Drapac Pro Cycling had promised to race their first Santos Tour Down Under in an aggressive fashion and they delivered on that promise within the first two kilometres of today’s opening stage. Will Clarke broke away with Neil van der Ploeg from the UniSA/Australian national team, a team that’s known for getting riders in virtually every Tour Down Under breakaway.
The pair opened up a sizeable lead very quickly — three minutes in just 7km of racing — but it didn’t take long for Orica-GreenEDGE and Belkin to send a few riders to the front of the main field to control the pace. Perhaps the peloton remembered Clarke’s solo win on the second stage of the 2012 Tour Down Under when riding for UniSA and were unwilling to give him too much freedom.
Clarke won the first of the two intermediate sprints ahead of van der Ploeg at the 26km mark before the two continued on together, their lead over the main field fluctuating between 3:00 and 3:30.
When it came to the second and final of the intermediate sprints outside the town of Bethany, van der Ploeg took the honours ahead of Clarke. But back in the main field we were about to get a sign of things to come.
Simon Gerrans worked his way to the front of the field and sprinted clear, taking third place on the second intermediate sprint and two points in the points classification. But Gerrans won’t be interested in the points jersey — he was after the valuable bonus second on offer for third across the line in the intermediate sprint. If one second doesn’t sound like a lot, remember that Gerrans won the 2012 Tour Down Under with the same overall time as runner up Alejandro Valverde.
With the second intermediate sprint completed just 63km remained in the opening stage. The gap to the two leaders started coming down with the colours of Team Sky and Orica-GreenEDGE visible on the front of the main field.
Belkin and Giant-Shimano joined the chase with roughly 30km remaining and by the time the Angaston finish was just 19km away, Neil van der Ploeg had been caught. Will Clarke took the opportunity to attack solo and dangled off the front of the peloton for 3km before being absorbed, just 1km from the base of the day’s only categorised climb: Menglers Hill.
On a mainly flat stage that saw the riders do two laps of a circuit through South Australia’s Barossa Valley, the only real chance to force a selection would come on Menglers Hill. Topping out a little more than 11km from the finish, the 2.7km climb has an average gradient of more than 8%.
Team Sky came back to the front to drive the pace, stringing out the bunch on the approach to the climb. And on the climb proper it was the Australians Nathan Haas (Garmin-Sharp), Nathan Earle (Team Sky) and Rohan Dennis (Garmin-Sharp) who increased the tempo, the leaders reportedly averaging 27km/h up the steep climb.
In the metres before the summit it was Lotto-Belisol’s Adam Hansen who attacked, taking 16 points and the lead in the King of the Mountain classification.
Hansen powered on over the top of the hill, opening up a slight gap. But he was quickly caught by the peloton before two Europcar riders — Yukiya Arashiro and Bjorn Thurau — took the opportunity to move away together with 8km remaining.
Arashiro sat up a few kilometres later and Thurau powered on alone, but the move was shortlived and the surging peloton brought things back together. Rory Sutherland (Tinkoff-Saxo) chanced his arm on the uphill run to the finish but behind him a Lotto-Belisol sprint train had formed, leading out no other than Andre Greipel.
Greipel holds the record for the most of number of stage wins ever at the Tour Down Under (14) and when it became clear that he’d made it to the lead group of around 50 after the climb, he became the man to beat.
But on his wheel was the newly-crowned Australian national road race champion Simon Gerrans.
Gerrans timed his run perfectly, jumping out of Greipel’s slipstream as the big German tried to push a gear that looked a little too big. Gerrans crossed the line just ahead of the German national champion while the Australian national criterium champion, Steele von Hoff (Garmin-Sharp) rounded out the podium.
Gerrans has made no secret about the fact that he has come to the Tour Down Under to win the race for a third time. And with his nationals win last week and after outsprinting one of the very best sprinters in the world today, Gerrans has proved he is the man to beat.
Could the race be won as early as stage 1? There’s still five days left of racing but there’s little doubt Gerrans is in the box seat.
By claiming 10 bonus seconds for the stage win and another bonus second for his third place in the second intermediate sprint, Gerrans puts himself 11 seconds clear of his biggest rivals, including Cadel Evans (BMC) and Robert Gesink (Belkin). Richie Porte (Sky), another pre-race favourite, is 15 seconds in arrears.
Gerrans will take some beating from here.
— Simon Gerrans (@simongerrans) January 21, 2014