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Tour Down Under stage 6: Swift wins second stage, Meyer wins overall

Stage 6 – Adelaide City Council Circuit, 90km

In the end, Cameron Meyer won the Tour Down Under but he will have been the first man to visit the Team Sky bus and congratulate Ben Swift. In a thrilling finish, the young British rider headed a Sky one-two to not only claim his second stage victory of the race, but also deny Matthew Goss the bonus seconds he required to overhaul Meyer at the top of the standings. Swift’s win meant he jumped up to third in the final classification.

Ben Swift heads a Sky one-two to claim his second win on the final stage (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

State of play

Today’s last stage consisted of 20 laps of a 4.5km circuit around downtown Adelaide, with two intermediate sprint points at the end of the eighth and 12th laps. Final stages are often largely ceremonial affairs, with the overall race already decided and presenting the opportunity for a grandstand bunch finish for the sprinters.

Not so at the Tour Down Under. With largely flat stages and no time trial, there is rarely more than a smattering of seconds between the leading contenders. Meyer started the day with an eight-second advantage over Goss, but with 16 bonus seconds available – three each at the intermediate sprints and ten at the finish – the result remained very much in doubt.

However, history was very much in favour of Meyer, despite him being a time-trialist rather than a sprinter. Only once in the race’s 13-year history – Stuart O’Grady in 2001 – has the lead changed hands on the final day.

Early action

The race exploded into life in the first 30 seconds, with a crash at the back of the field and an immediate attack by Garmin-Cervélo‘s Matt Wilson. It was a planned move, designed to force the HTC-Highroad team of Goss to come to the front and expend energy in the chase.

Wilson was quickly joined by four riders including O’Grady, with HTC-Highroad working at the front of the peloton to maintain the gap at around 15 seconds.

Goss closes the gap

Matthews pipped Goss to the maximum bonus at the first sprint

As the first sprint point approached, the HTC-led peloton gradually reeled the escape back in, completing the catch as they completed lap seven. Garmin’s Travis Meyer, Brett Lancaster and Tyler Farrar then launched one counter-attack after another. Each was soon reeled in by HTC, but sapped their energy enough that, as they led out Goss for the sprint, Rabobank’s Michael Matthews was able to just beat him across the line, with André Greipel third. Nonetheless, Goss picked up two bonus seconds, reducing his deficit to Meyer to six.

Standings after first intermediate sprint: 1. Meyer, 2. Goss +0:06, 3. Matthews +0:09.

In the four-lap gap before the second sprint point, UniSA’s Luke Roberts went clear, as part of an eventual group of five, to secure the win in the King of the Mountains competition.

Again, HTC brought the pack back together well in advance of the sprint, but as Goss and Matthews looked at each other, the latter’s lead-out men, Jos van Emden and Thomas Leezer, rolled across the line first, with Astana‘s Allan Davis (the 2009 overall winner) third.

With just the finish to come, Meyer maintained his six-second advantage, meaning that Goss needed to finish in the top two to have a chance of overhauling him, while only a win would be good enough for Matthews.

Standings after second intermediate sprint: 1. Meyer, 2. Goss +0:06, 3. Matthews +0:09.

A frantic finish

One final breakaway – again featuring the veteran O’Grady – escaped in the closing laps, but with both the overall race victory and the glory of a final stage win at stake, there was never any chance of it surviving, and it was swallowed up on the penultimate lap.

The final few kilometres was a chaotic affair as Sky and RadioShack, who had both held back during the intermediate sprints, also surged to the front in search of a stage win for Ben Swift and Robbie McEwen respectively. Sky’s Matt Hayman and Geraint Thomas drove a ferocious pace in the final two kilometres to set up a grandstand finish. There was plenty of bumping and barging as the key players jostled for position, with the relatively slight Matthews faring particularly badly.

Meyer finished down the order in the final sprint, but clung on for overall victory (image courtesy of slipstreamsports.com)

HTC’s earlier efforts took their toll as they were unable to exert their usual level of control at the front. Mark Renshaw, providing his usual high-speed lead-out, went left but Goss, worried about being boxed in, chose to go the other way and was unable to catch the Sky pair of Swift and Greg Henderson, as the Kiwi moved the 23-year old Yorkshireman into position to claim a one-two.

