Spain's Luis Leon Sanchez has dashed the hopes of Australia's World Champion Cadel Evans, in claiming the queen stage of the Tour Down Under.
Evans made a break from the peloton on the final lap of the punishing climb up Old Willunga Hill on the 148km burn from Snapper Point to Willunga. Evans (BMC Racing) had a maximum gap of 37sec on the rest of the peloton before being joined by Caisse d'Epargne team-mates Sanchez, Alejandro Valverde and Peter Sagan (Liquigas).
The attack by the reigning world champion was a dream scenario for race organisers, with 119,000 people cramming the roadsides from Snapper Point, McLaren Vale and Willunga – 9000 more than last year. Total attendance for the week of racing so far stands at 638,000.
"Exciting st 5 here @tourdownunder," an ever-appreciative Lance Armstrong (Team RadioShack) Tweeted post race. "Crowds were massive all day. Thx to all for showing up and supporting all the riders."
Had Evans maintained that gap, he would have gone into Sunday's final stage of the Tour Down Under wearing the ochre leader's jersey, usurping HTC-Columbia's Andre Greipel.
Griepel and German compatriot Jens Voigt (Saxo-Bank) put the hammer down on the final kilometres of the stage, to put a dent in Evans' group lead and with just 5km remaining, the gap was down to 31secs.
With the peloton closing in, Sanchez – who won the Tour Down Under in 2005 - sprinted away for a 2sec victory. Australia's Luke Roberts (Milram) also saw an opportunity at the front of the peloton and surged to the line to claim second position, followed by Valverde.
The finish by 32-year-old Olympic gold medallist Roberts marks his triumphant return to the Pro Tour ranks, following a difficult two years with injury.
Roberts joined German team Milram last September, having last been seen at road cycling's top level when he was riding for CSC in 2007. The Adelaide-born cyclist won gold with the Australian pursuit team of Graeme Brown, Brett Lancaster and Brad McGee at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Evans held out for fourth and said after the race that while his attack was necessary for his General Classification hopes, there was one unwanted side-effect - Sanchez.
"I was put in a difficult situation on that with two Caisse d'Epargne riders in the break," he reflected. "The last thing I wanted was to drag Sanchez along with me."
The Australian's attack was not in vain, awarded the Hindmarsh Most Aggressive Rider for his attempt at glory.
"It was better to try and make an opportunity then to come away with nothing at all," Evans said.
Greipel's seventh placing was enough for him to retain the ochre leader's jersey and an 11sec advantage over Sanchez heading into Sunday's final stage, a 90km street circuit around the city of Adelaide.
"I would not be in the jersey for another day without my team mates," the German said.
"They were just awesome and I am happy that the guys supported me so well today. They deserve the jersey, every climb is difficult for a sprinter and I was on the maximum the whole time. When riders like Valverde attack, there is not point trying to go with him. We didn't panic and just kept our steady speed and my team mates surrounded me and stayed with me which is great."
Roberts is in third, 17sec back, followed by Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen (Katusha) 20sec, with Evans at 21sec rounding out the top five.
Should Greipel hang on to his status as race leader at the end of Sunday's stage, he will join Australia's Stuart O'Grady (Saxo-Bank) as the only riders to have won the Tour Down Under twice. O'Grady claimed GC honours in 1999 and 2001.
"Sprint points will be important [on Sunday] and we will see how the race is," Greipel claimed. "We have a strong team here and a good chance to hold onto the jersey."