At the very start of the racing in Australia, Ineos Grenadiers’ Jhonatan Narváez marked himself out as one of the key riders to watch. There was no doubting that the Ecuadorian had arrived at the season starter with some fierce form when he sprinted to victory from the break at the pre-tour criterium, the Down Under Classic.
“I prepared really well for the race” said Narváez after the final stage of the Tour Down Under, pausing to brush a bright green grasshopper off his leg – one of the more innocuous critters to be found in the long grass at the top of Mount Lofty. He cited the weather as an advantage – similar to home – but “in the end there was a rider stronger than me”.
That meant that role of the 26-year-old turned out to be that of the gracious runner-up, as even though Ineos Grenadiers had fielded a strong roster, with Elia Viviani for the sprints, they were walking away with the frustration that can come with the lower steps of the podium.
“It hurts to be so close now to the victory, not only stage but also GC, but that’s also why this sport is so beautiful – it’s so difficult to win,” sports director Oli Cookson told Cyclingnews, before going on to congratulate the race winner. “Chapeau to Stevie Williams and also to Israel Premier Tech.
“For us, we knew that Johnny was in great shape, he has been working hard all winter. He is having a baby in February so he is going to go back and be with his family for a short time and we knew that this was a clear objective for him, and for Elia for the sprints.”
The sprint stages came earlier in the race, with Viviani coming second on stage 2, after Narváez’ jumped on a move by Luke Plapp (Jayco-AlUla) but was thwarted by his one time teammate who was not going to work with the Ineos Grenadiers rider given the obvious threat he posed to the Australian team’s prospects.
Come the weekend, however, and it was all down to the climbers and GC riders, first with the pivotal Willunga Hill where Oscar Onley (dsm-firmenich PostNL) and Stephen Williams (Israel-Premier Tech) claimed first and second ahead of Narváez. The duo were on the same time overall after that, but with Williams in ochre thanks to a countback, while Narváez was just five seconds back.
That meant even if there were no time gaps on the last stage which finished on Mount Lofty, the top overall spot was still within reach if he could just get that final stage win and the ten second bonus that came with it.
“We didn’t want to just let the break go,” said Cookson, which was evident by how much work Ineos Grenadiers did on the front to pull back in the group of seven that had taken off early in the 128km stage. “We knew we wanted to get time bonuses but we knew it would be difficult with Stevie – he is so fast after a hard race and fast in general. But we put it all on the line and all the guys played their part.”
The break was caught, in no small part due to the work of Ineos Grenadiers, and then stage 2 winner Oscar del Toro (UAE Team Emirates) sparked a move, which left Narváez, Williams, Del Toro and Bart Lemmen (Visma – Lease a Bike) charging toward the line to carve up the podium spots. There was no stopping Williams’ run, however, while Narváez had to settle for second in the stage and in the overall standings. He finished nine seconds behind Williams once the finishing time bonuses had been dealt out and two ahead of Del Toro, while Onley, who was in the second group on the road, ended up fourth.
“I’m sure Johnny is frustrated,” said Cookson. “He has put in a lot of hard yards over the winter and came here wanting to win GC but with second on GC and a victory in the criterium and th team performing the way it is I think we now look forward to the other goals of this trip, in particular the Cadel Evans race.”