Oscar Freire has claimed the first victory of what he insists will be his final season on the road, and his maiden win in Katusha’s colours, by taking Stage 4 of the Santos Tour Down Under in Tanunda. With the peloton splitting on the climb of Menglers Hill, race leader André Greipel of Lotto-Belisol was missing from the finale, and BMC Racing’s Martin Kohler is back in the leader’s jersey for the third time this week.
Three-time world champion Freire, now aged 35, has been plagued by breathing problems in recent years, and has had surgery on his sinuses.
However, in winning today from Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s Gerald Ciolek and RadioShack-Nissan-Trek’s Daniele Bennati, the former Rabobank rider sent out a sign that he is determined to end his career on a high – a fourth victory in Milan-San Remo and challenging for gold in the Olympic road race are his two big targets.
"It was a difficult finale," said Freire afterwards. "I knew I had a really good chance to win. The race was hard [so] it was better for me. I'm happy to score the team's first victory of the year after joining Katusha," he added.
That split on Menglers Hill meant that 50 riders were left to contest the finish, resulting in a reshuffle of the general classification, with Kohler now leading by two seconds from Rabobank’s Michael Matthews, with Freire third on the same time.
Ciolek is fourth, six seconds off the lead, and there are another 40 riders between eight and twelve seconds behind Kohler ahead of tomorrow’s decisive Stage 5, which features a summit finish on Willunga Hill.
Those include Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, Simon Gerrans of GreenEdge and former world number one Alejandro Valverde of Movistar in his first race since returning from a two-year doping ban.
"I didn't expect to be back in the lead but we dropped Andre Greipel on the climb and then we were riding hard to make the gap bigger," reflected Kohler.
"Tomorrow there will be ten or fifteen riders contesting the win at the top of Willunga Hill. It's going to be very hard and I don't know if I can keep this lead or not but I'm already happy with what I'm doing here.
"Our team BMC feels at home with all the support we get but of course we are the team of Cadel Evans," added the Swiss rider.
Matthews, world under-23 road race champion in 2010, is one of those with his sights set on taking the race lead on Willunga Hill.
"The jersey I want is ochre and I'll try to get it tomorrow," insisted the 21-year-old. "It's unfortunate that I missed it today by only two seconds. [But] not having the jersey today takes a lot of pressure off you but it's also better to be ahead of everyone else."
The pace was high from the start of the 130km stage in the Adelaide suburb of Norwood, and it was only after the first intermediate sprint, won by Greipel, that a four-man break managed to get clear, comprising Uni SA’s Jay McCarthy, Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Ruben Perez, AG2R’s Biel Kadri and Katusha’s Gatis Smukulis.
The peloton had swept up the escapees by the time Menglers Hill approached, with the pace causing the peloton to fracture as the riders headed up the ascent.
One of the riders in the front group, Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, finished fourth to move into the lead of the Jayco Points classification from Greipel.
"I just try every day to move up on overall GC,” said the Norwegian. “It's nice to have the sprint jersey. "I didn't expect it but that's not the one I'm looking for, I want to win the jersey of the overall classification.
"My team mate [Geraint] Thomas gave me a great lead out but I came off his wheel a bit too early. The battle is still very open."
Tomorrow’s 151.5km stage begins in McLaren Vale and features two ascents of Old Willunga Hill, the second also marking the first summit finish in the 14-year history of the race.
Santos Tour Down Under Stage 4 result 1 FREIRE, Oscar Katusha 3:08:34 2 CIOLEK, Gerald Omega Pharma-QuickStep All at same time 3 BENNATI, Daniele RadioShack-Nissan 4 BOASSON HAGEN, Edvald Sky Procycling 5 MATTHEWS, Michael Rabobank 6 ROJAS, Jose Joaquin Movistar 7 ROBERTS, Luke Team Saxo Bank 8 KOREN, Kristijan Liquigas-Cannondale 9 LAGUTIN, Sergey Vacansoleil-DCM 10 HAUSSLER, Heinrich Garmin-Barracuda 11 ROY, Jérémy FDJ-BigMat 12 MORENO, Javier Movistar 13 PAUWELS, Serge Omega Pharma-QuickStep 14 REYNES, Vincente Lotto-Belisol 15 GUTIERREZ, José Ivan Movistar 16 BELKOV, Maxim Katusha 17 GERRANS, Simon GreenEDGE 18 SULZBERGER, Bernard UNI SA-Australia 19 THOMAS, Geraint Sky Procycling 20 VAN AVERMAET, Greg BMC Overall Standings after Stage 4 1 KOHLER, Martin BMC 15:03:34 2 MATTHEWS, Michael Rabobank at 0:02 3 FREIRE, Oscar Katusha 4 CIOLEK, Gerald Omega Pharma-QuickStep at 0:06 5 GERRANS, Simon GreenEDGE at 0:08 6 BENNATI, Daniele RadioShack-Nissan 7 BOASSON HAGEN, Edvald Sky Procycling 8 BAKELANTS, Jan RadioShack-Nissan 9 VORGANOV, Eduard Katusha 10 DENNIS, Rohan UNI SA-Australia at 0:09
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.