With the ten-second time bonus for winning the stage, Swift leapfrogged Matthews into third place overall, exactly mirroring the result of last year’s final stage, where a Sky one-two put Henderson on the bottom step of the podium.

Meyer finished down in 20th, but the quarter of a bike length which separated Henderson in second from Goss in third was enough to give him overall victory. McEwen was fourth.

Although the overall win had eluded him by two seconds, Goss had the consolation of winning the sprinters’ jersey, while Roberts was confirmed as the King of the Mountains winner.

Post-race reaction

Meyer was still stunned after the finish:

It hasn’t sunk in quite yet. Three riders were within striking distance of taking the overall. To race in front of tens of thousands of people all cheering my name, so many friends and family and supporters out there, was fantastic.

He explained how Garmin-Cervélo’s tactics had been specifically targeted to weaken Goss’s lead-out train in the final sprint:

Our plans were to go out hard and aggressive to put the pressure on HTC-Highroad. It looks like they had to use their men up quite a lot and maybe Goss didn’t quite have the train [in the end].

I just sat there. It was like watching people play chess and having it all unfold before me.

Double stage winner Swift explained how he had benefitted from great team support throughout the stage:

We made a call today not to challenge for the intermediate sprints and just go for the big one. Fortunately, it paid off.

I was struggling really bad half way through after the efforts of Willunga yesterday. [But my team] is just perfect, throughout the race they supported me, they made sure I was not on the outside or in the wind all day and Matt Hayman did an awesome job coming into the last corner.

A combination of errors today and the handful of seconds he lost behind a crash on stage two ultimately cost him victory, but Goss was disappointed rather than disconsolate:

I guess it’s a little bit of a disappointment, but it’s also not a bad result. The team rode awesome all week and they completely supported me. We had a great race, and if it wasn’t for a couple of mishaps, maybe it would be different but that’s bike riding. It just didn’t really work out this year, but I will come back next year.

The race also saw an end to the international racing career of Lance Armstrong. The seven-time Tour de France winner, who has been dogged all week by new allegations arising from an ongoing federal doping investigation, departed immediately after the stage, refusing to speak to the press. He finished 67th overall, featuring only briefly in a short-lived breakaway on stage five. It was a low-key end to the career of one of the sport’s most famous names.

Lance Armstrong signs in for the last time (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

British sprint ace Mark Cavendish finished 129th, the last overall finisher. A heavy crash on stage two which required stitches and had left him with difficulties sleeping put paid to any chances of a stage win from a race which he freely admitted beforehand he was not in peak condition for:

Hopefully I’ll start winning later in the year. [The Tour de France] is the biggest race of the year for the team and for the sponsors. I want to win everywhere but it’s very important to win there.

The lack of the highly touted head-to-head showdown between Cavendish and Greipel was the only real disappointment of a good Tour Down Under blessed by fine weather and close and eventful racing throughout. Australian riders won all four major jerseys (overall, sprint, King of the Mountains and young rider), and claimed three stage wins and half of the top ten places on general classification. As both a showcase for young local riders in one of cycling’s hotbeds of talent and the season curtain-raiser, the Tour Down Under is now a firm fixture on the UCI calendar, and deservedly so.

The 2011 season is now officially under way. Let battle commence.

Stage 6 result:

1. Ben Swift (Sky) 1:53:47

2. Greg Henderson (Sky) same time

3. Matthew Goss (HTC-Highroad) s/t

4. Robbie McEwen (RadioShack) s/t

5. Juan José Haedo (Saxo Bank-Sungard) s/t

Final general classification:

