Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) returned from a doping ban with a win in the Tour Down Under’s toughest stage today. He sprinted to the win on the race’s first hilltop finish on Old Willunga Hill ahead of Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge).
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“I bet in that year and a half ban he hasn’t missed a day’s training,” Gerrans said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s back to such good level already.”
DNA evidence linked Valverde’s blood to coded blood bags found in the Operación Puerto investigation. He received a two-year ban from January 1, 2010, to December 31, 2011. His results, including those from the 2010 Tour Down Under and a win in the Tour of Romandy, were annulled.
Valverde denies he doped despite evidence that he transfused his blood.
“This win is for all the people who’ve supported me during my time off,” Valverde explained. “It’s a perfect comeback for me.”
Critics say that his Movistar team accepted Valverde too warmly following his ban and that it sent the wrong message in a sport that is trying clean itself.
“Say what you want,” team sports director, José Luis Arrieta told Cycling Weekly, “he didn’t test positive.”
Forgetting doping for a moment, Gerrans positioned team GreenEdge for its first WorldTour win on home soil.
“It’s fantastic,” Gerrans explained. “It’s a pretty special moment for GreenEdge in our first WorldTour outing to have the lead going into the last stage.”
Gerrans reacted to Sky’s Mick Rogers, who had attacked solo in the final 300 metres of the 3.1-kilometre climb. He had the inside line on a left-hand bend to the line where GreenEdge fans were the majority. Valverde, though, had the speed and desire to prove himself.
With his win, Valverde gained four seconds on Gerrans and drew equal in first place overall. Gerrans took the leader’s jersey, though, thanks to rules that add up stage placings since day one on Tuesday.
Team Sky had Rogers and Edvald Boasson Hagen in the final group with Valverde and team-mate Ángel Madrazo, Linus Gerdemann and Tiago Machado (RadioShack-Nissan), Rohan Dennis (UniSA) and Gerrans. Rogers benefited from the work of Danny Pate and Geraint Thomas earlier. He attacked as Boasson Hagen looked to be suffering.
“My goal today was to empty everything I had,” Rogers said. “I just had to risk. 9.9 times out of 10, I am not going to beat Valverde in a sprint, I just had a go.”
Valverde’s win failed to surprise Rogers.
“No,” he said. “That kind of finish is right up his alley.”
Brit Andrew Fenn (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) rode in part of an early escape with five others. They rode free early into the 151-kilometre stage, but Movistar and Rabobank kept control behind. Ahead of two climbs up Willunga, they had only two minutes when Nathan Haas (Garmin-Barracuda) broke free from the escape group.
Haas led the first time over Willunga, but a group of around 25 caught trailed by 1-20 minutes. The group caught him with 11 kilometres to race. Pate and Thomas helped thin the group by coming to the front and Gerrans and his rivals moved ahead.
Gerrans will likely give GreenEdge its first WorldTour win tomorrow in Adelaide. The Tour Down Under ends with a circuit around the South Australian city. Time bonuses are available, but Valverde is unlikely to win them in the sprints.
Tour Down Under 2012, stage five: McLaren Vale to Old Willunga Hill, 151.5km
1. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar in 3-45-48
2. Simon Gerras (Aus) GreenEdge at same time
3. Tiago Machado (Por) RadioShack-Nissan at 2 secs
4. Michael Rogers (Aus) Sky at 4 secs
5. Rohan Dennis (Aus) UniSA-Australia at 7 secs
6. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky at 12 secs
7. Javier Moreno (Spa) Movistar at 13 secs
8. Jan Bakelants (Bel) RadioShack-Nissan at same time
9. Jack Bauer (NZl) Garmin-Barracuda at 26 secs
10. Eduard Vorganov (Rus) Katusha at same time
24. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Sky at 2-23
72. Andrew Fenn (GBr) Omega Pharma-QuickStep at 9-52
128. Adam Blythe (GBr) BMC Racing at 16-42
129. Alex Dowsett (GBr) Sky at 16-42
Overall classification after stage five
1. Simon Gerras (Aus) GreenEdge in 18-49-24
2. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at same time
3. Tiago Machado (Por) RadioShack-Nissan at 8 secs
4. Michael Rogers (Aus) Sky at 14 secs
5. Rohan Dennis (Aus) UniSA-Australia at 14 secs
6. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky at 18 secs
7. Jan Bakelants (Bel) RadioShack-Nissan at 19 secs
8. Javier Moreno (Spa) Movistar at 23 sces
9. Michael Matthews (Aus) Rabobank at 29 secs
10. Eduard Vorganov (Rus) Katusha at 32 secs
47. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Sky at 8-13
76. Andrew Fenn (GBr) Omega Pharma-QuickStep at 24-32
123. Adam Blythe (GBr) BMC Racing at 43-33
126. Alex Dowsett (GBr) Sky at 46-23
GreenEdge at the front of the bunch
Rohan Dennis and Tiago Machado in the finale on Old Willunga Hill
Alejandro Valverde edges ahead of Simon Gerrans to take the stage win
Simon Gerrans looks set to win the 2012 Tour Down Under on Sunday
Tour Down Under 2012: Latest news
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All photos by Graham Watson