Stephen Williams sealed title victory at the men’s Tour Down Under on Sunday with a stage win at Mount Lofty that he described as a team triumph.
The Israel–Premier Tech puncheur is softly spoken but the instructions that sports directors Sam Bewley and Daryl Impey delivered via race radio inside the last decisive 2km of the 128.2km hilly route were not.
“I think he’s probably deaf after the last k, I’ve already lost my voice and it’s only been about five minutes since we crossed the line,” Bewley said at the finish.
It turns out Williams didn’t register the words of encouragement – something teammate George Bennett earlier in the week said made him “chicken skin motivated” – as he positioned himself for the stage and race title win.
“I actually didn’t hear Sam in the last kilometre, there was so much to concentrate on,” Williams said.
“To have Sam and Daryl in the car, two people who have seen the sport inside and out – Daryl obviously a multiple winner of this race – to have guys like that in the car to keep you calm and give you the confidence and leadership role is really a privilege.”
The self-described puncheur was one of five riders that emerged after an earlier breakaway was caught on the third and final ascent of Mount Lofty
Williams responded to attacks from Laurence Pithie (Groupama-FDJ) and Isaac Del Toro (UAE Emirates) before accelerating to pip Jhonatan Narvaez (Ineos Grenadiers) to line honours.
“It’s a perfect finish for me, so to come in a small select group like that I would always back myself going to the line in a sprint,” Williams said.
The 27-year-old is not a newcomer to the sport, having spent four, injury interrupted seasons at incarnations of Bahrain Victorious before signing with Israel-Premier Tech last year. The result is the biggest of his career to date though, and something Bewley put down to confidence.
“I think the number one thing is just his confidence. When he’s confident, when he believes in himself, he can do things like this. He doesn’t always believe in himself, but he should because he’s a bloody champion,” Bewley said.
The entire Israel-Premier Tech celebrated the result, hugging once riders got back to the teams’ paddock.
Margins, ambitions and improvement
Williams had entered the stage on the same time as Oscar Onley (dsm-firmenich PostNL) and with only five seconds separating him and Narvaez on the general classification.
Bewley said he and Impey tried to maintain a sense of calm at the start, and the night before the finale, knowing there was so much at play on Mount Lofty.
“After taking the [ochre leader’s] jersey yesterday on Willunga, you could see the confidence in the guy, so today was just about going through the process,” he said.
“We normally do our pre-race meeting the night before, but we did it this morning just so that the guys could enjoy yesterday and relax a little bit at night; try to keep everybody calm. We said to the guys just focus on the process, if we do the process right the rest will come, the result will come.
“Down Under every year is the same, it’s won by small margins,” Bewley continued.
“We pretty much knew unless the breakaway won, which was pretty unlikely, that whoever won the stage was most likely going to win the tour so we let the breakaway go. We tried to put the pressure on the other teams that wanted to win the stage or needed to win the stage and just raced it like we were trying to win the stage, not win the overall, and with the stage came the overall.”
Williams, when asked about his goals for the 2024 season, outlined ambitions in the Ardennes Classics and a start in a Grand Tour, which this result will surely bolster.
“Being able to go in the red, recover, red recover I think that’s where I am at the moment, but the longer climbs [are] something I want to try and improve as well,” Williams said.
“The next most important thing will be the Ardennes Classics. I’d like to go there and try and get a good block in. And once we know which Grand Tour I’m going to do it will be all go for that then.”