Patrick Bevin (CCC Team) produced another assured performance on stage 4 of the Tour Down Under on Friday, finishing second to Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) and retaining his lead with just two days remaining in the race.
The New Zealander was put under pressure when a dangerous group of GC rivals attacked and went clear on the Corkscrew climb, but on the long descent to the finish, Bevin allied with Mitchelton to nullify the attack. Although Impey won the stage and reduced Bevin's lead to seven seconds, the CCC rider is still on track for his first WorldTour stage race win.
"This race is hard. I took the onus as much as I had to on the descent, and I knew that as the group got bigger, it got to the point where any time bonus would be good, and certainly better than none," Bevin said at the finish.
"I wasn't going to risk losing time to anyone. To lose just four seconds to Daryl is a great result. I don't feel like he's climbing better than I am, and we put time into the pure climbers again."
The stage came down to the predicted battle on Corkscrew and the technical descent to the finish that followed. Team Sky set a frantic pace on the lower slopes before Michael Woods (EF Education), Richie Porte (Trek Segafredo), George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) and Wout Poels (Team Sky) pushed clear in a move initiated by Poels.
At the top of the climb the four riders had roughly 15 seconds' advantage, but with Mitchelton aware that their title defence rested on gaining time, and Bevin joining forces, the gap was cut with just under two kilometres to go.
As the line approached, Astana's Luis Leon Sanchez kicked off the sprint, before Bevin, and then Impey, opened up their efforts on opposite sides of the road. Impey, who won this race through bonus seconds last year, edged out the race leader with Sanchez hanging on for third. The Spaniard occupies the same position on GC and is 11 seconds down on Bevin.
"I didn't panic at all," Bevin said when asked about the move that contained his former team leader Porte.
"I knew that effort was until the finish line. I've been in that position many times. The effort didn't finish at the top of the climb and I knew that I needed legs for the descent. As a bigger guy, you're going to mow those guys down. It helped that they were looking at each other a little bit coming into the sprint. The day played out as I thought it would. I knew that on the steep bits of the Corkscrew I would haemorrhage a little bit of time, but I kept the power on."
On paper, stage 5 should be decided by a bunch sprint, but each stage in this year's race has had an effect on the overall standings. That said, after Friday's action, all eyes really turn to Willunga Hill and the final climb of the race. Bevin's six seconds gained today have increased his lead over the likes of Porte and Woods to 21 seconds – not an insurmountable amount given that the winner of the final stage will pick up 10 bonus seconds – but few will fancy their chances again a Bevin in this form.
"There is no point in me turning around and looking for help. On a climb like Willunga, it's a real power climb. It's harder to ride away from others. I'll do my best to make it up that climb as fast as I can. I won't worry about anything else. I'll just get from A to B at the absolute limit."
It's not just Bevin's riding that has caught the eye at this year's Tour Down Under. The 27-year-old has been strutting around Adelaide with an air of confidence. That's not to be confused with arrogance; it's more a sense of assuredness, hunger and the desire to take on more responsibility in order to take his career to the next level. Under the BMC Racing banner, the depth of leaders meant that Bevin's talents were often turned towards domestique duties. After Porte, Rohan Dennis and several other high-profile riders departed for other teams, Bevin chose to stay and fight for his chances. It was quite the move given that Mitchelton Scott came calling and showed interest, but Bevin decided to sign with CCC and few would suggest at this stage that he made the wrong decision.
"I've had clear goals set in the off-season, and a clear race programme," he told Cyclingnews at the start of Friday's stage. "This a clear product of that. I'm not a different rider. That's how cruel cycling is. Literally, a year later from riding on the front at Willunga [for Porte], I'm going to be fighting it out and chasing the best result I can. It's a big difference this year. That shows the ebb and flow of the sport.
"I stayed for the opportunity to grow," he continued. "This is my fourth year as a professional, and I've grown from where I've come from. It's tough. I've had to move my whole life right around the world, and it's hard. It's way harder than being on the bike, but you factor in that I've been improving, and the opportunity that this team gave me to be here. You're just not going to get that in other set-ups. I'm fortunate to come into this set-up with this timing, and I've really benefited."
Bevin's stature, like his palmarès, is still growing, and while a Tour Down Under victory has not yet been decided, the Kiwi's ongoing development could be one of the most interesting plots in CCC's story this season.