• Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
As the GC at the Santos Tour Down Under stands there's 26 riders in front of the defending champion and seven men up to 20 seconds ahead. Yet if things remain status quo till Saturday, they'll be little to stop history repeating itself, writes Anthony Tan.
Cycling Central
18 Jan 2018 - 7:51 PM  UPDATED 18 Jan 2018 - 10:32 PM

A second on Stage 1. Two seconds on Stage 3.

In so doing, Katusha's Nathan Haas has put himself three seconds in front of a group of favourites including its most recent winner, Richie Porte of BMC Racing.

Another Aussie in the general classification mix, Bora Hansgrohe's Jay McCarthy has been equally attentive. Wednesday in Stirling, he finished third to surprise winner Caleb Ewan, collecting a valuable four bonus seconds. He then battled it out with Haas the day following at the second intermediate sprint; Scott Bowden (UniSA-Australia) was out of sight but second and third were up for grabs.

He's had plenty of time to recover, rediscover his confidence and form, and think about what the sport means to him. "Super-motivated": it obviously means a great deal.

Haas got the better of him but after three stages McCarthy's five bonus seconds sees him ahead on GC in fourth overall, 15 seconds behind the ochre-clad Ewan. Haas is a further two seconds adrift.

It's unsurprising these compatriots are duking it out because last year they finished on equal time, McCarthy taking the final podium spot on a count-back of placings. Mitchelton-Scott's smiling assassin, Esteban Chaves, was runner-up to Porte but isn't racing the TDU this year, understandable given he and team-mate Simon Yates are down to ride the Giro-Vuelta double in season 2018.

Yet if Porte is anywhere near his climbing form in 2014, '15, '16 or '17, will these gains make any difference to he who stands tallest Sunday in Adelaide?

A tactical error cost him overall victory in 2015, allowing now team-mate Rohan Dennis too much rope on the climb of Paracombe on Stage 3; he lost by two seconds. The next year he was up against the wily Simon Gerrans, now also a BMC Racing team-mate.

A four-time winner, Gerrans knows how to chase time bonuses better than anyone at the TDU. Courtesy of back-to-back stage wins and a handful of sprint primes, by the time the race got to Willunga he was 36 seconds up on Porte. Despite another superlative performance on the race's iconic climb, the Tasmanian would run second again, this time by nine seconds.

In 2017 it was clear from the outset Porte was the man to beat, and so it proved. Fifth overall in his first time as leader at the previous year's Tour de France, he came to Adelaide looking leaner than ever and oozing confidence: nothing was going to stop him.

Learning from his past mistake he attacked early and spanked the field on Paracombe, to finish 16 seconds ahead of Gorka Izagirre (Movistar) and Chaves. Meanwhile, Ewan was in indomitable form and took all the sprints in almost mundane fashion - not so much this year. A fourth consecutive solo victory, Porte made Willunga Hill his own, creating a chasm-like void between he and the best of the rest.

In a race often decided by a handful of seconds or less than that, his 48-second margin to Chaves spoke volumes about how good a climber he is, and how much the first race on the WorldTour calendar means to the soon-to-be 33-year-old, whose birthday comes at the end of the month. "It's easy to be motivated here for this race. It's one of the best races on the calendar," he said the Monday following the People's Choice Classic.

Porte aims for TDU repeat
Richie Porte's powerful BMC team boasts the last three Tour Down Under winners, but no rider has gone back-to-back in the event's 20-year history.

"I had good sensations last night (and) we have a fantastically-strong team here as well," said Porte. "I am super-motivated."

Since his Tour-ending crash last July on the descent of the infamous Mont du Chat, he's had plenty of time to recover, rediscover his confidence and form, and think about what the sport means to him. "Super-motivated": it obviously means a great deal.

"If it comes down to Willunga I'm happy with that," he told Cyclingnews on Wednesday.

You can't blame McCarthy, Haas and the like for trying, but if the history of Old Willunga Hill is anything to go by, one would suggest they'll be fighting for scraps.