Strong coastal winds and offensive riding turned the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under on its head today, with a relatively unknown Spaniard by the name of Luis Sanchez (Liberty Seguros) now leading the overall classification.
Prior to today's stage, 21 year-old Sanchez had won just two races since turning pro two years ago for ONCE-Eroski, which later became known as Liberty Seguros in 2004. But today, the lanky man from Murcia showed teamwork and cunning beyond his years.
First, he got himself in the crucial move of the day. Once in the decisive 26-man break, he set himself the task of helping co-leader Allan Davis in the intermediate sprints, who was lying second overall. Then, with Davis and Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis) eyeing each other off in the finale, Sanchez broke away with Johan Van Summeren (Davitamon - Lotto) 20 kilometres from the finish, and after outsprinting the Belgian with ease, he now finds himself the new leader of the JCTDU.
"Manolo [Saiz] told me this was a race that was going to put me right into form; he spoke very well of the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under," said a composed Sanchez immediately following the race finish.
"I did a really good block of training in November, but I really didn't come here with the idea to win - my first real objective of the year is Paris-Nice," he said. "In the beginning, I basically went on the attack for Allan, and in the intermediate sprints along the way, I was trying to get bonus seconds for Allan - I actually didn't think I could make it to the finish."
Although his team-mate from Bundaberg was the race leader on the road for much of the day, and would have certainly relished a spell in yellow, 'Alby' Davis has no hard feelings about the situation.
"Yeah, he's a great bike rider," acknowledged Davis. "Get used to his name... he deserves to win. It's not a one-man team; Luis' in good form and he deserves [the win] if he's got it. We work as a team, and that's it."
Asked whether he was expecting such a difficult day in the saddle, Davis conceded that after yesterday, he and his team were prepared to do battle. And with the equal-most riders (four) represented out of any team in the move, the odds were always in favour of Liberty.
"Our team was expecting an intense start, a lot of attacks, and that's exactly what happened. We had someone in all of the breaks, and [when the break occurred], our team rode awesome. The two sprints mucked up the rhythm of the train a bit, but everyone worked evenly, and that's what made the break get so far ahead."
When Cyclingnews spoke with Johan Van Summeren, today's second place-getter was visibly disappointed, paying the price for not keeping his cool when it counted: "I started the sprint too early, because I really wanted to get this win," said the 23 year-old. "But I was too nervous - I should have waited."
Equally distraught was new mountains leader Paride Grillo (Ceramiche Panaria - Navigare), who finished second on yesterday's stage, and was just eight seconds off Robbie McEwen's lead at the start of today.
"I'm happy... but not really," said the 22 year-old Italian. "Initially, I was after the leader's jersey, and if I couldn't get that, I wanted the stage win, so the climber's jersey was sort of like the last thing I wanted. I will try and defend the jersey, but first, I'd still like a stage win."
Someone who was happy, however, was third placegetter Gene Bates (Uni SA), who now leads the sprint classification. "Well, I had a really good day, and this is really the first selection day," said the former Under 23 road champion to Cyclingnews.
"[David] O'Loughlin lead the sprint out in our group, and I came around him with 200 metres to go. But this is only the start of it; the coming days should be interesting. At the last climb, I knew we had to get some time back on the two guys ahead of us, or the race would pretty much be over."
How it unfolded
93 riders began the 139 kilometre journey today from the pretty little seaside town of Glenelg. Missing was Ceramiche Panaria-Navigare's Scott Davis, the younger brother of Allan the second rider after Henk Vogels' DNS yesterday to fall ill.
With much cooler temps (21-22°C), a strong breeze blowing and many wishing to see the end of Robbie's reign in yellow, it was obvious at the start that most riders were anticipating a hard-fought stage; those that didn't were simply hoping for the best.
The usual flurry of nervous attacks and a small pile-up that took out a second Panaria rider, Julio Perez Cuapio (poor bastards; they're not having a good tour), characterised the start, with the peloton settling down momentarily before exploding once again - this time for good.
26 riders broke clear of the peloton shortly before Aldinga Beach (km 28); in the move were: Stuart O'Grady and Jans Koerts (Cofidis), Johan Van Summeren and Jan Kuyckx (Davitamon-Lotto), Bradley Wiggins, Sebastien Hinault, Laszlo Bodrogi, Benoît Poilvet (Credit Agricole), Juan Fuentes and David Loosli (Lampre-Caffita), Allan Davis, Aaron Kemps, Javier Ramirez and Luis Leon Sanchez (Liberty Seguros), Matthew Wilson and Mark Renshaw (FDJeux.com), Erki Putsep and Simon Gerrans (Ag2r Prevoyance), David O'Loughlin (Navigators Insurance), Paride Grillo (Ceramiche Panaria Navigare), David McPartland, Ashley Humbert and Rob Mclachlan (United Water), Gene Bates, Steve Cunningham, Chris Jongewaard (Uni SA) - the notable exception being Quick.Step, who were ordered to ride home from Victor Harbor at the end of the day by their school teacher Patrick Lefevere.
And onward the break went and upward ran the gap: first 42 seconds (km 33), then 1'06 (km 43.7, at the Sellicks Hill KOM), then 7'30 at the Mt Compass sprint prime (km 66.7), then over 12 minutes at the second sprint in Goolwa (km 92) - and then ballooning out to 22 minutes with 25 to go.
So, with victory assured to one of the 26, the counter-attacking began. Slightly unusually, it was of the first moves that stuck, as Luis Sanchez (Liberty) and Johan Van Summeren (Davitamon-Lotto) took off in full flight, catching out those who were eyeing an O'Grady/Davis showdown in Victor Harbor.
Although the pair's lead never amassed anywhere near the proportion of the original break - in fact, never amassing more than a minute - the Euro duo did enough to stay away, with Sanchez comfortably accounting for Van Summeren in the drag race to the line.
15 seconds in arrears was a trio lead home by Gene Bates (Uni SA), evergreen Robert McLachlan (United Water) and Javier Ramirez Abeja (Liberty Seguros Team), before race favourite Allan Davis (Liberty Seguros Team) took the kick for sixth from Paride Grillo (Ceramiche Panaria - Navigare), where he now lies third overall on the general classification.
Stage 4 - January 21: Unley to Hahndorf, 152 km
With 26 riders finishing 20-plus minutes clear of the rest of the field today, it's looking awfully good for Manolo's men, but Liberty Seguros' Allan Davis says the team will "play it by ear" on tomorrow's leg to Hahndorf. "Y'know, it's a hard race to win when you've got the lead with a few days to go, but I think we'll assess it a bit more tonight," he said.
"The team's going well, they're keeping healthy - that's the main thing - and we'll play it by ear tomorrow. Anything can happen - you've seen what happened today - that can happen tomorrow as well. We'll just be on our toes, so we've got no excuses after the race."
Stage 4 contains two intermediate sprints (km 28.3 and 119.2) and the one KOM at Checker Hill (km 86.6), but a slightly bumpier profile than today may cause problems for more than a few. And if the wind keeps blowing the way it has been, who knows what may happen.