1. Cameron Meyer (Garmin-Cervélo) 17:54:27

2. Matthew Goss (HTC-Highroad) +0:02

3. Ben Swift (Sky) +0:08

4. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) +0:09

5. Laurens ten Dam (Rabobank) +0:10

Tour Down Under posts

Tour Down Under preview

Tour Down Under stage 1: Goss beats Greipel, Cavendish sits tight

Tour Down Under stage 2: Swift by name, swift by nature

Tour Down Under stage 3: Matthews wins, Greipel falls short again

Tour Down Under stage 4: Meyer wins another one for the boys

Tour Down Under stage 5: Goss misses out after uphill struggle

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Tour Down Under stage 5: Goss misses out after uphill struggle

Stage 5 – McLaren Vale to Willunga, 131km

Despite a brave charge to bridge the gap to the final breakaway of the day, HTC-Highroad‘s Matthew Goss missed out on the maximum time bonus available for first place, having to settle for third behind Movistar‘s Francisco Ventoso, who became the fifth different winner from five different teams during this year’s Tour Down Under. Goss moved up to second overall and closed the gap to defending ochre jersey wearer Cameron Meyer, who remains in the lead by eight seconds, and will start tomorrow’s city centre stage in Adelaide as favourite for the overall win.

The peloton speeds past Aldinga Beach before tackling Willunga Hill (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

An early break sets the tone

With two challenging ascents of Old Willunga Hill – three kilometres at an average gradient of 7.5% – to tackle shortly before the finish, this stage was always going to provide the biggest opportunity of the entire race to create decisive time gaps among the leading riders. An early break of eight riders ensured the peloton were forced to maintain a decent pace, pulling out a lead of over 2½ minutes at one stage and forcing Meyer’s Garmin-Cervélo team to ride tempo at the front of the main pack to keep the elastic from snapping.

As the peloton pulled in the leash on the first of two laps taking in Old Willunga Hill, Goss’s HTC-Highroad team moved forward to assist in the catch, affording us the unique sight of Mark Cavendish, the world’s fastest sprinter, coming to the front to drive the hounds forward towards their prey. The catch was complete by the lower slopes of the climb, and then the fun began.

Attack after attack on the climbs

Initially three riders from Euskaltel-Euskadi came to the front, gradually winding up the pace and lining out the bunch as those who lack a taste for heights began to slide backwards. Luke Roberts of UniSA-Australia, the leader in the King of the Mountains classification, briefly jumped ahead of the peloton to claim maximum points over the summit and consolidate his lead. He was soon followed by a speculative escape group of seven which included Lance Armstrong – who officially rides off into (second) retirement after tomorrow’s final stage – and caused this viewer a momentary flutter of excitement wondering if we might see a grand farewell from the 39-year old Texan.

It was not to be, however. The break stayed away for a few minutes, but was soon hauled back in as the peloton regrouped for the second ascent. Euskaltel’s Miguel Minguez launched an initial solo acceleration but was soon swallowed up by a counter-attack comprising Saxo Bank-Sungard‘s Richie Porte (who wore the leader’s jersey for several days during the 2010 Giro d’Italia), Ben Hermans (RadioShack) and Australian national road race champion Jack Bobridge (Garmin-Cervélo). The trio established a 20-second advantage over the summit.

However, the leading riders in the overall classification were not to be denied. A hard, draining charge led by HTC teammate Hayden Roulston brought Goss and most of the other front runners back up to the escapees, forming an elite group of 20 for the run-in to the finish.

Goss lacks the legs this time

Bobridge dropped out after he went down on a left-hand turn, taking Movistar’s David López with him. Then, as the front group passed the one-kilometre board, Euskaltel’s Gorka Izagirre launched a long solo drive for home, which never really looked likely to succeed. With Movistar teammate José Joaquín Rojas for support, Francisco Ventoso opened up the final sprint, sling-shotting past Izagirre and just holding off stage three winner Michael Matthews by perhaps 10cm. Goss was unable to find the pace to respond on this occasion, and had to settle for third, with Meyer finishing in the pack right behind him.

Ventoso, a previous stage winner at the Vuelta a España, declared it an important victory for what was the old Caisse d’Epargne team, now sponsored by Movistar:

This is a massive victory for me, but more important for the team. We have a new sponsor this year and to win is really important. We can be calm for the rest of the year, now we have won a race.

