It’s only three seconds, but I reckon Simon Gerrans has as good as won the 2016 Tour Down Under.
In a nutshell, today and Sunday are sprinters’ stages and Saturday’s date with Old Willunga Hill is something that the three-time champion knows how to manage.
Defending champion Rohan Dennis will not agree of course, and why should he, given he trails Gerrans by only five seconds?
But as Dennis well knows, he won last year’s Tour by only two seconds, after defending a seven-second lead from his Stage 3 victory on Paracombe.
So how does Dennis stop history from repeating, and being denied in his quest to become the first rider to win back-to-back TDU titles?
How does he stop Gerrans from becoming the Tour’s four-time winner? How does he stop the Orica-GreenEDGE juggernaut from delivering that title to Gerrans on the proverbial plate?
Well firstly, he’ll need his teammates to stop the OGE riders at the intermediate sprints. As we’ve seen this week, Gerrans has targeted them, and with only a three-second lead over Jay McCarthy, the new race leader won’t be taking anything for granted.
Dennis won’t go for them, but BMC has to make sure Gerrans can’t either.
That leaves Saturday on Willunga Hill.
Last year Richie Porte eventually managed to drop Dennis and pull away for the win. In 2014, Porte put ten seconds into Gerrans as he soloed away to win.
Porte won’t be allowed to solo anywhere on Saturday, because he might have to drag Dennis as close to the line as possible.
Can Gerrans hang on to the BMC pair’s wheels? On a longer climb he would be in trouble, and if it were just Porte he may also struggle, but Gerrans can match it with Dennis long enough to neutralise the threat from the defending champion.
Then there’s McCarthy, currently three seconds in arrears.
His best placing on three previous Willunga stages is 40th in 2012. That suggests he can’t match it with Gerrans.
But McCarthy is in career-best form and was a worthy fifth in the recent Road Nationals when only 15 riders finished. Gerrans was sixth.
The finish wasn’t on top of a hill, though.
I think McCarthy will fade at the end like he did yesterday, when he finished outside the points on the Corkscrew climb.
Porte is tenth at 15 seconds, and will have to ride for his teammate, so once again his chance at a TDU title has gone – unless something calamitous happens.
Sergio Henao is also 15 seconds behind Gerrans, but is in fifth position, and without the need to ride for someone else. He could well win on Saturday, but 15 seconds is a little too much to make up on this relatively short climb unless Gerrans has a bad day.
Cannondale’s Michael Woods is an unknown quantity but showed yesterday he can climb. He’s only 11 seconds down but may not have the experience to deal with the pressure.
The others at 15 seconds, Rafael Valls (LOT), Ruben Fernandez (MOV), Steve Morabito (FDJ) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R) could all stake a claim, particularly Fernandez. He was fifth on Willunga Hill last year and third on GC.
Again though, the 15 seconds may just be too much to make up.
No race is ever over until it’s over, but Gerrans has made a habit of targeting races, training for them and winning them.
It’s only three seconds, but the TDU has constantly proven to be a race of seconds – and right now Simon Gerrans has all the seconds he needs.