Swiss time trial champion Martin Kohler regained the Tour Down Under lead yesterday and the GreenEdge team finally swung into action on stage four in a bid to win their home race.
BMC rider Kohler, who took the ocher jersey on Wednesday from former two-time champion Andre Greipel, handed it back to the Lotto sprinter on Thursday after the German’s second stage win of the race.
However, Greipel was among a 90-man group left struggling after a determined spell of pacesetting on Menglers Hill allowed about 40 riders to go clear of the main peloton.
After a technical finish into the Barossa Valley town of Tanunda, Spanish veteran Oscar Freire took the stage honors to claim his first win of the season and the first for his new Russian outfit Katusha.
He finished ahead of Germany’s Gerald Ciolek and Italian Daniele Bennati, with overall victory contenders Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) and Michael Matthews (Rabobank) coming close behind.
“It’s great to get this first win of the season for myself and the team I just joined,” said Freire, a former three-time world champion making his race debut on what is his final season. “It was a difficult finale, but that suited me. I won because the race was made hard.”
After his victory on Thursday, Greipel claimed that today’s stage finish on Old Willunga hill would end his overall race ambitions, but the German dominated the field at the first intermediate sprint to add three bonus seconds to his eight-second overnight lead on Kohler.
That decision was like a “red flag” to the Australian GreenEdge team, who are keen to secure the win for national champion Simon Gerrans.
With about 23km to race, they drove the pace hard early on the 3.5km-long climb to Menglers Hill and after being joined by the Movistar team of Alejandro Valverde, their combined efforts left most of the peloton struggling.
“That was like a red flag for us,” GreenEdge’s Matt White said, referring to Greipel’s earlier sprint. “On Menglers Hill, I used Robbie [McEwen] and Matt [Goss] and Leigh [Howard] just to put the pressure on and make it really intense. We wanted to put the sprinters into the red early. Movistar then moved up and took over from us. It split the peloton very early on the climb.”
The stragglers chased, but at the finish most came over the line more than six minutes in arrears.
GreenEdge’s efforts kept Gerrans well in contention for a second Tour Down Under victory, but with a number of other contenders only seconds off the pace, the team could be in for another tough day today.
Kohler, meanwhile, has found himself in the unexpected position of being able to win overall.
“I didn’t expect to get the jersey again,” Kohler said. “I only got it because Greipel was dropped on the climb. After that, we rode hard to make the gap bigger. Tomorrow, there will 15 riders contending the win at the top of Willunga. Whether I keep the jersey depends a lot on how the race goes.”
Following the stage, organizers made good on a threat to sanction cyclists for urinating in public, handing fines to a dozen riders for “unseemly behavior.”
With the mercury regularly rising above 40oC in the Adelaide Hills this week, riders have been forewarned by their respective teams to drink plenty before, during and after each day’s stage, but that advice has often led to some being caught short, feeling the need to relieve themselves at the side of the road during the race, despite the presence of spectators.