Decision day at Tour Down Under

ADELAIDE, Australia -- Team Columbia's technical director, Allan Peiper, is an Australian by birth, but he's spent the last 30 years based in the cycling stronghold of Belgium. When races get stressful, he can cuss just as impressively in Flemish as in English.

As he drove the course late in Saturday's Stage 5, Peiper cut loose with a few choice bilingual epithets -- aimed at no one in particular -- when the Tour Down Under race radio crackled with the news that several dozen riders had melded into one big lead group after the second climb up Old Willunga Hill.

Peiper had been urging Michael Rogers, the leader of the California-based team, to attack and attempt to open a gap on the front bunch. Rogers, assisted by his teammate Adam Hansen, did his best, but the hill just wasn't long or steep enough to whip the cream of the peloton. With 12 miles on open roads remaining after the second descent, a mass sprint finish soon became inevitable, and Peiper knew Rogers had lost any shot at the podium.

Rogers now stands in fifth place, 38 seconds behind fellow Australian Allan Davis of the Quick Step team, who won his third stage Saturday and seems driven to make up for lost time.

Davis was initially caught up in the sticky snare of the Operacion Puerto doping investigation in Spain and was barred from starting the 2006 Tour de France for what was then the Astana-Wurth team. Both Spanish authorities and his own country's anti-doping agency cleared Davis, and he rode for Discovery Channel in 2007, finishing second in the Milan-San Remo classic, one of the toughest one-day events in the sport.

Discovery folded at the end of that season, but the taint of Puerto lingered. Davis had to fight cycling's international governing body for the right to compete in the world championships. Other top teams kept their distance. Unemployed at this time last year, he was able to compete in this race only through the beneficence of the Australian national developmental team, which put him on its roster in a one-off. Davis rode for most of 2008 with the lower-tier Mitsubishi team before signing with Quick Step.

Barring an accident, Davis will retain his lead in Sunday's Stage 6, a circuit race in downtown Adelaide in which his team should be able to protect him. "I can't believe it," said the compact, 28-year-old Davis, who pumped his fists repeatedly in exhilaration after crossing the finish line. "It's the best feeling I've ever had in my career."

The Tour Down Under was elevated to Pro Tour status in 2008 and gained instant cachet last fall when Lance Armstrong announced he would make it the first stop in his comeback season. Race organizers had hoped to make the 92-mile Willunga stage more difficult this year by adding a second circuit up the hill, but a resigned Rogers said they could add a third and still wind up with the same outcome.

Still, Rogers said, the race is just about as hard as he wants it to be this early in the season -- especially with a field this deep. "I've never seen such a high level in this race before," he said.

Armstrong also joined in the attacks up Willunga, which was packed with a crowd of 10,000 he termed "Tour de France-esque." Armstrong dropped back in the peloton to avoid the chaos of the final sprint and finished with the same time as Davis, but fell another 10 seconds in the overall standings because of the time bonus Davis got for winning the stage.

"When that climb was over, I was glad it was over," Armstrong said of his Willunga experience. "That was a full effort."

If there's no shakeup Sunday -- "I'll stay out of the way, I promise," he said -- Armstrong's result in his first professional race in 3½ years will be a modest 29th out of 120-plus men. His Astana team director, Johan Bruyneel, termed the result "perfect." It'll be interesting to see what that adjective comes to mean at each way station along Armstrong's itinerary.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.