Patrick Bevin has retained his lead at the Tour Down Under, finishing fifth on stage three in Adelaide this afternoon.

Bevin looked comfortable on what was described as one of the toughest stages in Tour Down Under history, surviving 3300 metres of climbing to finish in a small front group and hold onto his lead by one second over stage winner Peter Sagan.

The three-time world champion held off Luis Leon Sanchez and defending champion Daryl Impey in the sprint finish, with Bevin kicking just a bit too late and crossing the line in fifth.

Fellow Kiwi George Bennett also looked at ease to finish within the main group, crossing in 16th to move up to 10th overall, 15 seconds behind Bevin.

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The 146.2 kilometre stage ended with six laps of a 14 kilometre circuit, featuring sections of 850 metres at a 6.6 per cent average gradient, a 1.3 kilometre kick at 6.8 per cent, and 600 metres at nine per cent.

As most sprinters were sent out the back of the peloton, Bevin was left with limited help from his CCC team, and was put under pressure with three kilometres to go when Kenny Elissonde and Robert Gesink attacked. A counter-attack from Michael Woods then added to the task at hand, but Bevin was alert to the danger, and the front group came back together for a sprint, which Sagan timed perfectly to take what will be the first win of many this season for the Slovakian superstar.

Another tough finish looms tomorrow, with a 2.3 kilometre climb at a testing 8.9 per cent coming with just eight kilometres to go. Rivals will be sure once more to put Bevin under pressure, but so far, he's proven he can handle it as he eyes overall glory.