The day before Sarah Gigante stepped out for the first stage of the Santos Women’s Tour Down Under, she told Cyclingnews that her plan was to make her new team AG Soudal-Insurance team proud and to repay them for taking a risk on her.
On Sunday on Willunga Hill she did both.
The Australian, who has barely raced at the international level the past year, dropped all her rivals before the climb was even a third of the way done, to deliver a stunning solo victory and claim the overall win at the three-stage race.
It was her first Women’s WorldTour win in her very first major race with her new team. She did it with the din of her new team’s sports manager Servais Knaven in her ear, as well as the shouts of her teammates, shouting ‘Go sarah, go sarah, go sarah’ reverberating through the ear piece.
Gigante was back. Back racing, back in a team where she felt at home and back on the terrain where she flies.
This was a reset after the challenges of recent years. The good memories from the Santos Festival of Cycling – the domestic replacement for the COVID-19 cancelled international race – were fresh in her mind after a pre-race viewing of her winning ride up Willunga Hill three years ago, where she streaked away from her rivals early, putting a minute gap into second place.
“As soon as the road went upwards then I went,” Gigante said after savouring the moment on the podium at the top of Willunga.
“Yesterday afternoon I watched the replay of when I won last time in the Santos Festival of Cycling just as a confidence boost. I just thought I would do that again tomorrow and I did.”
Gigante had had to fight in the cross winds and spend energy clawing her way back to the peloton, but only seemed to take moments to ride nearly everyone off her wheel.
The likes of Amanda Spratt (Lidl-Trek) and race leader Cecilie Uttrup-Ludwig (FDJ-SUEZ) didn’t last long on the 3km climb with an average gradient of 7.4% and a maximum of 15.6%.
“Originally the team was saying maybe I should go later, go where Richie [Porte] goes but I said no, I want to go from the bottom and I believed that I could do it,” said Gigante.
“I haven’t had a result for years and hardly any races but I knew I was in great form.”
Spectacular form in fact. Gigante won with a 16-second gap to second placed Nienke Vinke, and 27 seconds to Neve Bradbury (Canyon-SRAM) and Spratt.
The wide smile she’d displayed three years ago on Willunga and her many national title victories was back and joyful tears flowed too, as she hugged her mother, brother and then teammates as they crossed the line.
Gigante’s rivals sat on the road, some barely able to move, hot, dripping with sweat, completely spent.
Gigante, and the rest of her new team, were running on joy after the 23-year-old claimed the stage and Women’s Tour Down Under title.
“It’s a brilliant start and it’s something Sarah already said all winter: ‘I will be ready for the Nationals and for Willunga’, sports manager Servais Knaven told Cyclingnews as the celebrations continued past the finish line.
“She showed she was good at the Nationals, and she had a mechanical problem at the time trial. Today she showed she was the Queen of Willunga, a second time. In this strong wind it’s a different climb but even with this wind she could drop everyone.”
“There is only one Queen of Willunga,” he said with a smile.
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