My legs today are stronger than other days. The crowds were incredible and the ambience is very special for cycling.

Matthews, the reigning under-23 world road race champion, was not too disappointed to have narrowly missed out on his second stage win here:

I definitely did not expect it coming in to this, with so many good riders here. I have pretty good form so I was pretty confident that I would go alright, but definitely not two podiums.

[The crowd] was amazing. I could not actually hear myself think. We had a lot of people out there cheering for us and especially being an Aussie, with the Aussie crowd, it was amazing, just like the World Championships. They were going crazy and it was awesome for us and got us more motivated to work harder and put on a show.

Goss proclaimed himself satisfied to have at least reduced Meyer’s advantage, although he admitted he could perhaps have done better:

The day went alright. I ended up in the bunch I wanted to be in. It wasn’t a perfect sprint for me. I made a bit of a mistake. I tried to get on the side with less wind but I got close to the barrier a little bit. I still managed to get third and I’m a few seconds away from the lead so I’m there for a crack tomorrow.

A grandstand finish?

The race concludes tomorrow with a 90-kilometre dash around the centre of Adelaide, comprising 20 4.5-kilometre loops. With time gaps on the road extremely unlikely, the onus will be on Goss and his HTC-Highroad team to secure sprint bonuses if he is to overhaul Meyer for the overall win. Nonetheless, Goss remained optimistic of his chances:

I can try and get some bonus seconds, and try and get the win. I’ve been so close all week. I’ve been in and out of the jersey, so if the pattern keeps going the way it has it’s my turn to get back into the jersey tomorrow.

With all the other leading sprinters likely to be seeking a finishing stage victory tomorrow, Meyer remained upbeat about his chances of holding on to his advantage:

I’ll be having fingers crossed. Hopefully [my teammates] Tyler [Farrar] and Julian [Dean] can get time bonuses over the sprinters, but it’s going to come right down to the wire. My legs were good [today], so hopefully tomorrow everything works out well and we might have the jersey at the end of it.

With the glory of a win on the concluding stage and the closeness of the battle for overall victory, it is bound to be an exciting finish in Adelaide tomorrow. History is certainly on Meyer’s side – only once in the race’s 12-year history has the lead changed hands on the final day. With Garmin teammates and sprint specialists Tyler Farrar and Julian Dean deputised to spoil Goss’s chances of picking up bonuses at the sprint points, I fancy Meyer to hold on, but it will be a close-run thing.

Live coverage of stage six begins at 2.30am tomorrow (Sunday) morning on Sky Sports 4, with repeats on Sky Sports during Sunday and Monday.

Stage 5 result:

1. Francisco Ventoso (Movistar) 3:06:10

2. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) same time

3. Matthew Goss (HTC-Highroad) s/t

4. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) s/t

5. Luke Roberts (UniSA-Australia) s/t

General classification:

1. Cameron Meyer (Garmin-Cervélo) 16:00:40

2. Matthew Goss (HTC-Highroad) +0:08

3. Laurens ten Dam (Rabobank) +0:10

4. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) +0:12

5. Francisco Ventoso (Movistar) +0:17

Tour Down Under posts

Tour Down Under preview

Tour Down Under stage 1: Goss beats Greipel, Cavendish sits tight

Tour Down Under stage 2: Swift by name, swift by nature

Tour Down Under stage 3: Matthews wins, Greipel falls short again

Tour Down Under stage 4: Meyer wins another one for the boys

Tour Down Under stage 4: Meyer wins another one for the boys

Stage 4 – Norwood to Strathalbyn, 124km

Cameron Meyer of the Garmin-Cervélo team made it four different winners from four different teams – all under the age of 25 – in four stages as the day’s breakaway survived to finish in Strathalbyn, turning the general classification on its head ahead of tomorrow’s decisive stage to Willunga.

The two-time Australian national time trial champion, triple world track champion and triple Commonwealth gold medalist outsprinted Vaconsoleil‘s Thomas de Gendt in a two-up sprint to claim his first major win as a pro.

