Michael Rogers moved up to fourth overall after Team Sky put in a strong ride on stage five of the Tour Down Under.
The Australian came to the fore on the race’s queen stage and the climb up Old Willunga Hill, opening out his sprint early to take fourth on the infamous ascent.
Team-mate Edvald Boasson Hagen was also in attendance but slipped back in the closing metres to claim sixth place after the team enlivened the finale of a spectacular day of racing.
Both riders saw their stage results mirrored by that of the general classification as Rogers jumped up to fourth, 14 seconds back on new race leader Simon Gerrans (GreenEDGE).
Maintaining his sprint jersey, Boasson Hagen occupies sixth place, four seconds behind his team-mate but is still in with the chance of a podium heading into the final criterium stage in Adelaide.
At the finish Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) marked his return to the pro peloton with victory, edging around Gerrans on the final corner to take the stage and move up to level on the GC.
The result puts the riders equal on time with the former Team Sky rider taking the ochre jersey on count back to set up a final showdown in Adelaide.
The duo will fight it out for bonus seconds on the final stage with Tiago Machado (RadioShack-Nissan) eight seconds further back in third.
Old Willunga Hill
The final climb of the race proved decisive as expected with an elite group of eight riders fighting it out for the victory.
Team Sky enlivened the final metres with an attack from Danny Pate which saw a group of three riders off the front temporarily as the team enjoyed a numerical advantage on the early slopes.
Geraint Thomas also made it over the first of the two ascents of the climb and kept the pace high, something the team had been forced to do all day in pulling back a six-man breakaway.
Rogers showed good legs on the climb and kicked early in a bid to go clear in a brief move that was shut down by Javier Moreno (Movistar).
At the finish Rogers was happy with his performance, saying: “I think it went great. The aim of the day was to really get the best out of myself and I nearly got away with it.
“I attacked really hard there with a couple kilometres to go. Unfortunately I had quite a bit of headwind going up the climb which made it tough. But at the end of the day I’m still really happy to finish up there.
“I think I would have had a chance except Valverde had a really good team-mate there who was able to close the gap. That’s the way it is but it was a good race. I think it’s going to come down to the line tomorrow.”
With all the pre-race talk centring on Old Willunga Hill there was understandably a sense of anticipation as the race’s 151.5-kilometre queen stage kicked off in McLaren Vale.
It wasn’t long before the attacks began with six men including Brit Andy Fenn (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) and Stuart O’Grady (GreenEDGE) pushing on to build up a healthy advantage of 8:10.
That gap was large enough as far as the peloton was concerned as the pace ramped up; each team coming to the front to take turns, meaning at the half way point of the stage you could be forgiven for thinking the race was entering its final kilometres.
The gap continued to tumble on the final lap of the Port Willunga circuit with BMC showing faith in overnight leader Kohler by riding on the front.
The pace was ramped up as the bunch hit the packed climb for the first time with a sizeable split forming on the descent.
On the approach to the finish it was Rogers who opened up the sprint but on the line it was an emotional Valverde who returned with a bang.
Sports Director Sean Yates admitted that, like Rogers, he felt the team had a chance of winning the stage but was encouraged to see his riders consolidate strong positions overall.
He said: “At a certain point I thought we had it in the bag. In the last few hundred metres I think Eddy just cramped up a bit. But in terms of the GC I think we still have a chance to move up tomorrow and whatever happens we’ll go for it because it means we’ll move up that classification and that means WorldTour points.
“We’ve got a very good lead-out train, we’ve proved that so we’re going to give it our best shot and fight to the finish line in Adelaide.”
Viewers can catch extended highlights on January 21 from 1300-1500 and 1700-1900 on Sky Sports 4.
The highlights are also available on Sky Go.