Stage 2 of the Women’s Tour Down Under saw some aggressive racing but try as they may the attackers were unable to get away, leaving the pre-race favourites huddled within a ten seconds, leaving everything on the line for the finish of the race on Willunga Hill.
The one noteable toll of the tough stage 2 finishing circuit was defending champion Grace Brown, who went into the day as the team’s plan A. When the Australian didn’t feel good, FDJ Suez had to quickly pivot to a very effective plan B with Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig.
Brown is now 47 seconds in arrears but her Danish teammate is in pole position, heading into the final stage in the ochre leader’s jersey after winning the stage.
What’s more Uttrup Ludwig has been in Australia long enough that she is acclimatised to the summer heat and knows what she faces on Sunday on Willunga, a 3km climb with an average gradient of 7.4% and a maximum of 15.6%.
“I’ve ridden it a few times now,” Uttrup Ludwig said.
When asked what she thought of the ascent her response was a grinning ”I like it.”
That’s not a response that will bring a smile to the faces of her rivals. Yet some have a shot at victory, with the 25 riders all within 10 seconds.
Second placed Sofia Bertizzolo (UAE Team ADQ) is just two seconds behind Uttrup Ludwig, while Ruby Roseman-Gannon’s work chasing time in the intermediate sprints means she is just three seconds back.
The close GC ahead of the 93.4km stage 3 means that the climbers have their wish: Willunga will likely decide the 2024 race.
That’s music to the ears of the likes of the Willunga record holder Sarah Gigante (AG Insurance – Soudal) and three time winner Amanda Spratt, who warned: “I think it is still all to play for.”
Of course, Spratt would have preferred not to give Uttrup Ludwig a ten-second advantage.
“Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig has shown that she is in good shape and we thought that would be the case and I think FDJ, they don’t come out here to mess around. She has been here since Christmas so she will be a fierce competitor,” Spratt told Cyclingnews after the stage.
Spratt also named Gigante, Neve Bradbury (Canyon-SRAM) and Ella Wyllie (Liv-AlUla-Jayco) as among the rivals that are looking strong.
New Australian champion Roseman-Gannon leads Liv-AlUla-Jayco and has been chasing the time bonuses to give her a shot at overal victory.
“We are going to test Ruby and see how far she can go and I think that’s a really exciting opportunity,” sports director Megan Chard told Cyclingnews.
Roseman-Gannon may not have the climbing reputation of Gigante but she proved her prowess when she secured the national road title in Ballarat with its Buninyong climb.
Strong winds are forecast for Sunday too, so if a strong rider like Roseman-Gannon gets up the road and has an advantage, she could be a threat.
There a depth of options within the Australian team, with no surprises that New Zealander Wyllie’s name that is getting widely mentioned ahead of the stage. she finished 11th on the Col du Tourmalet stage of the Tour de France Femmes in 2023, and eighth place overall in South Australia last year while racing for Lifeplus Wahoo.
“At the end of the day it’s a hilltop finish, it’s the same as any other hilltop finish. We are going to approach it aggressively and it’s going to be a fight till the end,” said Chard.
“Ella is in great condition and we think she is going to do really well there and she has got the confidence to do really well too.”
It is the first time that Willunga Hill, which has an iconic status in the men’s event, has been included in the women’s race. It was a part of the Santos Festival of Cycling domestic event in 2021 and Gigante put in a scorching performance to win with a margin of more than a minute to her nearest rival.
The time gaps may be tighter this year given the quality of the field at the Women’s WorldTour race but the history of the men’s event is an indication that the they could stretch well beyond the ten second gap that sets apart the top 25 on GC.
That means, even without adding in the ten-second time bonus, the first over the line on top of Willunga Hill seems almost certain to be wearing ochre on Sunday afternoon.