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MURRAY BRIDGE, Australia (CT) – You could sense the tension in the bunch. Domestiques bringing their leaders up to the front as the pace increased. Riders squeezed off the bitumen and onto the gravel verge. Rivals nudging each other out of the way, battling for space. A handful of late crashes that saw riders bouncing across the tarmac.
Many had predicted — and indeed hoped — that late crosswinds would split the bunch. That never happened, but the run-in to Murray Bridge on stage 4 of the Tour Down Under was challenging enough already.
When the dust finally settled and all involved could finally take a deep breath, it was Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) who’d come up trumps. Coming into the final corner, just 300 metres from the line, Ewan had been nestled comfortably on the wheel of stage 1 winner Sam Bennett (Deceuninck QuickStep). Bennett waited late to throw his nose in the wind, but Ewan waited even longer. The Australian hit the front with mere metres to spare, taking his second stage win of this year’s tour and the ninth of his career.
“I wanted to be on [Bennett’s] wheel,” Ewan said afterwards. “I told Roger [Kluge] to put me on his wheel coming into that corner. And then to be honest that suits me pretty well with the corner right near the finish line, when it’s an acceleration basically to the line.
“I knew that if my legs felt good that I could accelerate past, and that’s what I did.”
Bennett held on for second while Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates) was third, adding to a second and a fourth on previous stages, and moving into the sprinter’s jersey.
While it was Ewan who took stage honours, there were other battles raging throughout the day. There was one battle that all riders were involved in: staying upright in a nervous bunch, particularly towards the end of the stage.
“It was really sketchy,” said overall leader Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo). “Everybody talks crosswind, crosswind, but it wasn’t really a true crosswind and the wind wasn’t that strong. But it was pretty stressful.
“It was a funny old day. Probably pretty boring to watch, but it wasn’t boring in the peloton.”
There were at least two crashes in the final 10 km. Mitch Docker (EF Pro Cycling) appeared the worst off of those who fell, but went on to finish the stage. UniSA-Australia pair Kell O’Brien and Tyler Lindorff both abandoned as a result of their falls, the latter having crashed on all four stages of the race.
And then there was the battle for the race overall. Porte came into the day with a six-second advantage over two-time defending champion Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott). Porte had expected that lead to be challenged at the day’s two intermediate sprints, and that was exactly how it unfolded.
Mitchelton-Scott kept the race together for the first 40 km, ensuring that no breakaway riders could take the time bonuses on offer at either intermediate sprint. Philipsen won them both — to protect Diego Ulissi’s sixth overall, more than for the sprint jersey — but Impey took one second at the first sprint, and two at the second. And with that, he slashed Porte’s overnight lead in half.
“We kind of expected that that was going to happen,” Porte said. “We showed intent that we were going to at least honour the [ochre leader’s] jersey and defend it, not just make the sprinter teams take control.
“We threw some guys up there to make it hard, or harder for Darryl. I mean, [sprinting for bonus seconds] is probably going to take its toll a little bit on him. It’s not easy, but full credit to him. He can mix it with pure sprinters and there was other guys up there sprinting today against him, not just Mads [Pedersen] and Kiel [Reijnen].
“And yeah, we lost three seconds on the road today, but we did kind of expect that and maybe even to lose a little more time to be honest.”
With two stages remaining, Porte leads Impey by three seconds. Rob Power (Sunweb) remains in third, but moves one second closer — to eight seconds behind — after snagging one bonus second at the second intermediate sprint. Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is fourth at 11 seconds, while George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) is fifth at 14 seconds.
Tomorrow’s stage is likely to end in another bunch sprint, but a late climb creates a little uncertainty. The same finish in 2016 saw Mitchelton-Scott (then Orica-GreenEdge) split the field ahead of a reduced bunch sprint where Simon Gerrans won the day, taking 10 bonus seconds and setting up the overall victory.
Impey and Mitchelton-Scott are capable of similar tomorrow. But regardless of how it unfolds tomorrow afternoon, the most likely scenario is this: that Porte and Impey, and perhaps a handful of others, will be within 10 seconds of one another come the race’s final battle on Willunga Hill.
Porte has won there six times in a row, but Impey has been increasingly close in recent years. Last year he finished on the same time as Porte, locking up the overall title.
As Porte himself said after today’s stage: “It’s going to come down to the wire I’d say.”