OLD WILLUNGA HILL, Australia (VN) – The 2012 Santos Tour Down Under is set for a nail-biting finish tomorrow in Adelaide, with the first two riders on the overall classification on equal time following Saturday’s fifth stage.
Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, back from a two-year doping suspension for his involvement in Operación Puerto, won the 151.5-kilometer queen stage that finished atop Old Willunga Hill. The 31-year-old edged out Australian road champion, Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge), whose second place put him into the race lead, based on a count-back of previous stage placings.
As the pair lunged for the line, Valverde finished half a wheel ahead of Gerrans, with Tiago Machado (RadioShack-Nissan-Trek) and Michael Rogers (Team Sky) two and four seconds back in third and fourth, respectively.
“It’s an emotional moment for me. The stage suited me. We’ve put the team at the front and it’s a perfect comeback,” said Valverde, who this week declared he will exclusively target overall victory at the Tour de France – provided organizers ASO invite him, of course.
“I’m rapt to have the lead going into the last stage,” Gerrans said.
“It’s such a big deal for GreenEdge to take the lead into the last stage in their first WorldTour outing, so I’m thrilled and really rapt with the whole team’s performance.”
Gerrans’ teammate, Stuart O’Grady, was one of six riders in the only serious breakaway of the day that established early into the race that covered three laps from McLaren Vale, through the township of Willunga and out to Aldinga Beach, before two final loops took the race up Old Willunga Hill.
Joining O’Grady was Briton Andrew Fenn (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Belgians Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Kristof Goddaert (AG2R La Mondiale), Nathan Haas (Garmin-Barracuda) and the tour’s first Japanese entrant, Takashi Miyazawa (Saxo Bank).
While the sextet rode out to a substantial early lead, the GC-focused teams had no intention of letting them stay away. Halfway up the first ascent of Old Willunga Hill, all were caught except for Haas, who soloed over the top, but alas for the neo-pro, he too was soon reeled in. “It was inevitable … I knew that I didn’t have the legs to make up the climb the second time,” he said.
As the race regrouped, the pace stayed high heading through Willunga for the second and final time, with several attacks being launched. But in the end, it was a select group of eight who challenged over the final 200 meters for a place on the podium.
Sunday’s final stage will be contested over 20 laps of a street circuit at Elder Park, on the banks of the Torrens River and north of Adelaide’s CBD. The 90-kilometer finale is set to be a cracker with a maximum 16 seconds’ time bonuses up for grabs and several riders in striking distance of overall victory.
Realistically, though, it’s looking like a two-horse race.