There was a lot riding on the queen stage of the Tour Down Under to Old Willunga Hill for GreenEdge. One of their general classification hopes – Simon Gerrans or Cameron Meyer – had to fire. It was a case of ochre or perish, not only for the team but for a local cycling public eager for meaningful results from the Australian WorldTour debutants.
"It's all going to come down to nine minutes," GreenEdge sports director Matt White told Cyclingnews prior to the stage start at McLaren Vale. "There is a lot riding on today but it's the same as the nationals. That panned out. You've got to have faith in people and Gerro delivered at the nationals and I'm pretty confident he's going to deliver today."
With one lap remaining of the Willunga climb, Gerrans was flying solo against a quartet of Movistar men, including perhaps his biggest threat on the general classification, Alejandro Valverde. Also present were Rohan Dennis, Bernard Sulzberger (UniSA-Australia), Tiago Machado, Linus Gerdemann, Jan Bakelants (RadioShack-Nissan), Michael Rogers, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Danny Pate, Geraint Thomas (Sky Procycling), Michael Matthews (Rabobank Cycling Team), Martin Kohler, Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing Team), Jack Bauer (Garmin-Barracuda) and Gerald Ciolek (Omega Pharma-Quickstep).
Eyeing the prize, Gerrans explained post-race that he "gave it everything he had" to get his hands on the stage win which had so far eluded his team.
"Going into this stage I didn't pinpoint one particular rider but coming into that last climb there, Movistar had a whole bunch of guys that were giving each other a hand and I was by myself so I pinpointed Valverde as the man to follow," the 31-year-old said. "I marked him for the last couple of k there and followed him until a couple of hundred metres to go.
"It was basically a slugfest to the line, we were both on our limits and I just wanted to jump a little bit early and lead it through that last corner but he went round on my hip and had half a wheel on me on the finish."
Pipped at the post, but wearing ochre courtesy of a count back, for GreenEdge it was a case of so close yet so far.
"Simon had a brilliant ride today," White admitted. "He rode super. He nearly pulled it off."
GreenEdge director, Andrew Ryan, son of caravan tycoon Gerry who has bankrolled the team for its first two seasons, pointed out that even though Gerrans had narrowly missed the stage win, he had still pulled on the ochre jersey, and that the race is still up for grabs.
"We've worked so hard and now the team are working so hard and to get this result is just fantastic," Ryan explained. "Today was such a tough day, you know Simon was really on his own so it was an amazing result that showed what he's really capable of."
Given that GreenEdge's best sprinter, Matt Goss was going to be relegated to a team support role, the outfit's goal has long been the general classification. Until today, there have been raised eyebrows and certainly mutterings of criticism for what has so far been viewed as a ‘non-performance'. The monkey may not yet be off their back, but it was hanging on for grim death.
"It will be a box ticked if I'm still wearing this jersey at the end of the stage tomorrow," Gerrans admitted. "I put in a heck of a lot of hard work for the past few months leading up to this moment and my teammates have done the same thing. They've supported me brilliantly all week and I'm just happy to be able to finish today off with the lead and now we've just got one hard 90km in front of us tomorrow."
Controlling the criterium
Gerrans and Valverde are on equal time heading into the final 90km criterium at Elder Park with enough time bonuses up for grabs for the Spaniard to cap off his comeback to the sport with overall victory. However, with Movistar conceding they will not be in the hunt in the sprints tomorrow it all comes down to Gerrans and his GreenEdge team.
"To be honest, the first couple of stages we were just finding our feet a little bit," Gerrans admitted. "We haven't all raced in a stage race together before. Obviously we did the national championships and we've done certain world championships and Olympic Games that sort of thing together but it does take a few days for everyone to really learn their roles in the team.
"Over the past few days we've really done that and I think everybody is really improving and really fulfilling their position in the team so I couldn't ask for much more from the guys," he continued.
"[Teamwork] will be as important as ever [on the final stage]. I'm sure everyone's going to give 100 per cent and that's all I can ask from the guys. If I can finish this stage and I still have the lead then it's definitely a box ticked."
One step at a time. One criterium lap at a time. 20 laps to go.