ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) doesn’t win often, but when he does, he wins big.
The 33-year-old Australian has a few nice cherries atop his résumé, including Milano-San Remo, stages in all three grand tours, and two national titles.
And in a thrilling showdown Saturday against Cadel Evans (BMC) up Willunga Hill, Gerrans rode in calculating style to claw back the Tour Down Under’s leader’s jersey and inch closer to winning Australia’s premier race a record three times.
“It’s hard not to panic, but Gerro’s cool as a cucumber,” Orica-GreenEdge sport director Matt White said. “Once you get to that last kilometer and a half, if you’re on the wheel there, you’re not going to lose it.”
That’s exactly how it played out in front of thousands of fans. Evans went hard at the bottom of the 3.9km climb up Willunga Hill, putting the screws to Gerrans as Richie Porte (Sky) attacked to victory. Ever patient, Gerrans knew exactly what he had to do.
Daryl Impey and Simon Clarke helped pace Gerrans back to Evans, who was joined by Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida). It was the top-three podium versus Porte for the stage, but Gerrans was gunning for the jersey.
“All the way up the climb, I always knew what I had to do,” Gerrans said. “I needed to save strength for the very last part of the climb.”
Gerrans gapped Evans in the final 200 meters, eking out just enough gap — when coupled with a four-second bonus for finishing third — to put him back in the ochre leader’s jersey by one slender second.
“It’s only by one second,” Gerrans said. “It’s actually one more second than two years ago [against Alejandro Valverde], but it’s going to be tight and nervous [Sunday]. I’m very pleased to be back in the lead.”
Gerrans’ run through the Tour Down Under so far this year exemplifies his economical, tactical style of racing. On Friday, Gerrans took back five seconds to Evans in intermediate sprints to put him back into contention, just seven seconds behind the BMC captain at the start of Saturday’s fifth stage.
“Simon is very smart, and he rode a very calculating climb,” White said. “There were no nerves. We were all very confident we could something here. This climb is always won in the last kilometer, so long as he didn’t get distanced too much in the steep part at the bottom, he could attack at the top.”
Saturday’s just-enough ride proved yet again that perhaps no racer gets more out of his motor than Gerrans.
A former motocross rider who turned pro cyclist in 2002, Gerrans is neither a pure sprinter nor a natural climber, but he can get over climbs and win out of small bunch sprints.
That means Gerrans has to maximize his opportunities when a route suits him. When Gerrans takes on stage races like the Tour, he knows he might only have a handful of chances to go for the win.
“You are limited with how many possibilities there are for a guy of my characteristics,” Gerrans said in an interview last year. “It’s almost breaking down the Tour into a series of one-day races. It takes the pressure off other stages, and I try to conserve my energy as best I can, and when there is a stage that could be good for you, you have to give absolutely 100 percent.”
And some of his biggest rides have come against the biggest names in the peloton. He outsmarted Fabian Cancellara to win San Remo in 2012, and beat Peter Sagan in Corsica to win a stage in the opening weekend of the Tour.
That playbook worked to a T in last year’s Tour, when he won a stage in the opening weekend and then earned the yellow jersey with Orica-GreenEdge’s team time trial victory. Gerrans then passed the yellow jersey to teammate Impey.
For 2014, Gerrans will continue to aim high. The spring classics will be his next major goal.
“When I started my career, I aimed for smaller races, but every year, you aim for higher goals,” he said. “The wins have gotten bigger and bigger throughout my career. There are plenty of races I’d still like to win.”
Route changes at Milano-San Remo will put him back in the pole position in the classics opener.
“I haven’t seen the new climb yet, but from what I’ve read about it, it makes the race even better suited for me,” Gerrans said this week. “I will check it out when I return to Europe. For sure it’s a goal for me.”
It’s as if Gerrans has a personal bucket list that he’s patiently checking off one at a time. Australian national title, check. Tour de France stage win, check. Stages at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, check, check. A monument, Milano-San Remo, check with exclamation mark.
“I’d love to win Liège, and I’d love to have a run at the rainbow jersey,” Gerrans said. “There are plenty of other races I’d still like to win.”
The way Gerrans has come flying out of the gates, more boxes might well be checked before the season’s out.