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Defending Tour Down Under champion Luis Leon Sanchez of Liberty Seguros was left nursing hurt pride on Saturay after he failed to get the better of Australian Simon Gerrans with a late attack on the toughest climb of the race, writes Justin Davis.
Gerrans, who recently earned a new two-year contract with the Ag2r team, began the day with a seven-second lead on the talented Spaniard and finished with it intact ahead of Sunday's 90km fifth and final stage in Adelaide. Sunday at the Tour Down Under is usually a battle of the sprinters, and Davitamon-Lotto's Robbie McEwen, who has failed to add to his record tally of 11 stage wins here so far, will be one of the men to watch in the concluding circuit race which should see Gerrans confirmed as overall winner.
After Gerrans and his Ag2r team-mates had allowed a 20-man breakaway to build a 8-42 lead at the halfway point, a game of bluff with Liberty ensued. However the Spaniards, realising they would have no chance of helping Sanchez defend his crown if they did not race, soon began to pull at the front with Ag2r.
One of the leading group, Glenn D'Hollander of Chocolade Jacques, had become the virtual race leader but once the pursuit was on the lead was reduced by more than three minutes in the space of less than 30km.
Not long after recently crowned Australian champion Russell Van Hout and team-mate Paul Crake had come over the top of the climb 20km from the finish, a Sanchez attack further back had Gerrans briefly worried. The 25 year old refused to panic, though, and was able to soon catch up with the help of two of his team-mates.
"When he (Sanchez) first attacked 400 metres from the top I panicked a little bit and sort of blew up, but I had Sylvain [Calzati] waiting for me at the top and he kept his cool," said Gerrans. "He just rode an easy tempo so that I could hang on to his wheel and then we caught [Jos Luis] Arrieta and the two of them worked really well and just towed me back up to Sanchez at the front."
Ag2r, already two-time winners of the race, had bluffed perfectly in choosing to wait for Liberty to agree to help them pursue. Sanchez was hugely disappointed with the result on a day when the Liberty team had to concede defeat. "They (Ag2r) played it really good," conceded Liberty co-director Neil Stephens. "Tactically, it worked to a T for them."
He added: "Luis is obviously disappointed, he's taken it really hard. He knew Simon was a good rider and would be a tough nut to crack. Maybe he started just a little too confidently today."
Like Gerrans, Van Hout too was celebrating, in his case a fully-deserved win. "It's just a dream come true to win this in front of all my friends and family," he gushed.
Thanks to increasing his workload over the Christmas period, and his new national title he is already being tipped for Australia's six-man Commonwealth Games' team and added: "I really want to go to the Commonwealth Games. My form's the best ever."
If Gerrans secures his win on Sunday, which would be the third for AG2R in eight editions and the first time a team has led the race from start to finish, he knows who he will buying a round of drinks for - his team-mates. "They've really won this Tour for me," he said. "I won the first stage, but they've won the rest of the race."
Stage 4, Willunga-Willunga
1 Russell Van Hout (Aus) UniSA-Australia 147km in 3.32.54 (41.43kph)
2 Paul Crake (Aus) UniSA-Australia
3 Rony Martias (Fra) Bouygues Telecom 1.03
4 Johan van Summeren (Bel) Davitamon-Lotto
5 Glen Chadwick (Aus) Navigators
6 Elia Rigotto (Ita) Milram
7 Simone Cadamuro (Ita) Milram 1.13
8 Aaron Kemps (Aus) Liberty Seguros
9 Mitchell Docker (Aus) United Water-Australia U23 1.22
10 Glenn D'Hollander (Bel) Chocolade Jacques 1.25
1 Simon Gerrans (Aus) Ag2r Prvoyance 14.47.07
2 Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Liberty Seguros 0.07
3 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 0.18
4 William Walker (Aus) United Water-Australia U23 0.46
5 Gene Bates (Aus) UniSA-Australia 1.41
6 Samuel Dumoulin (Fra) Ag2r 2.42
7 Van Hout 2.53
8 Simon Clarke (Aus) South Australia.com-AIS 3.19
9 Chris Jongewaard (Aus) UniSA-Australia
10 D'Hollander (Bel) Chocolade Jacques 3.24
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