Former winners Michael Rogers and Stuart O'Grady are shaping up to repeat their past triumphs on the Tour Down Under, which ends in Adelaide, Australia on Sunday.
The six-stage race, which opens the Pro Tour cycling season, has famously been won by both sprinters and stage race specialists in the last 10 years.
O'Grady – the winner in 1999 and 2001 – and 2002 champion Rogers have kept a low profile at the race in recent years, or failed to show up at all. But on Thursday they both showed their determination to challenge for the ochre jersey.
In Thursday's crash-marred third stage, Saxo Bank team leader O'Grady and Rogers, who rides for Columbia, were involved in a 16-man break that also included American Lance Armstrong.
While the seven-time Tour de France champion is more interested in improving his form at "high intensity" in racing conditions, Rogers and O'Grady were busy snapping up the bonus seconds at the day's intermediate sprints.
O'Grady finished third on the stage – his third top five result in as many days – to cement his position in the general classification.
Ahead of Friday's fourth stage, an undulating 143 kilometres (89 miles) between Burnside Village and Angaston, the 35-year-old from Adelaide is only five seconds behind compatriots Allan Davis and Graeme Brown.
Rogers is fifth overall at 18 seconds behind race leader Davis, who, along with fellow sprinter Brown, is expected to find Saturday's fifth stage a formidable test.
When asked if he now has his eyes on the prize, Rogers was unequivocal. "Oh yes, definitely. It's not going to be easy, but I'm in with a good chance," he told AFP.
After racing in a 16-man breakaway for most of the day, Armstrong finished the stage in 32nd position and is now 39th overall at 29 seconds behind Davis.
On a day that claimed nine victims from crashes and fatigue, the 37-year-old American was simply happy to have avoided disaster on what he said was a great "high intensity" ride.
Asked if he felt if he felt his form was progressing, he added: "Yes and no. It's hard to say because I'm tired. All in all, I think it's the kind of stuff I need to do. I need to get in the race and work that top end."
© AFP 2009