Three years ago a critical win in Lobethal at the Santos Festival of Cycling got the momentum rolling on a stellar domestic season that launched Luke Plapp into the WorldTour.
On Wednesday the Jayco AlUla rider tried to take his first WorldTour victor in Lobethal, inspired by his 2021 performance.
Plapp’s stinging attack on stage 2’s final climb of Fox Creek, with under 10km to go, dropped rider after rider with Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal-QuickStep) among those trying to follow but fading away. When Plapp started powering down the descent to the line, it looked almost like a carbon copy of his 2021 winning scenario, except for one thing – he wasn’t alone.
“To be honest I watched that replay a couple of times last week and focused on this stage a lot leading up to here,” the Australian champion said in Lobethal.
“I did a few recons and I really like that climb … just unfortunately Johnny [Jhonatan Narváez], who is probably one of the fastest in this bunch, was there.”
Had it been almost any one of the other 138 riders in the Tour Down Under peloton, the move may have had a chance. But Narváez, who clearly demonstrated his speed in a reduced group sprint at the Down Under Classic on Saturday, was not a rider Plapp and Jayco AlUla could allow to take bonus seconds or open a time gap.
“There were two people that we got told I can’t ride with and that was Corbin [Strong] and Johnny, so to see him there was really annoying,” said Plapp.
“I guess it was like, ‘what could have been’ if he wasn’t there, but he is a class act.”
Narváez’s presence forced Plapp sat up, pointing to his earpiece to indicate that he was being told not to work with the Ineos Grenadiers rider, who had until a month ago been a teammate.
Narváez was clearly frustrated by the Australian’s decision not to help consolidate the gap in a move he had begun. The first thing Plapp did when he came back to the team area was walk straight up to the Ineos Grenadiers vehicles, parked alongside Jayco-AlUla to explain his tactics, before coming to talk to the waiting reporters – Cyclingnews among them.
“There was a bit of language spoken on the descent there – why I wasn’t working so I was just saying sorry,” said Plapp when asked what the conversation was about.
“They are really good mates and he is a really nice guy so I was just trying to let him know I wasn’t trying to be a dick to him.”
Plapp’s stage tactic were designed to help his new team win, not help his former team.
Jayco-AlUla has entered the Australian WorldTour starter as an outright favourite, with three powerful and in form climbers – Simon Yates, Plapp and Chris Harper.
That means that even while it would have been nice to gain seconds before the weekend, when the race finishes with a stage finishing up the Willunga climb and then another on Mount Lofty, the Australian team went into the day with an attitude that it was more important not to lose them.
“At the end of the day, still our options are more climbing suited and without an uphill finish it’s hard,” Jayco AlUla sports director Matt Hayman told Cyclingnews before the the start of the stage in Norwood.
“They are probably not the quickest out of a small group but we start up Norton summit and those guys are ready to race and they are in pretty good form – they are chomping at the bit, that’s for sure, but it has to be the right combination.”
And it wasn’t with Plapp and Narváez.
Even though Plapp had to put the brakes on his attack, he took some positives out of a day that may have been his first race objective of the year not to pay off after winning both the Australian time trial and road race at the National Championships earlier this month.
“I think in the end it was a really good day,“ said Plapp.
“I’m really pleased with my climbing legs. I think it’s really good signs towards Saturday and Sunday and as a team I think we are looking really really strong.”
Jayco AlUla sprinter Caleb Ewan, who had been unwell on the run into the race and came fourth on stage 1 after running out of steam, made it over the late climb, while rivals like stage one winner Sam Welsford (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain Victorious) didn’t.
Ewan finished fifth in a stage where the reduced bunch was thwarted by the attack of winner Isaac Del Toro (UAE Team Emirates).
“If Caleb is getting over that and contesting the sprints it obviously shows that for tomorrow he is ready to go again and got yesterday out of the system,” said Plapp.
“But to have me, Simon and Harps all still on GC with two sprint days ahead, we should go into Saturday Sunday in good shape.”
Get unlimited access to all of our coverage of the Tour Down Under and Women’s Tour Down Under, including reporting from Australia, breaking news and analysis. Find out more.