The lead up to Wednesday's second stage of the Tour Down Under pointed to a showdown between world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and Simon Gerrans (Orica GreenEdge). What occurred was anything but, with the rainbow jersey caught up in a pile-up on the descent of the decisive Corkscrew climb and the Australian not having the legs to get over it as he'd expected.
While it was always going to be the case that German sprinter André Greipel (Lotto Belisol) would be out of the ochre leader's jersey, the selection which occurred for the general classification was very much unlike anything seen at the race before, with a waiting game until Old Willunga Hill on Saturday the norm in recent years.
"This week just got a whole lot harder," said Thomas' key support man, Mathew Hayman after the 116.5km stage. "Let's hope we're still in the same position tomorrow."
What will play to Thomas' advantage is the placement of another pre-race favourite, teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen, who at 1:19 behind is right on the cusp of where the contenders trail off in 26th overall.
Their greatest challenge will be in holding off three strong climbers from RadioShack Leopard - Ben Hermans (3rd at 7 seconds), Tiago Machado (10th at 14 seconds) and George Bennett (11th at 14 seconds).
"We wanted the stage win of course but we also wanted 10 seconds on the rest of the GC field," said Bennett post-stage. "Hermans has been here before so he has the experience and knows what to expect."
In most other races, 10 seconds is not a lot but at the Tour Down Under, it can make or break a GC campaign with large time deficits notoriously difficult to make up.
Stage 3 on Thursday sees the peloton cover 139km from Unley to Stirling, with the finishing circuit contested over five 21.3km loops. The parcours is ripe for attacking racing but if any break will be seriously vetted by the bunch before it is allowed to get away. Stage 4 on Friday - 126.5km from Modbury to Tanunda - is a stage for the sprinters and the queen stage on Saturday - 151.5km from McLaren Vale to Old Willunga Hill - puts the focus back in the climbers.
Something else to consider is that the best-placed Australian on GC is Adam Hansen (Lotto Belisol) in 14th, 14 seconds back on Thomas. CJ Sutton (Sky) is next-best in 24th place, a further 36 seconds in arrears. In eight of the Tour Down Under's 15 editions, the event has been won by an Australian rider. In the other years, at least one Australian has always placed in the top 10 overall.
Gerrans did not have a good day on Wednesday with the two-time winner of the event unable to go with the attacks on Corkscrew Hill. Nearly three minutes behind Thomas, Gerrans is firmly out of contention for overall.
"We just change the objectives. Everybody in the team seems to be in pretty good shape," he said. "Everyone can play their own card now and go for a stage win."
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