January 20, 2011 10 Comments
If, before the Tour Down Under had started, you could be forgiven for thinking that there were only two riders – Mark Cavendish and André Greipel – competing in the race, that is emphatically not the case now. Stage three from Unley to Stirling produced a third winner from three different teams, and not once has victory gone to Cavendish, Greipel or any of the other recognised leading sprinters present in Adelaide.
Today it was the turn of Rabobank‘s 20-year old Michael Matthews, the reigning world under-23 road race champion, who held off the challenge of Greipel comfortably on the uphill finish in Stirling. Meanwhile Cavendish, still suffering from yesterday’s crash, limped home over 12 minutes later.
Another day, another sprint
An initial four-man escape of Thomas De Gendy (Vacansoleil), Aleksandr Kuschynski (Katusha), Luis Pasamontes (Movistar) and Luke Durbridge (UniSA-Australia) built a five-minute advantage early on. A second, three-man group later attempted to bridge the gap, but the sprinters’ teams gradually pulled in the leash to bring the peloton back together for the final 20 kilometres. Despite a couple of speculative attacks – one involving the highly regarded Jack Bobridge (Garmin-Cervélo), the 21-year old Australian national champion – the sprinters’ teams kept everything together for a bunch sprint.
Matthews timed his sprint perfectly in the closing 200 metres on a tricky uphill finish, powering clear of Greipel, who said he had been boxed in by others, to win by nearly two bike lengths despite easing up well short of the line to begin his celebration. Matthew Goss was third, a further length behind Greipel.
Matthews was ecstatic with his win:
This is probably one of the most difficult stages I’ve ridden and one of the most difficult in this tour. It’s really great to win this one and thanks to my team. They worked very well today [and] I couldn’t have done it without them.
Goss and McEwen left feeling deflated
Both Goss and overnight leader Robbie McEwen had their finishes compromised by late punctures which required them to expend extra energy chasing back to the pack. Nonetheless, Goss’s recovery to third was enough for him to reclaim the overall lead from McEwen, who dropped back to third behind Greipel. In total, just four seconds separate Goss from fifth-placed Ben Swift (Sky), the winner of stage two.
McEwen was fairly phlegmatic about losing the ochre jersey after just one day:
It was nice to be in the jersey but it puts a lot of responsibility on the team and forced them to work to defend the jersey. There were two other guys close to me that took bonuses at the finish so it’s still a game of seconds. But the seconds only matter if you can get over Willunga on Saturday. I’d like to get a stage win tomorrow and then concentrate on Willunga Hill.
I punctured just as we started the last lap. There was a crash and I had to get around it so I went off the road and flatted. I got the wheel change but it took a lot of energy to get back into the bunch. All in all it was an okay day.
Goss admitted afterwards that it had been a long, hard day in hot conditions, but that the strength of his HTC-Highroad team had pulled him through:
It was a pretty tough day. It was 36 degrees and that takes its toll on everyone. Then I had a puncture with about 12km to go. Bernie [Eisel] and Mark [Renshaw] waited. I ended up on my spare bike. By that stage the ambulances had gone past so we had a long chase ahead. Bernie chased me all the way back on.
Just as we made it back to the peloton we were at the bottom of the climb with about 5km to go. There’s no respite on that hill. It’s pretty nasty. Hayden [Roulston] brought me up through the bunch so I could contest the sprint.
It just shows how strong the guys are so I think we have good chances to try to defend the jersey for the rest of the week.
Reclaiming the ochre jersey brought a sad day to a satisfying end. The entire HTC-Highroad team wore black arm bands during the stage in memory of HTC women’s rider Carla Swart, who was killed in an accident with a truck while on a training ride in South Africa yesterday.
Cavendish was okay to start after his big crash yesterday but opted to conserve his energy, rolling home in the final group 12:29 down. He professed himself happy to do whatever he can in support of Goss:
I am really happy. He [Goss] punctured with 10km to go and then got back on. He is in really good form. He is an incredible gutsy rider. The guys did well to help him. I can’t really do anything, just to go and get one or two bidons.
Where have all the big names gone?
Three stages in, the expected head-to-head slugfest Greipel and Cavendish has failed to materialise. The German has a pair of second places to his name, while Cavendish – like fellow sprint ace Tyler Farrar – has not featured anywhere near the front so far.
Farrar, after an injury-hit 2010, is working his way towards the spring Classics. He is effectively treating the race as an extended pre-season.
Cavendish is visibly carrying an extra couple of kilos, and has openly admitted he never expected to be in peak form in January, telling VeloNews before the race:
I wouldn’t say I’m bringing my A-game to the race. Obviously I’m not in Tour de France condition right now. I’m not going to bust a gut to be as skinny as I can to win here. I’ve got bigger goals. If I go full gas right now it’s going to be a hard ask to do the other things I want to do in the year.
Given yesterday’s big crash and Goss’s current position as race leader, it is now even more likely that Cavendish will assume a support role for the rest of the race. His key early season target is Milan-San Remo – a race he won two years ago – in mid-March, and he knows that supporting the man in form now will be repaid in kind when it comes to the business end of the season at the Giro and Tour, where Goss will most likely be a key member of his lea-out train.
Unlike Cavendish, Greipel looks lean but is perhaps missing a bit of top-end power compared to previous seasons. He is also adjusting to a new team, Omega Pharma-Lotto, and has not always shown the kind of tactical flexibility of a Cavendish or a McEwen to win races on his own wits. He too may also be looking further forward into the season, deliberately arriving in Australia with less good form than previous years knowing that he will have the opportunity to race in France – where it really matters – for the first time as a top sprinter this year.
With hindsight, it is not surprising that Greipel, Cavendish and Farrar have not sparkled so far at the Tour Down Under. But if that means we see a showdown in Italy in May or on the Champs-Élysées in July, this week will soon be forgotten.
The race continues tomorrow to Strathalbyn, but it will be Saturday’s stage to Willunga – during which the peloton must tackle Willunga Hill twice in the closing kilometres – which will most likely decide the overall winner.
Tour Down Under highlights are being shown every evening on Sky Sports, with live coverage of stages five and six in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday morning.
Stage 3 result:
1. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) 3:11:47
2. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) same time
3. Matthew Goss (HTC-Highroad) s/t
4. Simon Gerrans (Sky) s/t
5. Luke Roberts (UniSA-Australia) s/t
1. Matthew Goss (HTC-Highroad) 9:56:25
2. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:02
3. Robbie McEwen (RadioShack) +0:04
4. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) +0:04
5. Ben Swift (Sky) +0:04
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