And then there were three.
Since yesterday's unexpected race-defining stage to Bendigo that displaced overnight leader and 2011 Herald Sun Tour champion Nathan Haas, catapulting Simon Clarke into yellow, it seems many, perhaps even most, have assumed overall victory for the latter is a fait accompli, such is the strength of his Orica-GreenEDGE team, coupled with his pedigree as the mountains classification winner at the 2012 Vuelta a Espana Ã¢â¬â not to mention his recent rise as a rouleur of note.
"I've had my fair share of doing the (support) job (for the team), and hopefully they can repay me this week; that would be great," said Clarke after his victory in Bendigo.
"With the team we have, I think we can back ourselves going into the rest of the race with the yellow jersey. We have a super group of guys here. I don't think we should have too many problems." Said Matthew Wilson, OGE's sport director at the Sun Tour: "Arthur's Seat will be the real test. But Clarkey is climbing very well at the moment, so we are confident that he will be right up there on Sunday."
It's a safe bet. But safe bets are not always good bets. As demonstrated Friday, without risk, there is no reward.
Out of the top three on GC, you might say that Cameron Wurf is the least credentialed climber, but yesterday, once over the climb of Mount Alexander, he was the strongest of the lot; they would have likely not stayed clear if it wasn't for the diesel-driven Cannondale rider from Tasmania, whose epic 403 kilometre training ride with Richie Porte Ã¢â¬â on his twenty-ninth birthday, no less Ã¢â¬â has now been etched into cycling folklore. (I'm told for Richie's thirtieth, they're planning on knocking out a solid five-hundred.)
"He's got a really strong team to defend the jersey. He's got a great opportunity to win," Wurf admitted to me, ruminating over Clarke's chances of becoming the sixty-first champion of Australia's oldest stage race.
"His team will work really hard to defend the jersey for him, and hopefully that will play into my hands and give me a good chance to have a good crack at him on Arthurs Seat. We're great mates, and we'd love nothing better than to go head-to-head and see who wins. And Jack Haig, of course, is probably a better climber than both of us, so we're going to have to watch out for him."
That pesky ranga, Jack Haig. He who won't go away.
The Precocious One, already (prematurely, I believe) considered Cadel Evans' heir apparent, is, on paper, the best climber. Though yesterday, so spent was the kid from Bendigo, he could barely do one turn the last fifteen kilometres, offering the locals on standby no chance of a hometown win.
His performance Sunday on Arthurs, therefore, will depend on how well Ã¢â¬â or, conversely, poorly Ã¢â¬â he's recovered from that mammoth effort, and the 20-year-old's ability to hold his form that won him the best young rider's jersey at the Tour Down Under for just one more day, before taking a breather to freshen up and defend his title as champion of last year's National Road Series.
"I've definitely got a good chance of a podium," he said, adding, "I'd like to think that I have a small chance of maybe being able to take yellow, but it's going to be so hard to take it off a class rider like Simon," also feeling Clarke was the strongest climber on the second stage to Bendigo.
When I suggested that, at this stage of the race, having a one-in-three chance of winning the HST nonetheless sounds pretty damn good, Haig quipped back, "Well, it's better than a one-in-four!"
Improving his chances would also be having some knowledge of the Arthur's Seat climb, something his Avanti team manager Andrew Christie-Johnston normally insists on before undertaking a race of this calibre (the year Nathan Haas won, in 2011, the team recced the entire course). Yet surprisingly, I discovered Friday, the stringy climber has done no such recon. "To tell you the truth, I've never actually done it soÃ¢â¬¦ I can't really answer that question," he laughed, nervously.
Wurf has raced up Arthurs once before, in 2011, when he was part of the composite national team. "I've done the climb, and I know it's pretty hard," he said, also saying he takes comfort in what transpired that year when Haas won and beat Jack Bobridge. "He's (Haas) a rider definitely stronger than me but also not a pure climber, so I give myself a chance to be competitive on it. But you do it three times, so it's a bit of a race of attrition, too Ã¢â¬â and that might play into my hands a little bit."
When I threw such a scenario out to Clarke, he retorted thus: "Oh, it's a 125K stage Ã¢â¬â I hardly think it's going to be attrition. It'll be over in the blink of an eye.
"We'll just stick to our plan, and I've got 'Gerro' (Simon Gerrans), who's a great climber. So I just need to stick close to him and we'll work on our team plan, and if people attack us, we can adjust that plan."
Clarke said in Bendigo yesterday: "You see the honour roll and I'd love to have my name on there."
So would Cameron Wurf and Jack Haig.