Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) completed a ‘perfect comeback’ with victory ahead of Simon Gerrans (GreenEDGE) on the Tour Down Under’s Queen Stage.
The duo clashed on the final climb of Old Willunga Hil – but Valverde, who is returning from a two-year doping ban, edged out the Australian by half-a-wheel in the uphill sprint for the line.
Gerrans moves into the overall lead on countback, with the two tied on the same time to setup a thrilling final stage in Adelaide.
“I’m super happy,” said Valverde. “My team has been perfect today. I couldn’t have won without them. It’s a really emotional moment for me. This win is for all those who have supported me during my time off the bike.
“The stage suited me – we put the team at the front, and to finish it off – it’s a perfect comeback for me.”
The 151.5km stage was McLaren Vale to Old Willunga Hill, the longest day in the saddle in the Tour’s 14-year history, was always poised to spark fireworks among the riders looking to walk away with the title.
The race has traditionally been one dominated by sprinters, with Andre Greipel, winner of two stages so far this year, having claimed the crown twice. But the first-ever hilltop finish, introduced for the 2012 edition, gave the peloton’s all-rounders the chance to shine.
Stuart O’Grady (GreenEDGE), Takashi Miyazawa (SaxoBank), Nathan Haas (Garmin-Barracuda), Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM), Briton Andrew Fenn (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Kristof Goddaert (AG2R La Mondiale) formed a six-man break that was allowed an advantage of nearly eight minutes.
That lead was pegged back as the finale approached and Haas attacked the group going into the first of two circuits of Old Willunga Hill, a fabled climb for cyclists in South Australia, with the peloton hitting the bottom of the climb 90 seconds back and soon overhauling the other escapees.
Neo-pro Haas reach the top of the climb for the first time with a 40-second advantage, while behind him the chase was down to a select group of just 20 riders looking to seize control of the race.
Home hope Haas was eventually swallowed up going into the final ascent, where Valverde had the support of three Movistar team-mates. The lead group was whittled down one-by-one as the climb progressed, leaving Gerrans and Valverde to go head-to-head for the line.
Gerrans jumped first and initially looked to have a sprung a surprise on his rival but Valverde hit back to edge the sprint and claim victory.