Any doubts of Cadel Evans’ return to form were shattered on Thursday in stage three of the Tour Down Under as he used his Tour de France-winning climbing prowess and his razor-sharp descending ability, sharpened during his world cup mountain bike days prior to turning to the road in 2002, to smash his rivals up the notorious Corkscrew Hill for a 25-second swing, which included valuable bonus seconds, on the leader board.
"Cadel obviously is absolutely flying," said Porte. "I tried to go with him, but in the hairpins there he just rode away and there's not much you can do. It was a little disappointing, I thought I was in a bit better nick."
Team BMC’s sporting director Alan Pieper said that seeing Evans ride today reminded him of Evans' world championship ride in 2009. "Seeing him ride today with world championships colours on the top of his jersey and his sleeves brought back a little bit of the memories of the world champs."
Pieper confided that Evans was completely focused and thoroughly prepared for today’s stage having reconned Willunga Hill seven times this week before the race.
Evans started the stage trailing the two-time race winner Simon Gerrans by what seemed like an insurmountable 13 seconds with Orica-GreenEdge vowing to hold on to the jersey to the finish. When asked on Wednesday about the rumoured alliance between soon-to-be Giro d’Italia rivals Evans and Richie Porte, GreenEdge’s team director Matt White told Cyclingnews "good luck. No one is dropping Simon Gerrans."
Gerrans did get dropped. At nine kilometres Evans and Porte attacked giving the millions of cycling fans watching around the world a precursor for their much-anticipated showdown in the Dolomites when the Giro d’Italia visits in May. Gerrans attempted to bridge but was only able to catch Porte as Evans slipped away on the 2.4-kilometre climb averaging 9 per cent gradient and awarded maximum mountain classification points.
"No surprise [Evans] had to do it on that climb," White said. "Willunga is nowhere near as hard a climb as the Corkscrew. Today was always going to be a big test for all the GC guys and Cadel had great ride."
Gerrans finished fifth, 15 seconds behind Evans (second overall at 12 seconds), while Porte finished crossed the line in 11th place, to drop lose another 12 seconds and fall to 11th overall, 33 seconds behind. The stage win was only the second of Evans’ career at the Tour Down Under – he also won stage five in 2002 – and his first time to don the ochre leader’s jersey.
"It's not quite a hilltop finish today," said Evans immediately after the race. "But it gives an indication of who's climbing best. On a 2km climb, you have a bit more time to think.
"Simon Gerrans and Orica, they really showed their expertise and they were really in their element in the first two days," he added.
With three stages remaining, including the infamous Willunga Hill on Saturday’s stage four, neither Evans nor Porte are calling a winner just yet.
"We come into slightly different racing now, slightly more selective with the climb there," said Evans. "So going towards Willunga, it's a good indication, but I suspect everyone will probably we watching me now and trying to put the responsibility on myself and of course my team.
"The team has also shown they have the legs and we have the strength to do what we need to do, at least on Willunga."
When asked if Evans could be beaten, Porte responded, "yesterday we were saying the same about Simon. Saturday will tell."
"It's good to be back at my best level," said Evans, who last won a WorldTour race at Dauphine in 2012. "I just want to come back after these ups and downs of these last two years and be back at somewhere near my best."
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