Cameron Meyer wins stage 4 after the peloton failed to catch the breakaway (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

At last, a break succeeds

Meyer and De Gendt were part of the day’s six-man breakaway, which finally escaped after 32km. Originally, it appeared they would be caught by the peloton as their lead was whittled down to just 45 seconds with 38km to go. However, a combination of the group’s effort on the largely downhill run-in, strong headwinds and a lack of organisation within the bunch allowed four of them – Meyer, De Gendt, Rabobank‘s Laurens ten Dam and Meyer’s teammate Matthew Wilson – to maintain a buffer right through to the end.

On a testing uphill finish in the last 150 metres, De Gendt was the first of the surviving four to open up the sprint. Only Meyer was able to respond, and he was able to reel in De Gendt and pull comfortably ahead of him to claim the stage win. Overnight leader Matthew Goss (HTC-Highroad) led the pack home 24 seconds later, and consequently fell back to third overall behind Meyer and ten Dam, with the former taking over the ochre jersey with an advantage of 10 seconds over ten Dam and 12 over Goss.

Remarkably, all four stage winners so far are aged under 25: Goss is 24, stage two winner Ben Swift 23, yesterday’s victor Michael Matthews 20 and Meyer is 23.

Why did it succeed?

An ecstatic Meyer explained how he and his fellow escapees had held a bit in reserve before putting in a big second effort in the final 30km to hold the peloton at bay:

We worked really well together – it’s a credit to the break. We definitely talked among ourselves the whole time, we kept checks on the breakaway times and how far we were ahead, so in the end … we really had to play it cool, really wait.

The peloton can bring it back whenever they want so we waited until about 20-30km to go and then we really hit the gas. When we went, we went strong.

Behind them, HTC team were largely left to drive the chase themselves on behalf of Goss, with help from other teams coming too late to bridge the gap, despite the incentive of both a stage win and the time bonuses which are critical at the top of the congested overall standings. He said a combination of misjudgment and the lack of support from other teams was to blame for the break’s success in surviving to the end:

Everyone just misjudged it at the finish a bit and it was all downhill from there. We knew that we had to catch them before the top but we just didn’t ride fast enough. I don’t think we had enough support from the other teams. You know, we’re not the only ones who have goals for the overall, but unfortunately today we lost time to some of those guys at the front and lost the jersey. Hopefully we’ll just get it back tomorrow.

He added:

I have a super strong team here and they have been supportive all week, and it will be the same for the next few days. With those guys, we will manage to get the jersey back.

Now what?

It will take a big team effort by HTC-Highroad if Goss is to claw back the 12-second gap to Meyer, although it is by no means insurmountable. Tomorrow’s stage to Willunga features two short, sharp ascents of Old Willunga Hill. It is three kilometres in length at an average gradient of about 7.5% – a third-category in Grand Tour terms – but with the climbs coming so close to the finish we are bound to see some big attacks from anyone harbouring aspirations for either the overall win or individual stage glory, resulting in small but potentially significant time gaps.

With two days left, it is still all to play for.

Tour Down Under highlights are being shown every evening on Sky Sports, with live coverage of stages five and six in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday morning.

Stage 4 result:

1. Cameron Meyer (Garmin-Cervélo) 2:57:55

2. Thomas de Gendt (Vaconsoleil-DCM) same time

3. Laurens ten Dam (Rabobank) +0:03

4. Matthew Wilson (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:10

5. Matthew Goss (HTC-Highroad) +0:24

General classification:

1. Cameron Meyer (Garmin-Cervélo) 12:54:30

2. Laurens ten Dam (Rabobank) +0:10

3. Matthew Goss (HTC-Highroad) +0:12

4. Robbie McEwen (RadioShack) +0:15

5. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:16

Tour Down Under posts

Tour Down Under preview

Tour Down Under stage 1: Goss beats Greipel, Cavendish sits tight

Tour Down Under stage 2: Swift by name, swift by nature

Tour Down Under stage 3: Matthews wins, Greipel falls short again

Tour Down Under stage 3: Matthews wins, Greipel falls short again

Stage 3 – Unley to Stirling, 129km

If, before the Tour Down Under had started, you could be forgiven for thinking that there were only two riders – Mark Cavendish and André Greipel – competing in the race, that is emphatically not the case now. Stage three from Unley to Stirling produced a third winner from three different teams, and not once has victory gone to Cavendish, Greipel or any of the other recognised leading sprinters present in Adelaide.

