Alejandro Valverde, back in the peloton after serving a two-year doping ban, proved the strongest rider today as the Santos Tour Down Under saw its first ever summit finish on Old Willunga Hill, but it’s the man he pipped to the line, Simon Gerrans of GreenEdge, who tonight wears the race leader’s jersey.
Both riders are on the same time, but it’s Australian champion Gerrans who will start tomorrow’s final stage on a street circuit in Adelaide as the man on top of the general classification as a result of his placings in the previous stages of the race. With bonus seconds on offer at two intermediate sprints as well as on the finish line, the game may not yet be up for Valverde.
The latter’s Movistar team had worked hard to bring back earlier breaks and put Valverde in a position from which the former world number one could secure his first win since being banned in May 2010, his two-year suspension backdated to 1 January of that year.
After a select leading group had been whittled down one by one on that final ascent to the finish, Gerrans and Valverde were left alone in the final 200 metres to contest the stage win, the Spaniard moving out of the Australian’s slipstream ahead of the final bend and coming round the outside to win by half a wheel.
Tiago Machado of RadioShack-Nissan came third, with Team Sky’s Michael Rogers, apparently given the nod to attack as Edvald Boasson Hagen lost contact with the leaders towards the top of the climb, fourth. Machado and Rogers are also respectively third and fourth overall.
"I'm super happy, I can't believe it," enthused Valverde, who has kept himself hidden throughout this race with today representing his clear opportunity to try and seize control.
"My team has been genius, I've won thanks to them. It's an emotional moment for me,” he added, wiping away tears as the emotion of his return overcame him.
“The stage suited me. We've put the team at the front and it's a perfect comeback for me."
Gerrans, winner of the Tour Down Under in 2006, said: "I'm rapt to have the lead going into the last stage. It's such a big deal for GreenEdge to take the lead into the last stage in their first WorldTour outing so I'm thrilled and really rapt with the whole team's performance, they have really supported me all week so I really can't thank the guys enough."
Another former winner of the race in the GreenEdge ranks, two-time victor Stuart O’Grady who hails from South Australia, had given local fans plenty to cheer early on as he got into the early break.
"It was seriously like an end of the Tour de France stage,” he said. “Look at all the people, the stadium, the finish. I would never have dreamed a bike race to be as big in Australia, let alone Adelaide and the people have been absolutely fantastic, Coming up the hill today, it was like the Tour."
Also in that break were Thomas De Gendt of Vacansoleil-DCM, Kristof Goddaert from AG2R La Mondiale, Nathan Haas of Garmin-Barracuda and Saxo Bank’s Takashi Miyazawa, as well as the 21-year-old British rider Andy Fenn of Omega Pharma-Quickstep.
All but the young Tasmanian Haas were caught on the first ascent of Old Willunga Hill, and as what was by now a group of a little over 20 leaders headed towards the town of Willunga and the second ascent of the hill, Uni SA’s Rohan Dennis looked as though he might be set to spring a surprise.
While he would be caught inside the final kilometre, Dennis retains the lead of the Skoda King of the Mountains Classification and also moves into the lead of the Cycle Instead Young Rider Classification after finishing fifth on the stage, and he occupies a similar position overall, 14 seconds behind Gerrans.
Boasson Hagen now lies in sixth position overall, 18 seconds behind his former team mate Gerrans, and tomorrow is likely to concentrate on defending the Jayco sprints jersey as well as perhaps improving his place on GC.
"My team did a great job and I managed to get up the climb first time so I felt really good," he said afterwards. "[The second time] was really hard for me, so we managed to get over the top, so I'm so happy and the team did a great job today I thought."
Rogers, whose first year with Team Sky last year was all but written off after a recurrence of glandular fever, said: "The whole hill was pretty tough and there was strong head wind.
“The goal was to get everything out and scrape the bottom of barrel and I did that and I'm really happy.
"I jumped with 400 metres to go and Valverde and Gerrans got on my wheel and went when I blew. But I am really happy and it's been a long time since I have been able to scrape the bottom of the barrel. It's a win for myself and I am really happy."
Tomorrow’s final stage covers 20 laps of a 4.5km street circuit in Adelaide, and with time bonuses on offer in two intermediate sprints as well as at the stage finish, there could well be some more twists and turns before the identity o the 2011 winner is confirmed.
Tour Down Under Stage 5 Result 1 Alejandro VALVERDE MOV 3:45:48 2 Simon GERRANS GEC 0 3 Tiago MACHADO RSH 2 4 Michael ROGERS SKY 4 5 Rohan DENNIS AUS 7 6 Edvald BOASSON HAGEN SKY 12 7 Javier MORENO MOV 13 8 Jan BAKELANTS RSH 13 9 Jack BAUER GRM 26 10 Eduard VORGANOV KAT 26 11 Michael MATTHEWS RAB 29 12 Linus GERDEMANN RSH 32 13 Gerald CIOLEK OPQ 43 14 Danny PATE SKY 55 15 Angel MADRAZO MOV +1:05 16 Serge PAUWELS OPQ +1:18 17 Martin KOHLER BMC +1:18 18 Jose Joaquin ROJAS MOV +1:18 19 Alessandro BALLAN BMC +1:50 20 Biel KADRI ALM +2:22 Overall Standings after Stage 5 1 Simon GERRANS GEC 18:49:24 2 Alejandro VALVERDE MOV 0 3 Tiago MACHADO RSH 8 4 Michael ROGERS SKY 14 5 Rohan DENNIS AUS 14 6 Edvald BOASSON HAGEN SKY 18 7 Jan BAKELANTS RSH 19 8 Javier MORENO MOV 23 9 Michael MATTHEWS RAB 29 10 Eduard VORGANOV KAT 32
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.