Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) belatedly opened his 2014 account with an emphatic win on stage four of the Tour Down Under.
Having finished second at the People’s Choice Classic and again in stage one, Greipel ensured there would be no mistake this time round as he took advantage of his Lotto-Belisol team’s superb lead-out to power to victory by several bike lengths.
The German rider’s sprint train worked so efficiently to conquer the crosswinds of Victoria Harbour that chief lead-out man Jurgen Roelandts rolled across the line in second.
A much-anticipated battle between Greipel and compatriot Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) did not materialise, however, after the People’s Choice Classic winner was one of a number of riders dropped when Orica-GreenEDGE dropped the hammer early in the stage.
The Australian team’s tactics had the desired effect, too, as Simon Gerrans, who lost the race lead to Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) on stage three, took a crucial time bonus at the second intermediate sprint, before finishing fourth in Victoria Harbour.
Such was Gerrans’ desire to make inroads into Evans’ lead, no break was allowed to stick early in the day.
A number of attempted attacks came to nothing as Orica-GreenEDGE took full control of the bunch and kept the race together until the first intermediate sprint.
There, Gerrans attacked the group to claim the maximum three-second time bonus while team-mate Matt Goss crossed in second to deny Evans and Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) any bonuses of their own.
With the first part of their job done, Orica-GreenEDGE relented slightly in their pace, enough to allow a five-man break to finally go clear after 30km.
Michael Anderson (Tinkoff-Saxo), Yukiya Arashiro (Europcar), Wesley Sulzberger (Drapac), Axel Domont (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Cameron Wurf (Cannondale) earned a small advantage.
They stayed together for only a short time, however, before the latter two attacked and built a lead which grew to a maximum of four-and-a-half minutes.
The other three escapees were soon swallowed up by the peloton, before Orica-GreenEDGE once again powered to the front – setting an average speed of 60km/h as crosswinds battered the peloton on the approach to the Myponga Dam.
The crosswinds – and the Australian team’s desire to take advantage of the conditions – wreaked havoc on the bunch as a huge split formed, with Kittel, Caleb Ewan (UniSA-Australia) and Mark Renshaw (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) among those to miss the split.
Although the main GC contenders remained up front, the effect of the winds made for extremely difficult riding conditions as Evans avoided a couple of near-misses – first nearly touching wheels with Thomas, before the Welshman and Greipel were temporarily forced off the road just in front of Evans.
With riders jostling for protection in the bunch, Orica-GreenEDGE continued to set the pace, while Lotto-Belisol also brought riders to the front as Greipel set his sights on the stage win.
The two escapees were caught with 40km remaining, allowing Gerrans to once again contest an intermediate sprint.
Although Nathan Haas (Garmin-Sharp) won the sprint – with his own GC hopes not over yet – Gerrans was still able to collect a two-second bonus and therefore move within seven seconds of Evans overall.
Evans’ hopes of contending the sprint was hampered by a mechanical, and he almost suffered much worse as he narrowly avoided a collision when slowing to wait for the team car. But with two team-mates to help him back into the leading group, the incident did not prove costly for the 2011 Tour de France champion.
With the intermediate sprints over, Lotto-Belisol took control of the race with Greipel still having five team-mates alongside him at the head of the leading group.
Drapac also brought riders to the front, with Jonathan Cantwell leading their sprint charge, while Cannondale’s Elia Vivani and Garmin-Sharp’s Steele von Hoff also remained up front.
With a strong team alongside him, however, Greipel was not to be denied even when Wurf attacked for a second time in the final kilometres to no avail.
Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) and team-mate Serge Pauwels were the next to make a move with four kilometres remaining, but there was to be no repeat of Bakelants’ Tour de France heroics in Corsica.
The duo stayed clear under the one-kilometre kite but Lotto-Belisol remained in full control, making the catch before setting Greipel up to devastating effect, for his 15th career win in this race.
With Gerrans missing out on any further bonus seconds, Evans will now take a seven-second lead into Saturday’s potentially decisive penultimate stage, which finishes atop Old Willunga Hill.
Tour Down Under 2014: stage four – result
1) André Greipel (GER) – Lotto-Belisol in 3:33:07hrs
2) Jurgen Roelandts (BEL) Lotto-Belisol – same time
3) Elia Viviani (ITA) Cannondale
4) Simon Gerrans (AUS) Orica-GreenEDGE
5) Nathan Haas (AUS) Garmin-Sharp
6) Daryl Impey (RSA) Orica-GreenEDGE
7) Maxime Bouet (FRA) Ag2r-La Mondiale
8) Nikolay Trusov (RUS) Tinkoff-Saxo
9) Anthony Roux (FRA) FDJ.fr
10) Francesco Gavazzi (ITA) Astana
1) Cadel Evans (AUS) – BMC Racing Team in 14:19:46hrs
2) Simon Gerrans (AUS) – Orica Greenedge +7”
3) Diego Ulissi (ITA) – Lampre-Merida +14”
4) Nathan Haas (AUS) – Garmin Sharp +23”
5) Robert Gesink (NED) – Belkin-Pro Cycling Team +29”
6) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky same time
7) Daryl Impey (RSA) – Orica Greenedge +33”
8) Brent Bookwalter (USA) – BMC Racing Team – same time
9) Rory Sutherland (AUS) – Tinkoff-Saxo
10) Richie Porte (AUS) – Team Sky