Today it was the turn of Rabobank‘s 20-year old Michael Matthews, the reigning world under-23 road race champion, who held off the challenge of Greipel comfortably on the uphill finish in Stirling. Meanwhile Cavendish, still suffering from yesterday’s crash, limped home over 12 minutes later.

Is world U23 road race champion Michael Matthews wondering where everyone else is as he wins stage 3? (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Another day, another sprint

An initial four-man escape of Thomas De Gendy (Vacansoleil), Aleksandr Kuschynski (Katusha), Luis Pasamontes (Movistar) and Luke Durbridge (UniSA-Australia) built a five-minute advantage early on. A second, three-man group later attempted to bridge the gap, but the sprinters’ teams gradually pulled in the leash to bring the peloton back together for the final 20 kilometres. Despite a couple of speculative attacks – one involving the highly regarded Jack Bobridge (Garmin-Cervélo), the 21-year old Australian national champion – the sprinters’ teams kept everything together for a bunch sprint.

Matthews timed his sprint perfectly in the closing 200 metres on a tricky uphill finish, powering clear of Greipel, who said he had been boxed in by others, to win by nearly two bike lengths despite easing up well short of the line to begin his celebration. Matthew Goss was third, a further length behind Greipel.

Matthews was ecstatic with his win:

This is probably one of the most difficult stages I’ve ridden and one of the most difficult in this tour. It’s really great to win this one and thanks to my team. They worked very well today [and] I couldn’t have done it without them.

Goss and McEwen left feeling deflated

Both Goss and overnight leader Robbie McEwen had their finishes compromised by late punctures which required them to expend extra energy chasing back to the pack. Nonetheless, Goss’s recovery to third was enough for him to reclaim the overall lead from McEwen, who dropped back to third behind Greipel. In total, just four seconds separate Goss from fifth-placed Ben Swift (Sky), the winner of stage two.

McEwen was fairly phlegmatic about losing the ochre jersey after just one day:

It was nice to be in the jersey but it puts a lot of responsibility on the team and forced them to work to defend the jersey. There were two other guys close to me that took bonuses at the finish so it’s still a game of seconds. But the seconds only matter if you can get over Willunga on Saturday. I’d like to get a stage win tomorrow and then concentrate on Willunga Hill.

I punctured just as we started the last lap.  There was a crash and I had to get around it so I went off the road and flatted. I got the wheel change but it took a lot of energy to get back into the bunch. All in all it was an okay day.

Goss admitted afterwards that it had been a long, hard day in hot conditions, but that the strength of his HTC-Highroad team had pulled him through:

It was a pretty tough day. It was 36 degrees and that takes its toll on everyone.  Then I had a puncture with about 12km to go. Bernie [Eisel] and Mark [Renshaw] waited. I ended up on my spare bike. By that stage the ambulances had gone past so we had a long chase ahead. Bernie chased me all the way back on.

Just as we made it back to the peloton we were at the bottom of the climb with about 5km to go. There’s no respite on that hill. It’s pretty nasty. Hayden [Roulston] brought me up through the bunch so I could contest the sprint.

It just shows how strong the guys are so I think we have good chances to try to defend the jersey for the rest of the week.

Reclaiming the ochre jersey brought a sad day to a satisfying end. The entire HTC-Highroad team wore black arm bands during the stage in memory of HTC women’s rider Carla Swart, who was killed in an accident with a truck while on a training ride in South Africa yesterday.

Cavendish was okay to start after his big crash yesterday but opted to conserve his energy, rolling home in the final group 12:29 down. He professed himself happy to do whatever he can in support of Goss:

I am really happy. He [Goss] punctured with 10km to go and then got back on. He is in really good form. He is an incredible gutsy rider. The guys did well to help him. I can’t really do anything, just to go and get one or two bidons.

