Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) wrested back control of the Tour Down Under's ochre leaders jersey from rival Cadel Evans (BMC) on a hard fought stage five featuring not one, but two torturous climbs up the infamous three-kilometre Willunga Hill. The winner, Richie Porte, not only took the stage, he nearly took the overall lead and moved to within striking distance of the general classification sitting at just 10 seconds behind Gerrans in fourth place.
The two-time race winner and reigning Australian national road race champion started the race seven seconds down after earning back five bonus seconds on two intermediate sprints along stage four to Victor Harbor. Gerrans, who captured third place and four bonus seconds today, is now one second up on Evans, whose two days in ochre were a career first, leading into the sixth and final stage in Adelaide city centre on Sunday.
"It's not only a huge thrill, it's a huge sigh of relief," Gerrans said. "My whole team has put in such a huge effort to support me this week. I'm so thrilled to have the lead back going into the last stage.
"We had the stage under control right up until the final couple of kilometres."
Immediately after surrendering the jersey to Evans on Thursday, Gerrans warned of the difficulties in holding onto the lead with Willunga’s punishing uphill finish. Gerrans had won stage five on the climb last year and placed second in a photo finish tow years ago.
"I've definitely had some good results here in the past," said Gerrans. "As far as a favourite, I don't think I ever hurt as much as I do going up this climb. But there's so much at stake, so I really gave it everything today.
Evans moved to the forefront with his entire team and surgically attacked on the second of the two climbs up Willunga, but Gerrans did not falter or fade.
"He put me under a heck of a lot of pressure," said Gerrans. "But I just bided my time and saved it for the last dash to the line.
"Simon Clarke did a great job at the bottom of the climb for me and Daryl Impey stuck to my wheel and closed down the gap later in the climb," he added. "I took advantage of the strong team I had."
Gerrans also proved prophetic by naming Porte as the stage favourite having told Cyclingnews on Friday after stage four, "I am actually tipping Richie Porte for the stage he is down on GC and has nothing to lose and I think he will have a big impact on old Willunga Hill."
Porte won a "very special victory" on the 151.5km race to Willunga Hill top by 10 seconds over Ulissi and Gerrans. Porte attacked with 2km to race and was joined by Evans but rode away from his rivals to claim his first win of 2014.
"I can't sprint to save myself, I'd just like to stay fourth on GC," said Porte, the winner of last year’s Paris-Nice. "A stage win on Willunga, that's probably more than I thought I could get here."
Porte was exuberant after the race and praised the thousands of fans that lined the uphill finish.
"To say cycling is a minority sport in Australia, it's a little bit wrong," he said. "It's absolutely amazing, the crowds out there today.
"It's great to see Cadel winning, it's probably his farewell," he continued. "The crowds out here, they cheer for all of us – not just Cadel or Gerro."
Evans, who is not ideally suited for the 85-kilometre inner-city criterium circuit race, was not immediately available for comment after the race, but posted a congratulatory message to Orica-GreenEdge on his official Twitter account. "Not an ideal result today - beaten by better team. Compliments OGE," he tweeted.
With today’s performance, Gerrans is now in the driver’s seat for the final stage with a chance to become the first rider to win the Tour Down Under on three occasions.
"I'm not so worried about Ulissi but I'll definitely be keeping a really close eye on him if it's (race) back (together) for any of the intermediate sprints and obviously Cadel as well," Gerrans said. "If there's a breakaway gone up the road to take those intermediate sprints it really takes the pressure off me, but if it does come back together I've got a lot of confidence in my team to help me out."