EF Education First may not have been able to pull off the stage win or open any gaps in the general classification on stage 3 of the Tour Down Under in Uraidla but it certainly wasn't for lack of trying.
First, neo-pro James Whelan and then Alberto Bettiol joined breakaways. Lachlan Morton was then tasked with keeping the pace high heading into the final kilometres of the race before Michael Woods put in a powerful attack with just over two kilometres to go in the hope of winning the stage.
"The guys executed the plan pretty well," directeur sportif Tom Southam told Cyclingnews at the conclusion of the 146.2km stage from Lobethal to Uraidla.
"I think it would have been great if Bettiol's move had just had a few more people interested in going with it," continued Southam. "He got across with Davide Ballerini from Astana, and I understand the other guys who were part of the original break being tired, but a couple more riders from the bunch going across, too, would have been better, just so that the break could have gone a bit deeper."
Whelan's initial stint as part of a seven-man group was impressive, but he took things up another notch when, with two laps to go, as he let Bettiol latch on to his back wheel and powered away from the remnants of the breakaway.
"The main aim was to get in the break in the first place, and I ticked that off," Whelan told reporters at the finish line. "And then I managed to get to the [finishing] circuit, and we had a bit of time, so the other guys could sit back in the bunch and not have to worry too much.
"Obviously later Alberto came across, although I hadn't even realised it until he tapped me on the shoulder, and was, like, 'Hey, buddy!' Then on the second-to-last lap, going up the climb, Alberto was the only one who could hold the wheel, so I just went. I told him that I'd get him to the bottom of the next climb, to see if he could stay away for the next lap-and-a-bit, and he did a great job there," said Whelan.
"I was impressed by him," Southam said of Whelan. "He's got some serious talent. He's learning fast, he's quick to learn, and he wants to learn."
The 22-year-old Australian received similar praise from Woods, who would later attempt to win the stage inside the final few kilometres on a day when the team had played multiple cards and come away empty handed but were encouraged more than enough to play again in the coming days.
"This is Jimmy's first WorldTour race, and he's our neo-pro, our rookie here, yet he's proving that he's much more than that," Woods said. "He rode super-strong today. We wanted him in the break because he's such a danger man. He's got a great punch and got in the break, no problem, and was the last man standing [from the break].
"So, it was an impressive ride, and everyone else on the team stepped it up big time, too, like Alberto Bettiol bridging across. We really tried to animate the race. We know that [race leader] Paddy Bevin's super strong, and we need to race aggressively if we want to whittle away at his lead, and that was our plan today.
"I wanted to make some kind of move in the final," Woods explained of his own attack. "I just knew that, no matter what, it was going to hurt, so I wanted to test the legs and try to get away. That was the only way I was going to win on this course today. but unfortunately, there was a bit of a headwind and I wasn't able to stay away."
Southam reiterated that the plan was for the team to come out with all guns blazing and to put pressure on Bevin and his CCC teammates.
"We also didn't want Bevin to win the sprint, because if he slips, say, 25 seconds ahead in this race, I don't reckon anyone's going to be catching him,” said Southam.
Turning up the pressure on Corkscrew
Friday's fourth stage is another opportunity for the likes of EF Education First to put Bevin under pressure, with the climb of Corkscrew – 2.5km in length, with an average gradient of 9 per cent and 20 per cent in places – coming just six kilometres from the end of the 129.2km stage. The racing ends with the descent off the climb into Campbelltown on Adelaide's eastern edge.
"It's a good climb for Mike," Southam told Cyclingnews. "It's kind of like an Ardennes final, and Woodsy was second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year, so it should be a good day for him.
"Willunga Hill [on stage 6] often seems to favour whoever's defending the race lead. So, you build up your race lead with your time bonuses, and then you can just about hang on because it's not a long climb, so I think Corkscrew can actually be more decisive than Willunga, and we're looking for Mike to do well there," said Southam.
"I'm feeling pretty good," Woods told reporters after stage 3, while looking ahead to stage 4.
"There weren't really any major climbs today, so I think the real test is going to come on Corkscrew."
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