The opening two stages of the Tour Down Under went largely as expected. Andre Greipel won a crash-marred sprint on stage one, while stage two saw a successful breakaway delight the local fans, as UniSA-Australia’s William Clarke came home alone. However, it was BMC’s Martin Kohler, thanks to bonuses gained in breaks on both days, who will defend the leader’s ochre jersey going into tomorrow’s third stage.
Stage 1: Thrills & spills (& more spills)
Andre Greipel edged out Alessandro Petacchi in the sprint finish at Clare to take the first leader’s ochre jersey after a big crash just inside the final kilometre brought most of the peloton to a halt.
An early four-man break comprising Rohan Dennis (UniSA), Martin Kohler (BMC), Marcello Pavarin (Vacansoleil) and Eduard Vorganov (Katusha) at one stage held a lead of over 11 minutes. Kohler claimed the bonuses on offer at the two intermediate sprints, while Vorganov was first across the lone King of the Mountains point.
However, despite 41-degree heat, strong cross- and head-winds and a couple of mid-race crashes, the peloton eventually arose from their slumber. The combined efforts of GreenEDGE, Sky and Lotto-Belisol – the teams of top sprinters Matt Goss, Chris Sutton and Greipel – gradually reeled the break back in, completing the catch with 12km remaining to set up a bunch finish.
The first major sprint of the new season was a chaotic one. Several teams – notably Rabobank, Saxo Bank, Lampre and Sky – took turns at the front but none could establish control for more than a few seconds as tired riders moved up only to be buffeted by the wind and end up zig-zagging quickly off the front again.
So it came as little surprise when a crash occurred just inside the final kilometre. The draining conditions and first-day-back-at-school anxiety combined to put too many tired riders in too confined a space. It appeared that two Vacansoleil riders came together, triggering a mass fall involving around 15 riders which forced Greipel’s teammate Jurgen Roelandts (fractured vertebra) and FDJ’s Frederic Guesdon (hip) to retire on the spot. The latter’s injury is thought to be career-threatening, potentially a sad end for the 40-year old, who won the classic Paris-Roubaix in 1997.
A spectator was also knocked down – strangely, there were no protective barriers in place – but was reportedly uninjured.
The peloton ground to a halt behind the crash, leaving around 20 riders to contest the finish. Mathew Hayman attempted to set up Sky teammate Sutton, but Petacchi kicked past them with about 200 metres to go, only for Greipel to make a late charge from well back in the line to overhaul the veteran Italian in the last 25 metres to take victory by half a wheel. FDJ’s Yauheni Hutarovich was third.
Greipel had already announced himself as being in strong early season form by winning the pre-race Down Under Classic with some ease. His narrow victory was even more impressive though, given the way he had to recover ground lost as a result of the crash.
After the stage the German explained why he had had to charge from so far back, and questioned Petacchi’s riding in the final:
I’m lucky that I won today. There was a massive crash with 800 metres to go. My pedal got touched and I lost positions from about fifth to 20th. But I managed to bridge the gap. [Then] Petacchi went from left to right, he didn’t care about the crash. He’s a big star but he shouldn’t do this.
Petacchi, who was later cleared by the commissaires, denied any wrongdoing. Replays did show him moving across to the right, forcing Greipel and Hutarovich in turn to swerve. It was not the most vicious of chops, but it was enough to force both riders to change their line. The Italian is something of a past master at getting away with such borderline antics, having performed a similar move to block off Mark Cavendish at last year’s Giro. Justifying his actions by saying that Greipel passed him anyway didn’t really convince, though. A dangerous move is a dangerous move regardless of whether it causes a crash. Other sprinters will be penalised for less this season, for sure.
Among the other key sprinters, Rabobank’s Mark Renshaw found the transition from lead-out to featured sprinter a difficult one. He appeared to get himself into a decent position with about 250m to go, only to miss both Petacchi’s and Greipel’s jump and then lack the necessary extra gear. He finished a lowly ninth.
