• In the box seat... New race leader of the Tour Down Under, Simon Gerrans. (AAP)Source: AAP
More often than not, the Santos Tour Down Under comes down to the wire, and when it does, there's one guy who's shown he's got what it takes, writes Anthony Tan.
Cycling Central
21 Jan 2016 - 10:19 PM  UPDATED 21 Jan 2016 - 10:28 PM

And then there were ten.

At this level, there probably isn't another race that comes down to the wire as often as the Tour Down Under does.

Five times in the last ten editions, after six stages and some 800 kilometres traversed, first and second overall has been separated by three seconds or less.

"Corkscrew is purely who is the better climber... With Willunga, tactics come into play." - Rohan Dennis, BMC Racing

What's more, this scenario has occurred four times in the last five years - meaning that, based on probability, odds are it will happen again this year.

And, at this juncture, three days down and the Corkscrew uncorked by stage winner and new race leader Simon Gerrans of Orica-GreenEDGE, only nine other riders are within 15 seconds of the three-time TDU champion; the rest, 28 seconds or more adrift, will have to wait till next year.

From Thursday's third stage, we know that Sergio Henao (Team Sky) and Michael Woods (Cannondale) are the two best climbers in this year's race - but we also know that, based on the climbs' profile and history, Corkscrew Road is a more a climber's climb, whereas Old Willunga Hill is more evenly suited to puncheur and grimpeur alike.

Gerrans pips Dennis in Stage 3 photo finish
Simon Gerrans outsprinted Rohan Dennis to take out Stage 3 of the Santos Tour Down Under, after a ten rider group formed on a fast and furious descent from the Corkscrew climb.

"Corkscrew is purely who is the better climber, I think, and with Willunga, tactics come into play," Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing), last year's winner and current third overall, five seconds behind Gerrans, said. "It's a lower gradient so you can actually push a bigger gear and it helps bigger guys like myself."

Old Willunga will also be raced differently because since 2012 it has been used as a summit finish - a master stroke implementation by race director Mike Turtur, I'll give him that.

For the climbers it means going as fast as you can, in an attempt to dislodge then gap riders like Gerrans, Dennis and previous race leader Jay McCarthy, the stage victor in Stirling now second overall at three seconds.

For anyone else it means mitigating your losses against those lighter of foot, or, in layman's terms, hanging on for dear life.

Based on what transpired Thursday, Gerrans, McCarthy and Dennis are fairly evenly matched in the climbing stakes. But it is the finishing speed of Gerrans - armed with a sprint which has seen him beat André Greipel and Peter Sagan in a flat run to the line, and uphill, Alejandro Valverde - that in my mind, place him snugly, if not squarely, in the box seat.

Furthermore, in Gerrans' previous three victories at the Tour Down Under - namely, 2006, '12 and '14 - the margin between first and second was seven, zero (he won by way of a countback of cumulative stage finishes from Valverde) and one second, meaning that not only is he familiar with tight situations at the TDU, he prevails when the going gets tough.

Nicknamed 'the Sniper', the cagey 35-year-old from Mansfield, Victoria knows he can give Woods and Henao - respectively 11 and 15 seconds adrift in fourth and fifth overall - a little rope on Willunga, leaving him only to watch McCarthy and Dennis. "My Tour Down Under is not finished yet. A good result, especially on Saturday in the Willunga Hill stage, could take me back to the top," McCarthy, after Thursday's stage, said.

However, come Saturday's stage, if the likes of Henao, Woods, Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R La Mondiale) and Dennis' team-mate Richie Porte (BMC Racing) go for a long-range assault and neither of the current top three on GC respond immediately, it will be up to the ochre jersey to chase.

"On Willunga I think we are just going to have to throttle them," Porte said.

The eighteenth edition of Australia's premier stage race is still up for the taking, but my money's on Gerro.

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