By Rupert Guinness, The Australian
If Stuart O’Grady’s fairytale return to winning form is to be, he will have to pull off one of the mightiest coups of his career. His bid to win the Jacob’s Creek Tour Down Under stumbled Friday when he lost the leader’s yellow jersey to Dane Nicolai Bo Larsen (CSC).
In the 157km fourth stage from Unley to Strathalbyn, O’Grady (Credit Agricole) looked set to finish with the perfect result until eight kilometers to go. That’s when Bo Larsen attacked. And missing Larsen’s move was a mistake that may cost O’Grady dearly unless he can turn the tables on the red headed Dane Saturday.
Larsen perfectly timed his move followed by four others — including eventual stage winner, South Australia’s Luke Robert’s (Uni of SA) who was presented a yellow Jersey cow called “Freckle”.
Roberts nipped fellow Australian Marcel Gono (Linda McCartney) and Larsen to win the stage — and claim the biggest triumph of his career. “I’m a local so the heat doesn’t bother me as much,” said Roberts after kissing “Freckle” on the head. “Coming up to the finish I knew I probably had the edge on the others as far as speed so long as I didn’t mess it up.”
Meanwhile, Larsen got a two-second-time bonus for his third-place finish, putting 17 seconds ahead of O’Grady, who finished in the main bunch.
O’Grady’s disappointment was clear while recovering in his team van at Strathalbyrn where scorching temperatures greeted the field. But he realizes that to add a second Tour Down Under title to his 1999 win, he must attack in Saturday’s fifth stage through the Barossa Valley. The 156km leg from Gawler to Tanunda includes two passages up Mengler’s Hill, which stands as the most viable launch pad for a winning move.
“I am still not out of it, but it (winning) is going to be pretty hard,” said O’Grady. “Maybe this (losing the lead) will relieve the pressure a bit. But then I came here with a team that I felt was strong enough to control it. Today, we did everything we could, but you can’t get into every break. Now it is down to a few seconds.”
There is little chance O’Grady will be buoyed by Larsen’s claim that he is not confident of being strong enough to hold onto his lead. The two have raced each other countless times and Larsen’s pedigree as a Giro d’Italia stage winner in 1996 speaks for itself. So does his success record in Australia. He won the first stage and enjoyed a one-day spell in the yellow jersey of the inaugural Tour Down Under in 1999. He also won two stages of the 1998 Herald Sun Tour of Victoria.
“Of course we will try to defend it, but I am not so sure we can,” said Larsen who had not planned his move yesterday. “No … no, I didn’t. On the (main) hill I was dropped and in the last kilometers it was hard (to attack) in the crosswinds. But I was lucky. I chose the right moments and had four strong guys with me, especially my teammate Nicolas Jalabert.”
Larsen praised Jalabert for “sacrificing” his own winning chances to help him take the yellow jersey.
“I owe a lot to him for what he did in the sprint,” Larsen said. “I was kaput. He could have won for himself but he worked to help me in the sprint.”
There were plenty of “kaput” riders after Friday’s stage, which saw numerous attacks. The first serious move of nine riders from eight teams played into O’Grady’s hands perfectly.
It included teammate Kiwi Chris Jenner who became race leader on the road when it pulled away to a three minute, 45 second advantage after 34km.
O’Grady had no cause to chase Jenner, unlike the Saeco team of Italian Fabio Sacchi and German Jorg Ludewig who were placed second and third overall. It was a similar story for Telekom, which had German Kai Hundertmark placed fourth at six seconds back.
Before passing the main climb of the day, Old Willunga Hill at 73.1km, Saeco and Telekom had no choice but to chase the break down. Its maximum lead reached more than four minutes at 37km, but it was caught on the approach to the tough sinewy climb shaded partially by gum trees.
However, once the chase was complete; the stage saw a barrage of breaks fired. One of the most active teams was Linda McCartney, which had riders in each of three moves in he final 30km.
The only problem for O’Grady and his teammates was that the most dangerous of them all was the one that got away. Larsen bolted from the pack with eight kilometers remaining. And he was soon joined by his teammates Jalabert, Roberts, Gono and Australian Trent Wilson (Sunsmart-Mitsubishi).
Afterwards, Larsen said he did not set out to take the lead. “It is always something you hope for and if the opportunity arises you try,” he said. Try, he did. And as O’Grady discovered triumph followed.
TOUR DOWN UNDER, Australia, January 16-21;
Stage 4: Unley to Strathalbyn;
1. Luke Roberts (Aus), University of South Australia, 157 km in 3.44.07; 2. Marcel Gono (Aus), Jacob’s Creek-Linda McCartney, same time; 3. Nicolaj Bo Larsen (Dk), CSC-World Online, s.t.; 4. Trent Wilson (Aus), Sunsmart-Mitsubishi, at 0.04; 5. Nicolas Jalabert (F), CSC-World Online, at 0.08; 6. Tayeb Brakia (Dk), Jacob’s Creek-Linda McCartney, at 0.17; 7. Hendrick Van Dijck (B), Lotto Adecco, s.t.; 8. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Credit Agricole, s.t.; 9. Stefano Zanini (I), Mapei-Quick Step, s.t.; 10. Ciaran Power (Irl), Jacob’s Creek-Linda McCartney, s.t.;
General classification after stage 4;
1. Nicolaj Bo Larsen (Dk), CSC-World Online, 12.32.11; 2. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Credit Agricole, at 0.13; 3. Jorg Ludewig (G), Saeco Macchine Per CaffÈ, at 0.15; 4. Kai Hundertmarck (G), Telekom, at 0.19; 5. Chris Jenner (NZ), Credit Agricole, same time; 6. Patrick Jonker (Aus), Big Mat, at 0.21; 7. Arvis Piziks (Lat) CSC-World Online, s.t.; 8. Alexandre Botcharov (Rus), Ag2R Decathlon, s.t.; 9. Benoit Poilvet (F), Credit Agricole, s.t.; 10. Glenn D’Hollander (B), Lotto Adecco, at 0.32