The final stage of the opening WorldTour race, the Tour Down Under, has arrived, and just like expected, the margins are tight. Something that perhaps wasn’t so expected, however, is the riders holding the top spots and just how narrow the gaps are.
The top two riders, Stephen Williams (Israel-Premier Tech) and stage winner Oscar Onley (dsm-firmenich PostNL) are, in fact, on exactly the same time after the pivotal penultimate stage ending on top of Willunga Hill, which came after four stages that were largely for the sprinters.
Jhonatan Narvaez (Ineos Grenadiers) is next on GC at five seconds back, along with stage 2 winner Isaac Del Toro (UAE Team Emirates), who is fourth. Then, at 13 seconds, it is Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal-QuickStep), Bart Lemmen (Visma-Lease a Bike) and Simon Yates.
The only remaining chance to pull apart and re-shuffle those margins before the end of the six-stage WorldTour race comes on Sunday, with the 128.2km stage that finishes on top of Mount Lofty, a 1.3km ascent with an average gradient of 7.3% and a maximum of 13.3%.
“It’ll be a tough stage, it’ll be hard to control,” said current race leader Williams. “Everyone is still very close there in GC at the top. The top five or six guys are all within a handful of seconds, so I expect a pretty stressful day, but the guys here (Israel-Premier Tech) have such experience and class that I have no worries at all that we will do our best to give everything and try and come away with it.”
Williams claimed the jersey based on stage positions, but while the 27-year-old and his team will be doing everything they can to keep it, others are just as determined to take it away.
Last year, the stage finishing on Mount Lofty delivered slim time gaps, with the top 18 riders all within 9 seconds, and that was with one more ascent of the climb than there will be this year. The peloton will be passing over Mount Lofty twice this year before then taking one more run up to the top to decide the final winner on the summit of the 1.3km ascent with an average gradient of 7.3% and a maximum of 13.3%.
The most obvious threat for Williams is the time-tied Onley. All he needs is a second here or there, perhaps by grabbing one of the intermediate bonuses sprints – which come with bonus time, taking a small gap or perhaps he could deliver by adding another podium to his Tour Down Under results sheet as the top three spots on the stage also come with a time bonus.
The intermediate sprint points are up for grabs at Mylor at 56.1km and Uraidla at 79.9km from the start, offering time bonuses of 3, 2 and 1 second and on top of that, there are opportunities at the end of the stage.
“There are the bonuses on the finish line there tomorrow,” said Onley’s sports director Luke Roberts.” We want to race for those and race for the overall win.”
There are ten seconds on offer for the first rider over the line, 6 for second place and 4 seconds for third place.
It’s definitely not race over, as while at the start of Saturday’s stage, there was certainly a sense that Willunga was the day bigger gaps would be delivered, stage 6 was anticipated to be a stage of fine-tuning.
There are plenty of threats lining up to try to take the spots at the top of the results table from the British riders, from former leader Del Toro, to a determined Jayco-AlUla ream that were missing the extra climbing strength offered by Luke Plapp following his withdrawal after a stage 3 crash. Still, the Australian team are by no means under-manned as a result, with Chris Harper putting on the pressure Saturday before Yates took over.
The winner of the Mount Lofty stage in 2023, Yates, is currently sitting 13 seconds back overall and as one of the pre-race favourites and as last year’s runner-up is not a rider anyone is going to want to take an eye off as he targets the top spots that Onley and Williams currently hold
“They obviously have a strong team here as well, so that will be tough to overturn, but I won a stage last year. I don’t see why we can’t try again,” said Simon Yates. “Lay it out there and see what we can do.”