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Up-and-coming Australian Simon Gerrans has taking another step upwards on his promising career but knows his victory bid in the Tour Down Under will hinge on the fourth and penultimate stage on Saturday, writes Justin Davis.
Friday's stage into Yankalilla was won by another emerging talent, Spaniard Carlos Barredo, who handed Liberty Seguros their second stage win in as many days after Allan Davis's sprint victory a day earlier.
"I'm still really upset about the first day (when a breakaway smashed the general to pieces) and the fact I lost my option on the general classification, but this is some kind of consolation," said 24-year-old Barredo.
"The victory in today's stage is compensation for all the hard work I have done during the off-season," he said. "I made a lot of sacrifices through training and watching my diet to get himself into shape for today so this victory compensates for those sacrifices.
"The reason we are going so well is because it is well known our director, Manolo Saiz, gets his guys training very hard throughout the off-season. I hope this form will continue from here so I can have a good Classics campaign which is my main objective for 2006."
Liberty, who are defending Luis Leon Sanchez's title, were prominent again in the 154km third stage, which was largely undulating but raced in temperatures touching 44 degrees. Wind conditions were a small factor, though near the end the peloton was happy to finally arrive at the coast and find a welcome breeze.
After an early 11-man breakaway had been allowed to go clear, Barredo attacked what was by then a reduced leading group with less than 15km to race. He then proved his current form by quickly building a 48-second lead on a four-man group, which included Cadel Evans, and eventually came over the finish line with more than a minute to spare on this quartet.
Three other riders from the original breakaway were three minutes behind Barredo, and the main peloton at nearly eight minutes as the race wound to a close on the coastal town of Yankalilla.
Gerrans, the winner only a couple of months ago of the Herald Sun Tour, had a relatively easy day, and quickly paid tribute to the Ag2r team who worked tirelessly for his benefit. "They took it easy when they could, and rode hard when they had to. No one in the breakaway was any threat to us. The boys rode at a superb race. I can't thank them enough," said the Victorian, the only Australian in a team composed largely of Frenchman and which has won the race twice in seven attempts.
The crunch stage will come on Saturday, however. If Liberty - who have Sanchez in second at only seven seconds adrift - or even Davitamon-Lotto - who have Robbie McEwen sitting in third at only 18 seconds - decide to get frisky Ag2r's experience will be put to the test. A key climb nearly five kilometres long will give most of the contenders, and indeed the entire peloton, some food for thought. For Gerrans, it's where the race will be won and lost.
"We know that Saturday is going to be the toughest stage. But we're in a good position. I'm seven seconds up, which is better than being seven seconds down. It's going to be flat out on that climb. I think whoever goes up the fastest and down the other side is going to win the race."
Sanchez, who won in style when Liberty dominated the whole race last year, is an emerging talent in Spain and will be expected to make his move on or before the climb, which is 20km from the finish line.
Another rider Gerrans should be watching is Will Walker, the 20-year-old Rabobank rider - who is representing United Water here - who everyone in Australian cycling has hailed as potentially the biggest talent to emerge in years.
Stage 3, Strathalbyn-Yankalilla
1 Carlos Barredo (Spa) Liberty Seguros-Wrth 154km in 3.51.03 (39.99kph)
2 Daniel Becke (Ger) Milram 1.32
3 Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto
4 Serge Pauwels (Bel) Chocolade Jacques
5 Vincent Jrome (Fra) Bouygues Telecom 1.38
6 Mathew Hayman (Aus) UniSA-Australia 1.40
7 Alexandre Botcharov (Rus) Crdit Agricole
8 Jonathon Clarke (Aus) South Australia.com 5.26
9 Jos Joaquin Rojas (Spa) Liberty Seguros 5.56
10 Ben Day (Aus) UniSA-Australia
1 Simon Gerrans (Aus) Ag2r Prvoyance 11.11.32
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 1.45
6 Samuel Dumoulin (Fra) Ag2r 1.48
7 Simon Clarke (Aus) South Australia.com 3.19
8 Chris Jongewaard (Aus) UniSA-Australia
9 Sbastien Chavanel (Fra) Bouygues Telecom 3.41
10 Giovanni Visconti (Ita) Milram 4.18
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