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By Anthony Tan
Can André Greipel do no wrong?
At the end of Friday’s 149.5 kilometer stage in Goolwa – and on the eve of the most anticipated stage which takes in Old Willunga Hill – that’s what his rivals must be asking, scratching their heads just as they did two years ago when the German reigned supreme at the 2008 Tour Down Under.
It almost didn’t turn out that way, though. Because for a brief moment, the 2010 Santos Tour Down Under witnessed a most curious occurrence.
Sixteen km out from this windswept seaside town on the Fleurieu Peninsula and in gale-force winds that would have blown a blue cattle dog off its chain, RadioShack’s Tomas Vaitkus took flight – and Lance Armstrong decided to go with him.
“We knew the last 10 miles or so would most likely be crosswinds, and we tried to stay on the front and go just before that,” explained Armstrong of the surprise move.
“Tomas (Vaitkus) just went and kept going and kept going and kept going – and then we turned around and there was just the two of us.
“I figured we either have the team there, which would’ve been the best outcome,” Armstrong continued, “or just a few other guys with us. And when we turned back, the gap was already so big we didn’t really have a choice but to look at each other and say, ‘Alright, let’s go.’”
Vaitkus was going so fast, Armstrong said, the seven-time Tour winner had trouble holding his teammate’s wheel.
The Texan-Lithuanian combo never got much more than a 20-second lead over the HTC-Columbia-led peloton that was shelling riders out its rear exhaust like a beat-up old pick-up truck, the fumes a mile long. But they seemed not to care.
Almost, but no cigar
Inside four kilometers to go, however, the duo was shut down, and they were forced to fight once more – but this time just to hold position among a powerhouse group now no more than 50-strong.
“We stayed in there a while,” said Armstrong, “but we kept getting pushed back – there was constant fights for position, of course, and then what happens is that you get pushed to the back a little bit and guys sit up in the last few k … So I got around a few guys and stayed in contact and then … didn’t stay in contact.”
And so once again, the most dominant sprint team of the 2009 season – and so far the most heady sprint train of the 2010 season – did what they do best, HTC-Columbia’s Bernhard Eisel and then Matthew Goss providing a lead-out for Gorilla-boy Greipel that none could imitate better. The Shack’s Gert Steegmans looked like he’d take second but the Belgian died 50 meters from the line and was surpassed by an Aussie pair that wouldn’t be caught dead having dinner together in Robbie McEwen (Katusha) and Graeme Brown (Rabobank), who finished a bike-length behind the triple stage winner.
“If you have riders like we have, then no one can pass us,” stated Greipel, growing more-confident by the day.
In terms of the overall classification that is sure to see its share of swaps, drops and flops Saturday, 20 seconds separates the German from McEwen, with the Australian four seconds in front of Greg Henderson (Team Sky) and Steegmans, and six seconds ahead of Brown, Jurgen Roelandts (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and world road champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing).
The last three years at the Tour Down Under have always been like this, Greipel said. “We had the responsibility (to lead). Everyone is looking for us, but if the team works, the team can be successful. We deserved the wins because we always ride from the front.
“We had to fight to get to the front, and we did. The last 5k’s, we rode from the front and no one could pass us. That’s a sign of strength,” he said.
Just how much strength Greipel has left, and whether he can get over the 3km drag with a 7.5 per cent pitch they call Old Willunga Hill – which, remember boys and girls, must be tackled twice – in Saturday’s decisive 148km leg, we’ll just have to wait and see.
“I try,” is all the man in the ochre jersey said. Lance thinks – or at least says – Greipel can do it.
“I don’t have my crystal ball with me, but I would think (another sprint on Saturday),” said Armstrong. “I mean, it was last year, and he’s (Greipel) riding really good, he’s got a good team; if he’s a little off, then they’ve got, what, 10, 15k to bring him back.”
‘But what of this rejuvenated Lance we’ve seen this week?’ Can Armstrong go top-10, and by logical extrapolation, also finish in the top-10 overall come Sunday in Adelaide, asked VeloNews?
“I still don’t think that I have the legs to go with the best, best, guys tomorrow. I think the two Spanish guys, Luis Leon (Sanchez) and (Alejandro) Valverde will be strong; Cadel (Evans) will be strong, there’ll be a few others… But I’ll be somewhere just off that.
“Unless somebody is extremely strong and gets that perfect group, I think it’s 30 to 50 guys (in the first group), and if that goes to the line, then it’s hard to be top 10 ‘cause you still have sprinters in there. And I think Greipel makes (a) 50 guy group easy,” Armstrong said.
Conditions ripe for an escape
Overcast conditions 11 a.m. Friday at the start in Norwood did little to deter a quintet who saw the opening profile of Stage 4 as the perfect platform for an attack, Jonathan Castroviejo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) instigating the move from the get-go.
Up, up and away heading towards the day’s only KOM at Lenswood (26.6km), the Basque and his cohorts were soon joined by another pair to make a lead set of seven – the other names being David Kemp (UniSA), Olivier Kaisen (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Thomas Frei (BMC Racing), Stef Clement (Rabobank), Thomas Rohregger (Milram) and Anthony Ravard (AG2R-La Mondiale).
Flying skywards at speeds hitting the 30 km/h mark, summiting the KOM in first place was mountains leader Rohregger, the German taking no notice of the pears & apples for sale on the roadside and extending his lead in the competition by 14 points over UniSA’s Kemp. Entering the first sprint at Langhorne Creek (94.7km), the septet enjoyed their maximum lead of 3:15 – though 20km later at the second prime in Milang (114.2km), their advantage was less than half that, as Rohregger’s 20-second deficit to Greipel at the start of the day was too dangerous to go unnoticed.
All aboard the HTC-Columbia/Shack Express, Clement was the last of the original breakaway to be caught 20km from home, the typical sprinting argy-bargy sure to follow.
However, a guy called Armstrong has never been much of a follower but he’s long being a leader. And shortly after, The Shack pulled a rabbit out of the hat.