Patrick Bevin (CCC Team) may have lost time to stage winner Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and last year's overall winner Daryl Impey (Mitchelton Scott) on stage 3 of the Tour Down Under but the race leader insisted that the stage had been a missed opportunity for his key rivals.
Bevin and his CCC Team began the day with the race leader's ochre jersey after the New Zealand rider won the previous stage. This was the first time that the Polish squad had been required to defend a race lead, and with a punishingly difficult stage ahead through the Adelaide Hills, questions over their capability and depth were raised when the peloton rolled from the start town of Lobethal.
The stage consisted of over 3,000m of climbing and with temperatures once again nudging 40 degrees, the men in orange were put into action almost immediately with two intermediate sprints in the first 19km of action. Bevin's teammates, however, controlled the tempo almost throughout the stage, and even when the race leader became isolated in the finale, he had enough in reserve to match several late attacks.
While Sagan won the stage and cut his deficit to a single second, Impey finished third on the stage and now sits 10 seconds off the race lead. A gaggle of other GC rivals, including Richie Porte, Michael Woods and Rohan Dennis sit a further five seconds down.
"Today was the nervous one. To get through that, still in the lead is a big step forward to the goal of having the jersey on Sunday," Bevin said after the third day of podium obligations.
"From here on out, I feel like it's about the legs. Today was a day that could have really blown up, but as I said at the start of the day, if we came in for a sprint then we'd have done our job. To give back a bit of time on the sprinters isn't the end of the world. We wanted to keep it together and tomorrow it will be the opposite."
A missed opportunity
The energy-sapping heat and rolling roads made life difficult for the CCC Team. By the time the bunch hit the final of seven laps around the finishing town of Uraidla the race leader had just one teammate by his side. At that point, Bevin expected fireworks from his rivals.
EF Education played a tactically astute game and threw men up the road before Lachlan Morton reminded everyone that he is still a class rider on his day with a long pull for Michael Woods. The Canadian went clear with three kilometres to go with a devastating attack but with Mitchelton-Scott and Bora-Hansgrohe still in contention and bonus seconds up for grabs, a late move would always be difficult.
"I feel like the WorldTour peloton, the way it's ridden, it's so steady that you lose that explosiveness," Bevin said.
"It's more of a grind down. We had 45 guys at the finish. It wasn't that tough. No one really tried to rip it to bits until the last lap. That was surprising because we were low on guys and no one really took it to us. That was an opportunity lost, I feel. It might have cost me some energy covering some moves in the last lap but that was for 10 to 20 minutes, not an hour."
All eyes now turn to the Corkscrew finish on stage 4. Bevin has answered every question so far but the final of stage 4 will offer a different kind of examination. Woods, Porte and the rest of the pure climbers will no doubt attack Bevin and hope to reduce his lead before Sunday's stage on Willunga.
However, with each passing day, Bevin's confidence is becoming more evident.
"I've gone over Corkscrew a couple of times. It's a whole different ball game at the TDU, with the heat, and all those factors weigh in. I've used a lot of energy to get into the position that I'm in and now it's up to the others to take that time back. That's bike racing."
"The team did an amazing job today, to manage that as they did. I have no worries about them tomorrow. Tomorrow it's about the legs on the Corkscrew. The climbers are going to have to take it to me on the climb but the stage doesn't finish at the top, it finishes at the bottom of the descent. I'm prepared for it."