By Anthony Tan
The hottest stage of the 2010 Santos Tour Down Under was also the hardest, with the team of race leader André Greipel very much under fire.
A relative unknown in Portuguese road champion, Manuel Cardoso (Footon-Servetto-Fuji), turned out to be the day’s major beneficiary, while HTC-Columbia did enough to keep Greipel in the ochre jersey. However, the 40 degree Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) temperatures took their toll on the entire peloton including the race leader, who admitted he was the victim of severe cramping.
The Caisse d’Epargne team appeared confident their man Alejandro Valverde could take the Tour’s third stage that began from Unley. But Cardoso caught the Spanish outfit off-guard and after 132.5 kilometers, launched his sprint 250 meters from the line in Stirling to best world road champ Cadel Evans of BMC Racing in an uphill finish.
“I don’t think I have a chance to win overall despite my win here,” Cardoso said, having lost eight-and-a-half minutes on the opening stage. “I have had a lot of hard days over the first couple of days of this race and I am probably too far behind.
“But it was really important for me, it is my first pro race, first pro team, first pro tour victory for me and the team, so it is a very important win.”
Greipel, who came across the line in 23rd place, continues to lead the race by a 14-second margin over a group of three – Greg Henderson (Team Sky), Steegmans and Valverde – but with so many riders in great shape for the first ProTour event of the season, his leadership is far from assured.
“In the end, I just tried to stay on the wheels of the others to stay on the same time as the (first) bunch. I had cramps everywhere in my body, so I don’t think it was really good to race your bike today,” said Greipel, who has been in Australia since January 2 to specifically prepare himself for the sweltering conditions often experienced in South Australia at this time of year.
“My teammates controlled the whole race. They were just awesome – they rode all the time on the front and chased the nine riders (in the break), and then chased the others back. I’m really pleased about them,” said the German sprinter. “Our team is strong, but I’m not the strongest climber.”
Asked if the team will lay low on Friday’s 149.5km fourth stage from Norwood to Goolwa before the expected assault Saturday on Old Willunga Hill, Greipel’s sport director Allan Peiper told VeloNews: “I don’t know if that’s really possible. You like to think you can save yourself, but that doesn’t really work. I think if (Greipel) can keep the jersey tomorrow, he can fight it out on Saturday.
“Just getting through tomorrow and riding conservatively (isn’t possible); you gotta stay awake because otherwise (a break could be) gone. Nine riders went up the road earlier today – if they had of gone, we would have been … I’m not going to say in trouble, but we could’ve chased the whole day,” he said, sounding more than a little relieved.
Hot, hot, hotter
Unley, 3.4km from Adelaide’s city center and as familiar a Tour Down Under setting as Thursday’s finish in Hahndorf, saw 131 riders sign in for the day’s racing. Actually, it was 132 but Rabobank’s Pieter Weening opted out at the last minute.
Several riders, including U.S. champion George Hincapie, went down in an early crash, but there were no serious injuries reported.
The day’s sole climb of Wickhams Hill, a 3km slope with a seven percent average and not dissimilar in profile to Saturday’s decisive Old Willunga Hill, was thought to provide a perfect launch-pad, coming 38.5km into the stage. But a group of nine decided they couldn’t wait that long and when five of them bailed after the first intermediate sprint in McLaren Flat (30.9km), Sebastien Rosseler (RadioShack), Juan Ripoll Horrach (Katusha), Perget Mathieu (Caisse d’Epargne) and Peter McDonald (UniSA) became the remaining quartet.
Milram’s Thomas Rohregger and Luke Roberts then bridged to the leaders before busting through in time to take the first two places on Wickhams Hill, ensuring Rohregger the mountains jersey by the day’s end, who would lead Tim Roe (UniSA) by four points.
HTC-Columbia soon decided it would have none of that and chased them all down. However, a countermove of five heading into the first of two-and-a-half tough finishing circuits around Stirling had made their move, which included Simon Clarke (UniSA), Karsten Kroon (BMC Racing), Jack Bobridge (Garmin-Transitions), Maciej Paterski (Liquigas-Doimo) and Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank).
Banking on Valverde for the win, Caisse d’Epargne took over from HTC-Columbia and chased down the escapees heading toward the lengthy, final uphill drag-race. Inside the final kilometer, all eyes were on Evans’ rainbow stripes – but as it turned out they were watching the wrong man. Evans said he had surprised even his own BMC team over the 133 kilometer stage with the lung-busting finish.
“Coming in the last kilometer, it was like riding in slow-motion almost, everyone was so exhausted,” he said. “It was a tough little race, early in the season, that changes everything around. My team are all a bit disappointed: I told them not to ride for me today, and then I came third!”