Day four brought plenty more action with the leaders' yellow jersey changing shoulders once again as competitors battled over two more thrilling stages in the Red Centre of Australia.
The Chifley Alice Springs Resort stage 5 time trial is always greatly anticipated by riders due to the especially flowing trails and the unique individual time trial format, and this year was no exception. Riders are set off in 30-second intervals according to their standing in the general classification with the fastest riders setting off around the 22km course last of all.
Starting and finishing in the beautiful grounds of the Alice Springs Golf Club, the course began with a 3km blast along some flat, golf cart tracks before merging into some of the fastest and most enjoyable singletrack in the Alice Springs area, tracks that are largely devoid of the side-wall eating rocks and wheel sucking sand of stages 3 and 4. This flowing terrain obviously suited Jason English, who came home with some terrific momentum to average 26km/h to capture his second stage victory and with it, the yellow jersey once again.
Commenting on his victory, English said he had no real idea how he was going compared to his counterparts and was always expecting Adrian Jackson, who started 30 seconds behind him, to yell "track" at any time. But halfway through the course, English had caught Ben Randall and Ben Henderson, so knew he was doing ok but kept the pace up right through to the end. English ended up crossing the line in 53 minutes and 27 seconds to claim the stage victory with Andy Fellows second in 54:23 and Ben Randall third in 54:54.
Shaking his head as he crossed the line, yellow jersey wearer Adrian Jackson came in seventh overall with a time of 56:01, a crucial 2:34 margin slower than English which saw the yellow jersey change back from one World Champion to another with English carrying a 1:36 margin into stage 6.
The women's race saw Jodie Willett continue her winning streak by taking the stage victory in a phenomenal one hour, five minutes and 45 seconds and so kept the yellow jersey and increased her general classification lead to an almost unassailable 18:49. Willet was obviously delighted to have secured another stage victory but was a little disappointed not to have beaten the course record which was recorded in 2009 by Jo Bennett at 1:05:18.
Gracie Elvin's form continues to improve as the week progresses as she recorded the second fastest female time around the course in 1:06:13 with Jenni King in third in 1:07:21 and Rebecca Rusch fourth at 1:08:52.
After a few hours rest and relaxation in the Alice Springs sunshine, competitors then lined up again for stage 6 - a night stage - that was held around the same 22km course as stage 5. With all riders lined up in the start / finish chute, lights blazing and the beat of AC/DC's Thunderstruck coursing through their veins, this stage is always a highlight of the week.
Watching the race unfold from the "Sunset Hill" halfway point was like watching the mythical serpent from the aboriginal dreamtime as the long line of riders lights winds its way through the undulating terrain and desert landscape. It was no surprise to see Jason English and Andrew Fellows both in the front group as they passed through Sunset Hill as the two 24hr mountain bike specialists have probably spent more time riding in the dark than most other riders put together. What was surprising was to see Ben Randall powering along with them in the lead group of three and to see that Adrian Jackson slipping 25 seconds behind and looking decidedly lacklustre.
Andy Fellows maintained his night-time form and won the stage in a new course record (by only a three second margin) at 55:31 whilst Ben Randall came in second in 55:58 and Jason English slipped into third at 56:23. Adrian Jackson could not maintain his winning form and ended up in seventh at 58:06.
So with six stages completed and just one remaining, English retains the yellow jersey and has increased his margin over second place Adrian Jackson to 3:25 whilst Ben Randall narrows in at third just five seconds behind Jackson and just 3:30 behind English.
The women's race also saw a few upsets with race leader Willett limping across the finish line in fifth place after encountering two punctures during the 22km night course. Elvin continued her winning form by taking the stage in a remarkable 1:09:05 ahead of Rusch in 1:12:24, and Jenny Fay climbed into third place 1:13:45 after Jenni King was an unfortunate withdrawal with a broken derailleur within the first 4km of the race.
With Willett loosing a lot of time and King bowing out of contention, the women's general classification has tightened up with Willett still in yellow but with a reduced lead of 12:45 ahead of Rusch but with Elvin only four seconds behind Rusch and 12:49 behind Willett in a closely fought battle for second place that will go down to the wire in the final stage tomorrow.
Full results coming!