Where have all the big names gone?

Three stages in, the expected head-to-head slugfest Greipel and Cavendish has failed to materialise. The German has a pair of second places to his name, while Cavendish – like fellow sprint ace Tyler Farrar – has not featured anywhere near the front so far.

Farrar, after an injury-hit 2010, is working his way towards the spring Classics. He is effectively treating the race as an extended pre-season.

Cavendish is visibly carrying an extra couple of kilos, and has openly admitted he never expected to be in peak form in January, telling VeloNews before the race:

I wouldn’t say I’m bringing my A-game to the race. Obviously I’m not in Tour de France condition right now. I’m not going to bust a gut to be as skinny as I can to win here. I’ve got bigger goals. If I go full gas right now it’s going to be a hard ask to do the other things I want to do in the year.

Given yesterday’s big crash and Goss’s current position as race leader, it is now even more likely that Cavendish will assume a support role for the rest of the race. His key early season target is Milan-San Remo – a race he won two years ago – in mid-March, and he knows that supporting the man in form now will be repaid in kind when it comes to the business end of the season at the Giro and Tour, where Goss will most likely be a key member of his lea-out train.

Unlike Cavendish, Greipel looks lean but is perhaps missing a bit of top-end power compared to previous seasons. He is also adjusting to a new team, Omega Pharma-Lotto, and has not always shown the kind of tactical flexibility of a Cavendish or a McEwen to win races on his own wits. He too may also be looking further forward into the season, deliberately arriving in Australia with less good form than previous years knowing that he will have the opportunity to race in France – where it really matters – for the first time as a top sprinter this year.

With hindsight, it is not surprising that Greipel, Cavendish and Farrar have not sparkled so far at the Tour Down Under. But if that means we see a showdown in Italy in May or on the Champs-Élysées in July, this week will soon be forgotten.

The race continues tomorrow to Strathalbyn, but it will be Saturday’s stage to Willunga – during which the peloton must tackle Willunga Hill twice in the closing kilometres – which will most likely decide the overall winner.

Tour Down Under highlights are being shown every evening on Sky Sports, with live coverage of stages five and six in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday morning.

Stage 3 result:

1. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) 3:11:47

2. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) same time

3. Matthew Goss (HTC-Highroad) s/t

4. Simon Gerrans (Sky) s/t

5. Luke Roberts (UniSA-Australia) s/t

General classification:

1. Matthew Goss (HTC-Highroad) 9:56:25

2. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:02

3. Robbie McEwen (RadioShack) +0:04

4. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) +0:04

5. Ben Swift (Sky) +0:04

Tour Down Under posts

Tour Down Under preview

Tour Down Under stage 1: Goss beats Greipel, Cavendish sits tight

Tour Down Under stage 2: Swift by name, swift by nature

Tour Down Under stage 2: Swift by name, swift by nature

Stage 2 – Tailem Bend to Mannum, 146km

Team Sky‘s love affair with the Tour Down Under continued as Britain’s Ben Swift claimed victory on stage two. In their debut outing in 2010, Greg Henderson and Chris Sutton had respectively won the pre-race Cancer Council Classic and the final stage to give Sky their inaugural race victories. Today Swift lived up to his name, holding off what was left of the pack after heavy crashes in the closing stages and delivering Sky’s first win of 2011.

The 23-year old would normally be expected to serve as a lead-out man for Henderson or Sutton, but when the latter went down in a crash four kilometres from the finish he was free to compete for victory himself, and duly beat Robbie McEwen (RadioShack) and Graeme Brown (Rabobank) to the line by a bike length.

Britain's Ben Swift wins stage 2 after a series of crashes decimated the peloton (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Yuriy Krivstov (AG2R), David Tanner (Saxo Bank-Sungard) and Mitchell Docker (Uni SA-Australia) slipped away early on, building a lead of over four minutes. They were later joined by Luke Roberts (Uni SA), Simon Zahner (BMC) and Timothy Roe (BMC), with Roberts seeking only to protect his lead in the King of the Mountains competition, after which he sat up. The other five were gradually reeled in by the peloton, with Roe the last to be caught with five kilometres to go.

