German sprinter Andre Greipel took control of the Tour Down Under cycling race when he won the 147km fifth stage in the McLaren Vale wine growing region south of Adelaide on Saturday.
Greipel was able to stay in touch with the climbers over the notorious Willunga Hill and then led home a bunch sprint of 30 riders up the main street of the town of Willunga.
The Team High Road rider’s third win in five stages also saw him take the ochre leader’s jersey from Australia’s Mark Renshaw (Credit Agricole), who finished in the main peloton 300 metres behind the lead group and dropped back to 39th overall.
Australian Allan Davis (UniSA) finished second in the stage and is now second in general classification, seven seconds behind Greipel.
Young Spaniard Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Caisse d’Epargne), who came 10th in Saturday’s stage, is third in general classification 20 seconds behind.
The Tour Down Under is now certain to be decided on the 88km race through the streets of Adelaide, but Greipel is a firm favourite after winning stages two, four and five.
The 25-year-old from Rostock in the former East Germany has been in outstanding form this week, overpowering his Australian rivals over the last 200 metres in all three of his stage wins.
Saturday’s stage saw the riders complete three laps of a circuit through the McLaren Vale vineyards and along Aldinga Beach before making the long climb up Willunga Hill, 20km from the finish.
While there was a cool breeze as the cyclists passed along the beachfront, temperatures soared to almost 40 Celsius (101 Fahrenheit) once they moved away from the ocean.
A group of five riders broke clear after 20km and stayed away until just before the climb when they were swallowed up by the main peloton.
On the climb, King of the Mountain winner Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux) led a group of 10 riders who broke clear, but they were joined just after the top by Greipel, Davis and about 20 others.
Team High Road rider Adam Hansen, the Australian time trial champion, then went to the front and dragged the group along to ensure the main peloton, including Renshaw, was unable to rejoin the breakaways.
“It’s the kind of riding he (Hansen) really likes and he’s really good at it,” Greipel said. “It was awesome — he chased every rider, he was excellent.”
Greipel said he was now a lot more confident in his own ability as a sprinter at this level.
“I trust in myself and I’m in good shape and that’s the reason I’m winning,” he said.
Greipel will have to be in top form to hold off Davis, the UniSa rider who controversially can’t get a professional contract until he is cleared of doping allegations by the UCI.
Davis, who is riding this race with a composite Australian team, said he “would fight to the death” on Sunday.
“It’s only seven seconds so the race isn’t over yet,” Davis said. “As long as we (UniSA) go down fighting, we’ll be happy.”
Belgian rider Gilbert said the race had mostly gone as he planned but he couldn’t hang on in the sprint finish.
“I tried but it was just too hot — I tried to set my tempo so I wouldn’t get too hot,” he said. “I tried to break one kilometre from the top but the other riders came back and then (Luis Leon) Sanchez (Caisse D’Epargne) attacked.
“After that I stayed in the group and waited for the sprint, but I was just 20 centimetres too short for third place.”
The Tour suffered its second crash in two days when a group of riders came down at the 88km mark.
France’s Nicolas Crosbie (Bouyges Telecom) broke his collarbone in the fall, while Igor Astarloa Ascasibar (Team Milram) was also forced to withdraw.