Spanish team Liberty Seguros secured the grip on the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under by taking first, second, third and also fourth in the stage to the well-dressed city of Willunga on the Fleurieu Peninsula on the penultimate race day. Alberto Contador was given the stage win by his teammate and race leader Luis Sanchez after the pair destroyed the leading bunch on the final climb of Willunga Hill. Allan Davis and Javier Ramirez led the next group home for third and fourth, meaning that Davis climbed from fourth to second on GC. It would take a catastrophe to unseat the team from the top two places on GC in tomorrow's closing criterium.
Although modest when speaking to the press about his abilities, race leader Luis Sanchez finally confirmed, both in action and in words, that he has been feeling great all week. "I've been certain of my form all the time, but I came here originally to work for Allan Davis. Today it was our plan to attack at the bottom of the Old Willunga climb and try to get rid of Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis) and Paride Grillo (Panaria), but the day ended even better than what we had expected."
Young Sanchez also confirmed that tomorrow's 81 kilometre stage shouldn't provide any major difficulties for him, and that his team are still hungry for more stage wins, despite having won two already. "Normally a stage like that isn't a problem. We should be able to defend the jersey, as well as riding for Allan Davis in the finale too. At the moment, he is one of the best sprinters in the world, and it would be great to end the race with a win for Allan."
Allan himself confirmed that he still had one ambition left, and also threw in the odd comment about his teammate Sanchez. "I'm here to get a win. I'd say we'll still go for a win tomorrow; it'll be hard, but first thing on the agenda will be to protect the lead, and then we'll see how the race pans out during the stage - we'll play our tactics like that.
"As a kid, Sanchez dreamed about signing autographs, he always wanted to be a winner. He might be signing autographs; I'll be wiping his arse!" added Davis with a grin.
How it unfolded
The stage started out similar to yesterday's stage, with riders jumping clear of the peloton from kilometre zero. The pace was unforgiving from the start, and the spectators were surprised to see the riders and caravan flying past at 60 km/h in some places. The first major break went when the riders were tagging along the beautiful beach of Aldinga when Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), Sebastian Rosseler (Quick.Step) and Chris Sutton (United Water) were allowed a gap of forty seconds.
The break was caught shortly before the first sprint at 59 km, easily won by McEwen. "Panaria were the ones who chased us down. They wanted to catch us before the sprint so that they could put Grillo in the sprint. I figured I'd win it instead," Robbie told Cyclingnews with a smile after the stage. After the first sprint, a new series of attacks started, with Davitamon-Lotto's Cadel Evans present in most of them, eager to make an impact as he had his family waiting for him at the line.
None of the breaks were being let away, and with ten kilometres to the second intermediate sprint, Davitamon and Panaria closed the gap to a break containing Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis), Wim Vansevenant (Davitamon-Lotto), Laszlo Bodrogi (Credit Agricole), Gilberto Simoni (Lampre-Caffita), Allan Davis and Aaron Kemps (Liberty Seguros), Mickael Delage and Frederic Finot (FDJeux.com), Mikel Astarloza and Erki Putsep (Ag2r Prevoyance), Hilton Clarke and David O'Loughlin (Navigators), Ashley Humbert and David Betts (United Water) and Gene Bates (Uni SA).
In time for the second sprint, McEwen then attacked again, this time bringing Navigators' Hilton Clarke with him. "I attacked again for the second sprint," McEwen told Cyclingnews. "Panaria were quick to chase after us, but I told them that they should sit up, since we had just helped them chase down the last dangerous break. They did, and I got the second sprint as well."
Johan Vansummeren (Davitamon-Lotto), Laszlo Bodrogi (Credit Agricole), Allan Davis and Luis Sanchez (Liberty Seguros), Graeme Brown and Paride Grillo (Ceramiche Panaria Navigare), Gene Bates and Adrian Laidler (Uni SA) then formed a breakaway that could have been dangerous, hadn't race leader Sanchez seen the danger in time and joined them. They were able to reach McEwen and Clarke before the whole breakaway was hauled in by Cofidis, who had missed getting O'Grady in it. The race was now getting nervous as the riders were preparing for the climb at the finish, and the peloton was splitting up into many groups as the speed was getting higher.
With 30 kilometres to go, Michael Rogers (Quick.Step), Staf Scheirlinckx (Cofidis), Benoît Poilvet (Credit Agricole), Javier Ramirez (Liberty Seguros) and Chris Sutton (United Water) attacked, and Rogers and Ramirez still had an advantage on the peloton as they entered the climb. A group of 20 riders then formed on the climb, among them Sanchez who broke away over the summit together with teammate Alberto Contador in an impressive way. Most major contenders for the jersey fought behind the two Liberty Seguros riders, but no one could get any time on them once they were gone. At the finish, Sanchez offered Contador the victory, and Contador proudly crossed the line to show that he was back on the racing scene again.
"I had a very bad accident last year," Contador told us behind the scenes. It was an accident that didn't only threaten my career, but also my life. I bled from a little vein in my brain, and it built up a pressure that made me pass out on my bike while racing Tour of Asturias last year. A month later I was operated on and they managed to unblock the obstruction in my brain. The doctors are still doing check-ups, but so far, so good. By November, they told me I was healthy so I started training harder than ever."
Allan Davis who broke away from the chasing group to finish third, praised the team's effort after the finish line; "The team decided today to keep it controlled, and up the climb, you noticed we attacked to sort of see who could go with us. Those two young guys up the front showed how much talent they've got; they attacked at the top of the climb, and there were a lot of guys swapping off at the back. Javier Ramirez and myself had to keep control of the chase group - that's just race tactics - and that's how it panned out for the team."
After dominating the race here, Davis admitted that the team would feel confident once the racing starts in Europe. "Yeah, Manolo Saiz is not here, but Marino Lejarreta is and he's really happy. Manolo... he'll be happy as a pig in shit!" he said with a laugh.
Robbie McEwen starts tomorrow's stage with the sprinter's jersey secure on his shoulders, and UniSA's Gene Bates was rewarded for his efforts today with a new climber's jersey. Quick.Step's Michael Rogers was picked most aggressive rider of the day, thanks to his numerous attacks, and was presented the Century 21 jersey on the stage, and race leader Luis Sanchez also leads the U23 competition, as he is only 21 years of age.