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By Anthony Tan
HTC-Columbia general manager, Bob Stapleton, regularly faces a rather pleasant dilemma. Whenever his team plan to go to a race and there’s a sprint on the menu, he has to decide which of his two sprinters will order the main course all for themselves.
So dominant is the tiger-striped squad when the roads are flat and the finishes fast, it seems that for this team owned by this affable American entrepreneur, the ‘who’ seems to be a more pressing decision than the “how,” which, as they say in Oz, they have “down pat” (understood perfectly).
For the past three seasons, Stapleton has sent a German with legs that resemble concrete pillars and arms like Schwarzenegger to the first ProTour race of the season.
At the 2008 Tour Down Under, André Greipel, a relative unknown at the time, turned out to be a level above the rest in all bar two stages en route to overall victory. He went on to record his best-ever season.
The following year, Greipel, now 26, came back to defend his title and from what we saw, he was in the form of his life. It would be unfair to eventual winner Allan Davis to say he would have won, but it’d be fair to say he was in with a great shot and was the race favorite.
Despite crashing out and missing all the European spring and half the summer, in terms of victories amassed, he was second only to his pétit though prolific teammate Mark Cavendish by season’s end.
This year at the Santos Tour Down Under, 27-year-old Greipel has lost none of his imposing shape or race fitness. And after notching a second successive victory in a town founded by Germans, odds are that he could well win again.
The whole thing, that is.
“I had a good winter, I didn’t get sick. And with the team’s support, my form is good,” said Greipel, who leads the race overall by 14 seconds from Team Sky’s Henderson and Gert Steegmans of RadioShack. “There’s no time to relax. Tomorrow (to Stirling, a 132.5km leg) is a hard stage, and there we will work out how good we are.”
But you wouldn’t hear of a sprinter who believes a rival to be unbeatable. That would be akin to blasphemy in the church, and this is certainly the case for third-place finisher Robbie McEwen (Katusha), who only just finished behind Henderson at the conclusion of Wednesday’s 133-kilometer stage in Hahndorf.
“At the moment he’s undeniably the strongest sprinter – but it doesn’t mean you’re going to win every stage,” McEwen told VeloNews.
“I just have to be quicker on the day. You don’t win races against the best sprinters when you’re maybe at 80 percent power. It’s that last six or eight percent that makes the difference.”
After a crash in last year’s Tour of Belgium almost put paid to his career, McEwen, a bloke with a triplet of Tour de France green jerseys in his top drawer, has been back racing for less than a month. The 37-year-old Queenslander feels assured he can get better, and most likely, will. But maybe not in this race, he says.
“I’m going to suffer through this race, that’s for sure,” said McEwen, “but I’m up there and I’ll just keep trying every day – I’ll see if I can grab a win.
“If not, so long as I’m improving, this race will build on my condition going into the European season. It’ll probably take me till April to get some real power in my leg; I feel like I’m just lacking a little bit of power to really push it around. Ring these [races] is what really brings you back into condition,” he said.
“People tend to forget him because we’ve got Mark (Cavendish) in this team,” Stapleton told VeloNews, asked if he feels Greipel is often under-rated by the pundits.
Not any more.
Watch out for a bloke called Lance
Interestingly, McEwen had a tipoff for the hacks-in-waiting: come Saturday on the decisive fifth stage around Old Willunga Hill, expect a guy called Lance to light up the race and blow the field to bits.
Warned McEwen: “Expect fireworks on Saturday. You see how aggressive RadioShack are riding in the sprints for (Gert) Steegmans, but I expect LA to go for it on Saturday. He’s pulling the sprint, he’s at the front, he’s really active, so I think he’s just warming the legs up for Saturday.”
Thanks for the heads-up, Robbie. Lance isn’t saying anything about that yet; he thinks tomorrow may expose a few chinks in HTC-Columbia’s armor – that’s if there are any.
“Tomorrow’s (Thursday) going to be a tough day for a team that wants to defend and do a proper lead-out, so we’re looking for a bit of rest day,” said Armstrong.
“(The finish to) Stirling’s tough. It’s not a big explosion, it’s more a finish of attrition and of course, the finish is at the top. I remember last year being in a little break and paying for it at the end. It’s a painful finish, no two ways about it. Right now, we’re just trying to get a stage win.”
No chance in hell, but what the heck…
Trio breakaways with no chance in hell seem to be the order of the day at the 2010 Tour Down Under.
Because for the second stage running, a pair of Europeans and a young Aussie provided the catalyst for the day’s doomed-before-it-began early move. Instigated by David Kemp (UniSA-Australia-AIS) who skipped away at the drop of the flag, the Queenslander was soon joined by Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Mickael Delage and Olivier Kaisen, the trio predictably given the green light by the peloton who after 24km, already enjoyed a seven-and-a-half minute lead.
Paying little attention to the cows grazing in wheat fields or the pretty olive groves scattered around the district, the lead trio took advantage of warm sunshine (how does 28 degrees Celsius sound?) and a light wind, pressing onwards and upwards till they reached a maximum 11:30 advantage just 31km in.
From there, however, things didn’t go so well. Moving inexorably closer to the day’s only climb of Checker Hill (89.3km), their lead steadily diminished as the kilometers ticked on, and like his UniSA team-mate Timothy Roe yesterday, Kemp dropped his companions on the aforementioned 600-meter ramp with its 13.3 percent gradient, leaving just himself out front.
The three rejoined after the steep little ramp, and giving them a 1-in-a-thousand chance instead of 1-in-a-million was the lack of a concerted chase by all of the sprinters’ teams. But RadioShack and Katusha’s double-act was eventually enough to bury their chances and from there, for HTC-Columbia at least, all that remained were the formalities.