VeloVoices’ randomly selected rider Steele Von Hoff (UniSA) was delayed by the crash but was eventually classified 119th in the same time as the winner Greipel.
Stage 1 result
1. Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) 4:33:40
2. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) same time
3. Yauheni Hutarovich (FDJ-BigMat) s/t
4. Fabio Sabatini (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t
5. Daniele Bennati (RadioShack-Nissan) s/t
Stage 2: Clarke the hare escapes the hounds
Although stage five, which finishes with the climb of Old Willunga Hill, is clearly earmarked as the stage most likely to decide the final general classification, the rolling profile of this second stage from Lobethal to Stirling was always going to give a determined breakaway every chance of surviving to the finish. Sure enough UniSA-Australia’s William Clarke (who was released by Leopard Trek after last season) went clear in the opening kilometre and was still 62 seconds ahead of the entire peloton by the finish. However, it was his long-time breakaway accomplice Martin Kohler who assumed the ochre jersey from Andre Greipel.
The riders were thankful to be greeted by less extreme weather than the previous day, with temperatures closer to 20 degrees rather than in the low-40s. Kohler, who had featured prominently in stage one’s breakaway, was the first to jump away from a disinterested peloton inside the opening kilometre, with Clarke quickly joining him.
The pair worked together to build an advantage of over ten minutes, with Clarke allowing Kohler to take the maximum bonuses at the two sprint intermediates uncontested. Having gained the six seconds he required to move him into the virtual race lead, Kohler then sat up and drifted back to the bunch, leaving Clarke to battle on alone.
At one stage the Australian extended his lead to 12 minutes before the peloton finally upped its pace and ate rapidly into the deficit as he tired. With 20km left his advantage was still seven minutes but rapidly began to tumble thereafter. However, cheered on by a supportive crowd he rolled across the finish line 1:02 ahead of the pack. Having lost 1:50 to Greipel the previous day, this was not sufficient to put him into the lead, however. Not that Clarke was worried about that as he celebrated his first WorldTour win:
This is unbelievable really. I was dying in the last ten kilometres. It’s amazing that a breakaway rider can stay away for so long.
This is the biggest win of my career. It’s my first win in the WorldTour.
A minute later the peloton arrived at full sprint speed and Rabobank’s Michael Matthews, who won last year’s stage here, timed his effort best, coming from well back to claim the six bonus seconds available for second place by a clear two lengths. GreenEDGE’s Simon Gerrans pipped Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) on the line for third.
Kohler finished safely in the pack to confirm him as the new ochre jersey, two seconds ahead of Greipel, with Matthews jumping up to third.
VeloVoice’s nominated rider Steele Von Hoff finished in the peloton in 59th and now stands 64th overall, one of a pack of nearly 60 riders sitting 12 seconds off the overall lead.
It was great to see a win for the composite Uni-SA squad, who traditionally treat the Tour Down Under as their Tour de France, and can always be relied upon to animate even the dullest of stages (and this one was, fundamentally, extremely dull). They have won several stages and jerseys during their participations in this race, with the highlight being overall wins for Michael Rogers and Patrick Jonker in 2002 and 2004 respectively.
Stages three and four are both likely bunch sprints, with Greipel the favourite to add to his stage one victory and regain the race lead. But the decisive moment will most likely occur at the summit of Old Willunga Hill on stage five. Although he missed out on a top-three finish in the final metres here, look out for Valverde, who looked ominously strong on the uphill finish.
Stage 2 result
1. William Clarke (UniSA-Australia) 3:58:35
2. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) +1:02
3. Simon Gerrans (GreenEDGE) same time
4. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) s/t
5. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) s/t
1. Martin Kohler (BMC) 8:33:05
2. Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) +0:02
3. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) +0:04
4. Simon Gerrans (GreenEDGE) +0:08
5. Rohan Dennis (UniSA-Australia) +0:09