Steele von Hoff is making quite a name for himself. Just a little over a week after capturing the Australian men's national criterium championship, the Garmin-Sharp rider earned a hard-fought podium position with a third-place sprint finish behind two of the world's best in Simon Gerrans and André Greipel on the opening stage of the Tour Down Under in Adelaide on Tuesday.
"That was the first time in a long time that I've been able to actually contest a finish and I can honestly say that I was beaten by better guys," said von Hoff. "I perhaps could have played it a bit differently, but I am happy I was in the mix and it was a good stage."
The 26-year-old from Victoria had targeted stage one, a 135-kilometre race from Nurioopta to Angaston, which featured a gnarly uphill sprint finish into a headwind after a near-3km climb of Menglers Hill had splintered the field and spat out the stragglers.
"Menglers Hill was pretty hard and I had to empty out the tank and dig pretty deep," von Hoff told Cyclingnews. "Nathan Haas just pulled me right up and put me on Gerro's wheel. Gerro's form at the moment is top level. He was a really good wheel to be on I just didn't have that little bit to come back at him when he went."
A crash inside three kilometres to the finish almost cost von Hoff a shot for the podium when a rider on his right side clipped a wheel and fell over his own rear wheel. "I almost didn't make it through," he said. " I lost about ten metres and had to gas it up to Haas."
Speaking to Cyclingnews on Monday, Garmin-Sharp general classification contender Rohan Dennis had also identified stage one as offering a significant opportunity for von Hoff. Dennis, who conceded 11 seconds to the stage winner - and two-time Tour Down Under champion - Simon Gerrans, will need to dig deep to keep his general classification hopes alive.
"When I saw him come over the climb, I thought it was at least a good chance for him to have a sprint," said Dennis, who is returning to form after sustaining injuries during the individual time trial at the Australian Road National Championships in Ballarat earlier this month. "The goal was to get myself over Menglers Hill, but if Steele was there from 3km onward it was all for him."
Stage four's sprint finish to Victor Harbor will serve as the next target for von Hoff, but Dennis believes stage two may suit his teammate as well.
"Steele is obviously climbing really well and there is no reason why he can't climb again tomorrow," he told Cyclingnews. "Being an uphill sprint, his power-to-weight ratio is quite good and he could get a similar result or better."
While von Hoff will be allowed to freelance and look for opportunities for stage wins, Dennis will need to show his hand earlier than expected to stay in overall GC contention.
"The time deficit is quite costly," Dennis said. "It's a bit of a concern. There are still some other stages to go and I will have to show earlier. Gerro is in super form so its not going to be easy to get rid of him in any stage. But the depth of our team is strong as Steele has shown and we are not done yet."