-balls-out effort assures a virtual stranglehold on a second overall victory tomorrow in Adelaide, where once again, Greipel becomes a favourite to take line honours in the 90km city circuit street race.
“We rode to our weakest link on the climb, which was Andre,” explained HTC-Columbia’s road captain Rogers.
“We knew we couldn’t go with Cadel, we knew we couldn’t go with Valverde, so we just rode our own pace, kept all the boys together and we gave it full gas for the last 15 kilometers. We were a little bit nervous, heading into the last 8 or 9 kilometers, but strength in numbers – and that’s how we won the bike race today,” he said.
Nothing out of the ordinary so far…
Leaving the usual seaside destination of Snapper Point at the usual time of 11 a.m., the 129 remnants of the 2010 Santos Tour Down Under peloton headed north for their circuitous trip around Willunga and McLaren Vale.
First a break of four then another group of three saw the day’s early break consolidate 10km into the stage, the ambitious suspects including Michael Matthews (UniSA), Ludovic Turpin (AG2R La Mondiale), Eduard Vorganov (Katusha), Cameron Meyer, Matthew Wilson (both Garmin-Transitions), David Gutierrez (Footon-Servetto) and Valeriy Dmitryev (Astana).
Unsurprisingly with Vorganov only a half-minute behind Greipel at the start of the day, the peloton was duly controlled by Greipel’s army-drilled HTC-Columbia unit of seven. Never allowing the move to get more than two minutes up the road, the septet achieved their maximum advantage of 1:55 at the 42km mark.
By the crest of the first ascension of Old Willunga Hill, the break had been caught by mountains leader Thomas Rohregger (Milram), but Valeriy Dmitryev (Astana) caught and passed him just before the line, the German nevertheless securing his lead in the competition.
With the field regrouped before the final circuit, the stage was set for a showdown royale the second time up Willunga, and it was two Française des Jeux riders who decided to go first and fastest, Wesley Sulzberger their main man for the climb. But Sulzberger was soon caught and passed by Evans, and chased by Valverde and Sagan, with Leon Sanchez latching on later for some rearguard action.
Riding as one over the summit, the heady four risked life and limb and on the descent, dropped like hailstones in a bid for victory…