Some 21 riders sit within 30 seconds of the Tour Down Under lead heading into Saturday's decisive Willunga stage, but Andre Greipel (HTC-Columbia) is sitting in the box seat with a 20 second buffer over Robbie McEwen (Katusha). Opinion is divided as to whether that will be enough to score Greipel his second ProTour victory at the Adelaide, South Australia race with Spanish squad Caisse d'Epargne tipped for a big day in the hills.
Greipel has a strong team around him that has been forced to defend the jersey since his opening stage victory on Tuesday. Caisse d'Epargne has in particular two brutally strong riders in Alejandro Valverde and Luis Leon Sanchez, each capable of joining forces with a small group of riders to tear the race apart.
Garmin-Transitions sport director Matthew White believes the race isn't Greipel's yet. "The race is still very, very wide open really," he said. "It only takes one break to get away and it will totally shake up the general classification."
Even HTC-Columbia team director Allan Peiper believes keeping Greipel in the leader's jersey will be tougher than previous years. When the German took his first win in 2008 it was with the help of Adam Hansen, who time trialled the rider back into the lead group, but this time around Greipel will have to contend with two laps over the Willunga climb.
"They're slimmer odds than the last two years, just because of the competition," said Peiper of Greipel's odds. "We've already had our backs against the wall on Thursday in 40-degree heat, so if we have to really light it up it could be that we just let a break go and see if someone wants to chase. If they don't then the race will ride away but that gamble might be the only option we have.
"Hopefully other teams like Caisse d'Epargne, RadioShack or BMC will step up and take responsibility," he added. "We'll try to control and if we can't, basta."
It's Caisse d'Epargne that has every team director's attention heading into the penultimate stage. Omega Pharma – Lotto director Hendrik Redant believes the team showed its strength during Thursday's tough stage, which featured an uphill sprint finish that landed Valverde and World Road Champion Cadel Evans on the podium.
"You could see on Thursday that Caisse d'Epargne took everything in hand, that means that Valverde is strong otherwise he wouldn't have said to his teammates ‘it's alright, go for it'," said Redant. "They controlled more than half of the stage. I think he's going to put the hammer down for sure."
Peiper too has his eye on Valverde's team. The former professional expects the Spanish squad won't be the only strong team playing some serious cards on tomorrow's stage. While Peiper referenced reasonably large bunch finishes on last year's two laps over Willunga as proof Greipel can hold on, be also believes bigger teams and better riders could push the hill's impact to another level.
"The only difference is this year you've got a couple of really strong teams with Caisse d'Epargne with Alejandro Valverde and Luis Leon Sanchez and you've got Cadel Evans with George Hincapie, plus Lance Armstrong with his team," said Peiper. "So I think it's going to be difficult for the sprinters, whoever they are, to survive Willunga."
Redant added: "Two times up that climb, if they really want to go for it like Valverde and others, then it's going to be really hard and it's going to split up."
White too believes a second lap of Willunga could prove a shock for the former champion Greipel. The problem however will be maintaining the gap taken from Willunga on the run to the finish line. Redant believes only 25 seconds can be taken on the peloton for each lap of Willunga, which can be pulled back by a strong team like HTC-Columbia.
"It will hurt him, for sure, but they've got a very strong team here," said White. "The problem with the Willunga stage is the climb is not that close to the finish really. So I'm sure we can put someone like Greipel under a lot of pressure, but he's got a very strong team that could pull back a break. That's why we put so much pressure on, on Thursday, so we could try to displace some of those sprinters, try to cause a split in the bunch."
One situation that remains unknown is how Caisse d'Epargne will play its cards on Saturday. Valverde was caught out by the wind on Friday's stage and dropped down the general classification to sit 41 seconds behind Greipel, something that seemed to interest Evans when hearing the news. That could leave the Grand Tour winner uninterested in putting in a hard slog on the tough stage, or take a no holds barred approach to achieving a stage victory plus whatever else may come with it.
"Well that might change things a bit," said Evans. "Luis Leon Sanchez they might play a card with him because I know he was pretty keen here and he was riding pretty well. They've certainly been attacking and aggressively racing. I was expecting the same thing from them tomorrow but if Valverde is out of it, who knows.
"I think to crack Greipel it will take some really aggressive racing from some guys like Caisse d'Epargne," he added. "Guys like Caisse d'Epargne have a really strong team and want to reduce the peloton but everyone else is in contention and want to keep it together, which is in Greipel's favour, so I'm guessing the race is going to go more in the favour of the sprinter's teams because they're going to control things."
While Evans has maintained that the Tour Down Under's route doesn't suit him, he also wasn't shy in getting in the action on Thursday's uphill finish. Add to that comments from Evans' sport director at BMC Racing Team, John Lelangue, and we could see the rainbow stripes attacking up Willunga.
"The stage to Willunga is one we did a week before in reconnaissance so we are ready," said Lelangue. "We know Willunga, we know the climb, we know the stage. We have to be looking at the wind. We were sure that we didn't lose any seconds today but we conserved energy ahead of tomorrow, we were always planning for the general classification and Willunga. "
"It's one of those climbs that fits him really good, those are the climbs like in the Ardennes Classics, so I'm pretty optimistic about the race," he added. "I hope that we're there, that we're competitive and that we can make a nice race for the public. We've tried to do our best to conserve both Cadel and George for tomorrow."
Evans didn't deny he'd be riding near the front up Willunga, but the rider isn't backing himself for the victory. "If they attack from the gun, which it might, if we can crack Greipel then I would say Sanchez or maybe I could do something," said Evans. "If I was a betting man I'd say probably more Sanchez."
Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) is another rider who isn't here to perform, yet is continually seen poking his nose out for a sniff around. Many believe that could be the foundation of an Armstrong attack on Willunga, with the team desperate to follow in Team Sky's footsteps for a debut victory Down Under.
"The legs are better than maybe I thought but I still don't think I have the legs to go with the best tough guys tomorrow," said Armstrong. "I think we'll see the two Spanish guys Luis Leon and Valverde go strong. Cadel will be strong and there will be a few others but I'll be somewhere just off that."
Armstrong believes the stage will finish in a similar fashion to last year. Should that happen he's backing the rider he labelled "unbeatable" – Greipel – to win the sprint, and the general classification.
Heading into the stage Peiper has a simple plan for HTC-Columbia to try and hold onto the general classification leader's jersey. "Control it until the climb, then do the best you can," he said. "The first time you survive it, then re-consolidate, get over the climb the second time and see where we are. We'll keep everyone with Andre and chase, that's it."
So what does the man at the centre of all this – Andre Greipel – have to say about the test ahead? "I will try. We will see," said Greipel.
Couldn't have said it in fewer words myself.
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