It was shortly after this, at a tight left-hander just under 4km from the finish, that the first major crash occurred. With HTC-Highroad and Sky vying for position at the head of the pack, it appeared that Mark Cavendish was hit from behind, flinging him sideways off his bike. The ensuing chaos also unseated overnight leader Matthew Goss and sprinters Tyler Farrar and Chris Sutton, among others.

McEwen described the incident from his point of view after the finish:

They went down after the corner. There was just so much gravel on the sides of the road and after that particular left-hander there was actually gravel in the middle of the road. Somebody hit it with a front wheel and just went arse-up, took everyone down. It looked sickening – it looked horrible.

Cavendish, who finished nearly four minutes down with his kit shredded and bleeding from his shoulder and above his left eye (the latter requiring two stitches), shrugged off what had initially looked like a far more serious crash:

It was just a normal sprint crash. It always squeezes in, but that doesn’t mean anything. It’s just hard when you have teams of eight riders [fighting for space]. There is no need to take too many risks – I wasn’t taking risks. Bike racing isn’t safe. It’s just one of them things.

Teammate Goss, who was fortunate escape with minor road rash, concurred when asked whether the crash had been caused by Sky squeezing them into the barriers:

They were on our right hand side we were on the inside. You know, it was nothing. It was just a bit of a racing thing you just bump handle bars and someone goes down. It’s nothing. Nothing deliberate or anything like that.

Sky were forced to switch their focus to Swift as what was left of the field lined up for the finish. McEwen tried to jump early, counting on the element of surprise, but Swift was able to respond and beat the 38-year old veteran by around one bike length.

Behind the leaders, Swift’s teammate Geraint Thomas crashed as two other riders tried to pass, nudging him off balance. Another dozen riders came down, including UniSA’s Bernard Sulzberger, who was forced to retire with a broken collarbone. Thomas needed six stitches in his elbow.

Swift was understandably ecstatic with his unexpected victory, which he added to stage wins at the Tour of Britain in 2009 and the Tour de Picardie last year:

It’s the biggest win of my career, without a doubt, but it all It felt a bit unreal to be honest because our plan changed three times in the final four kilometres. Fortunately we were all able to think on our feet though and everything turned out brilliantly. It’s incredible, to get it in a WorldTour event as well. I’m really surprised but really happy.

With Chris Sutton finishing over four minutes down and Greg Henderson reportedly still struggling after his Cancer Council Classic crash, Swift is now likely to become Sky’s de facto team leader for the overall.

McEwen’s second place was enough to put him in the race leader’s ochre jersey ahead of stage one winner Goss who, along with Swift, share the same aggregate race time as the veteran Australian.

McEwen said:

I was gunning to win the stage and I went from quite a way out to try to spring the element of surprise through the inside at about 250m to go. Swifty came up with a really good lead-out and won the stage, so good on him. I managed to hold on for second and with the bonus seconds it’s a nice surprise to be leading.

Defending champion André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) avoided the crashes, but needed to overcome a puncture and a late bike change to stay in touch, four seconds behind the front three.

Tomorrow’s 129km stage from Unley to Stirling takes the peloton into the Adelaide Hills, culminating in a lactic acid-inducing uphill drag to the finish.

Tour Down Under highlights are being shown every evening on Sky Sports.

Stage 2 result:

1. Ben Swift (Sky) 3:27:44

2. Robbie McEwen (RadioShack) same time

3. Graeme Brown (Rabobank) s/t

4. Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t

5. Jurgen Roelandts (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t

General classification:

1. Robbie McEwen (RadioShack) 6:44:42

2. Matthew Goss (HTC-Columbia) same time

3. Ben Swift (Sky) s/t

4. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:04

5. Mitchell Docker (Uni SA-Australia) +0:04

Tour Down Under posts

Tour Down Under preview

Tour Down Under stage 1: Goss beats Greipel, Cavendish sits tight

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