Richie Porte (Trek Segafredo) came through stage 3 at the Tour Down Under, marking a late attack from Michael Woods (EF Education First), before finishing safely in the first group that was led home by stage winner Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
"That was a hard day. It was so nervous. If there's one thing to take out of it, it's that Woods is the strongest. He did a good attack there. We'll see how he goes tomorrow. The team was really good. I had Will Clarke, Kiel Reijnen and Ryan Mullen all day with me and then Peter Stetina was there when it mattered. We're where we want to be. Today was the first real race day, to be honest. It's probably not been the greatest race to watch but you could feel your legs today," Porte told Cyclingnews at the finish in Uraidla.
After two days designed for the sprinters, this was on paper the first real test for the GC contenders looking to pull back time on race leader Patrick Bevin (CCC Team). The heat and relentlessly hilly roads provided a phase of negative yet tough racing until the final circuit produced a series of attacks from Woods' team, Team Sky and Robert Gesink from Team Jumbo-Visma.
Woods' acceleration in the closing kilometres was by far the strongest, but he was brought back by a group that contained Porte and Bevin. The New Zealand rider retained his lead, but saw Sagan close within a second of his time, while last year's winner Daryl Impey crossed the line in third to reduce his gap to Bevin to 10 seconds. Porte sits a further five seconds down in 27th place, but Friday's stage 4 includes the Corkscrew finish and stage 6 finishes on Willunga Hill, where Porte has won five times during his career.
There are still opportunities for Porte to win his second overall title in the race, but today he praised his rivals for both their legs and their tactics. Porte also praised the race organisation for not shortening the stage.
"CCC rode a good race. They controlled it well and rode on the front in the first laps. It was a hard tempo and a technical descent. It wasn't the easiest day to control but they did a good job," he said.
"Woods hit us with speed and that was a pretty good move. Obviously when you've got those sprinters there, and the finish line isn't that far away, it's hard to bust the race up. It was hot out there. There was talk at the start of shortening the race but I think Mike Turtur made the right call. It didn't need to be shortened. The sun was out, it was hot, but with the extreme weather protocol, when does it stop? We race the Vuelta in temperatures like today so it makes sense to race."
If stage 3 was about not making mistakes or being caught out, then stage 4 is the first chance for the pure climbers to put Bevin under serious pressure. Some riders believe that the stage 4 finish could be more decisive than Willunga this year.
"It's the first real test, I guess. The thing with the Corkscrew is the run down from the gorge, which is fast. If you can get in there in a good position, then that's the hardest part done."