Richie Porte and Jai Hindley have kept the Australian flag flying at Tirreno Adriatico following the withdrawal of early stage winner Caleb Ewan.
Ewan decided to pull out of the week-long Italian stage race on Thursday after a crash the previous day which hadn’t been enough to stop him remounting and going on to sprint to his third win of the year.
But though his withdrawal to recover properly for the Milan-San Remo classic means he can’t contest Sunday’s final flat stage, Porte and Hindley ensured there was still plenty for Australian cycling to savour on Friday’s dramatic fifth stage.
The three leaders who went on the attack – Tadej Pogacar, Remco Evenepoel and Jonas Vingegaard – took a wrong turn on a descent with just six kilometres to go and had to wheel back around to rejoin the field.
Still, the setback couldn’t stop race leader Pogacar fighting back to join the leading group of overall contenders and retain the overall lead by nine seconds over Evenepoel before Saturday’s key stage over Monte Carpegna.
The 37-year-old Porte did his best to try to take advantage and even took a couple of seconds out of Pogacar and Evenepoel to finish fifth on the stage behind the victorious Warren Barguil.
It pushed the Tasmanian up to sixth overall, exactly one minute down on Pogacar while 2020 Giro runner-up Hindley is in eighth place another six seconds adrift of Porte after coming home 10th on the 155km stage from Sefro to Fermo.
The previous day, Ewan had abandoned with his Lotto Soudal team reporting: “He suffered a bit from yesterday’s small crash and today’s furious start. He and the team decided that it was best not to push it and quit the race.”
The Sydneysider left the race with some frustration but also satisfaction that he was both climbing and sprinting well.
“I am happy with where I am at,” he told reporters as he turned his sights to Milan-San Remo, one of his big targets for the year, on March 19.
In the week’s other big stage race, Paris-Nice, Pogacar’s fellow Slovenian maestro Primo Roglic maintained his 39-second lead over Briton Simon Yates, leader of the Australian Team BikeExchange-Jayco outfit.
Frenchman Mathieu Burgaudeau won Friday’s sixth stage for his first pro victory, attacking over the last 10km and just holding off his charging pursuers led by runner-up Mads Pedersen and third-placed Wout van Aert.
Australian Jack Haig, of Bahrain Victorious, came home safely in the peloton to maintain his eighth position overall, one minute 35 seconds down going into Saturday’s decisive penultimate stage.