There was no doubting that Oscar Onley had every reason to firmly plant a target on the Willunga Hill stage of the Tour Down Under, not when his training times on Strava were slotting him close to the all-time top ten.
Race day, of course, turned it up several notches, and Onley now holds the second fastest time on the climb behind Richie Porte. But there was of course a far bigger prize to claim on Saturday, his first ever professional win, and a WorldTour level one at that, on the most iconic stage of the South Australian race.
“To be honest I came here with quite high expectations and I guess obviously coming to every race you want to win, but I really felt like I had a good shot if I played it right,” Onley told reporters after the stage.
The 21-year old was lining up against the likes of Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal-QuickStep) and Simon Yates (Jayco-AlUla), who were clearly gunning for victory on the stage as well, though it was not the riders who already had laden palmares that would prevail on Saturday’s summit finish. Alaphilippe may have kicked off the final sprint, but it was Onley who finished it.
He crossed the line ahead of Stephen Williams (Israel-Premier Tech) and Jhonatan Narvaez (Ineos Grenadiers) while Alaphillipe held on for fourth on the hot 129.3km day from Christies Beach to Willunga Hill, that included two runs up the 3 kilometre ascent with an average gradient of 7.4% and maximum of 15.6%.
The day’s victory may have been Onley’s first, but there were no surprises for his team, who had worked hard to make sure they delivered the rider to stage 5 with the best possible chance. It was another ideal opportunity for the Scot, who had a key one foiled near the end of last season when his wheel slipped from underneath him on a corner and ended his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España, on day 2.
“There were some struggles last year and it was really unfortunate,” said team sports director Luke Roberts, who hails from Adelaide and knows the race inside out. “He prepared well for the Vuelta but the crash – that was just bad luck the way that went – but it did open it up to take the break a little bit earlier, to prepare a little bit earlier, to come to this race ready. So yeah we took that chance, we took that opportunity and then set him up here in top shape.”
Onley returned to racing in late September after the Grand Tour crash and then ended the 2023 season at the Tour of Guangxi in October, but he attributed the Willunga win not just to form, but also to getting the neurons firing as well.
“I really have to credit the team. Over the winter they have helped me with this kind of tactical game because in the past I think maybe I have had the legs to get better results but I have not been tactically so smart,” said Onley. “It’s something I really focused on the last few weeks.”
That could well be a good thing, as while one stage win is secured there is now another, all-important tactical game ahead. Onley may have won Willunga, but it was the second-placed Williams who secured the leader’s jersey. The pair are on exactly the same time but on a placing countback Williams, who came third on stage 2, was the one who got to walk away from the podium in ochre.
“It’s going to be pretty tough,” Onley said as the crowds started to work their way off the climb with views stretching to the ocean. “Stevie was obviously up there in the sprint today on my wheel, so I think tomorrow is going to be really tight. We’ll give everything and hopefully come away with that jersey.”
The good news for Onley is that Sunday’s final stage delivers another summit finish, this time on top of Mount Lofty, a 1.3km ascent with an average gradient of 7.3% and maximum of 13.3%.
“The finish tomorrow actually suits him better than Willunga,” said sports director Roberts. “So that’s one we also want to target and hopefully that can also net us the overall win.”
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