Geraint Thomas has maintained his lead at the Tour Down Under after the third stage that Dutchman Tom Slagter won to come within striking distance of the ochre jersey.
Slagter (Blanco) claimed an uphill group sprint in Stirling ahead of former Milan-San Remo winner Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) and world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) in what was his first professional victory.
Thomas finished fourth, a day after winning the second stage to take the leader’s jersey, and picked up a one second time bonus at a sprint prime during the 139km race, which his Sky team controlled. But Slagter, who was 14 seconds off the pace at the start of the day, is now only five seconds adrift with Javier Moreno (Movistar) and Ben Hermans (RadioShack Leopard) both also within 10 seconds of the leader.
Tomorrow’s 126.5km journey is one for the sprinters but Slagter, Moreno and Hermans should all be looking to, and capable of, making up time on Saturday’s queen stage that will see the peloton ascend Old Willunga Hill twice.
Sky road captain Bernhard Eisel however has taken confidence from the way his team managed today’s stage, which has on previous occasions lent itself to opportunists.
“G showed yesterday he is the best climber so we managed to keep him up there in the leader’s jersey today on probably the hardest stage to control,” Eisel said. “Tomorrow we’ll do down to Tanunda. Okay, there is a KOM in the middle and we’ll see what happens there but I think we’ve got the horsepower to control it also.”
Numerous attacks animated the start of the race from Unley and it was Australians Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge) and William Clarke (Argos-Shimano) that eventually broke clear within the first 10km.
The duo stayed away with Sky keeping their advantage to around three minutes. A chase group of six including Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge), Steve Morabito (BMC), Andrey Amador (Movistar), Boy Van Poppel (Vacansoleil-DCM), Brian Vandborg (Cannondale) and Thierry Hupond (Argos-Shimano) bridged across to the race leaders at the beginning of the fifth and final lap of a 21km finishing circuit.
Vandborg was the first to be dropped as riders in the lead group went on the attack. Sky, with the help of Lotto-Belisol, then increased the tempo and worked to bring the race together within the final 5km. Thomas, who Sky protected in the main group all day, was at the front of affairs and able to cover moves in the run to the finish.
“David Tanner put the hammer down with one kilometre to go,” Slagter said. “That was pretty far but he delivered me in a really good position to open my sprint with 350m to go.
“I’m glad to increase my lead on the best young rider classification and now I’m coming really close to the leader’s jersey too.
“There has been a big fight today for one second that Geraint Thomas took, there will be more to come. Every sprint will be contested.”
Meanwhile, American national road champion Timmy Duggan was transported to hospital after crashing at a roundabout inside the final two kilometers. Amaud Courteille (FDJ) did not start the third stage after a crash the day prior in which he suffered a concussion.
Tour Down Under stage three: Unley to Stirling, 139km
1. Tom Slagter (Blanco) 3-36-46
2. Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge)
3. Philippe Gilbert (BMC)
4. Geraint Thomas (Sky)
5. Giovanni Visconti (Movistar)
6. Javier Moreno (Movistar)
7. Simone Ponzi (Astana)
8. Daniele Pietropolli (Lampre-Merida)
9. Ivan Santaromita (BMC)
10. Gorka Izagirre (Euskaltel Euskadi)
28. Kenny Elissonde (FDJ) at 8secs
General classification after stage three
1. Geraint Thomas (Sky) 9-56-17
2. Tom Slagter (Blanco) at 5secs
3. Javier Moreno (Movistar) at 6secs
4. Ben Hermans (RadioShack Leopard) at 8secs
5. Daniele Pietropolli (Lampre-Merida) at 15secs
6. Ion Izagirre (Euskaltel Euskadi)
7. Gorka Izagirre (Euskaltel Euskadi)
8. George Bennett (RadioShack Leopard)
9. Jack Bauer (Garmin Sharp)
10. Wilco Kelderman (Blanco)
Will Clarke and Simon Clarke in the escape
Tom Slagter takes the win
Geraint Thomas maintains overall lead