Israel-Premier Tech has talked about having options at the Tour Down Under all week and its strength in the depth of those options was showcased on stage 5 at the top of Willunga Hill.
Corbin Strong was the team’s “primary leader” of the race, but he abandoned due to stomach issues before the peloton hit the first of two ascents of the six-day tour’s most iconic climb on Saturday.
“He’s actually been sick the last three or four days, so we had to shift plans a little bit,” sports director Sam Bewley said after stage 5, won by Oscar Onley (dsm-firmenich PostNL).
The team had anticipated his departure and rather than flounder, flourished. Stephen Williams finished the stage second to Onley, taking the ochre leader’s jersey from his British compatriot on countback.
“We knew Stevie was in good form and this climb is perfect for him, so today the guys did an amazing job. It was just about setting them up into the last climb,” Bewley said.
“We know on Willunga it’s always won in the last 800 metres. Anyone who tries earlier than that – unless you’re Richie Porte, but even if you’re Richie Porte –generally riders come back to those guys. So, we were patient, we knew there were attacks happening, but we told the guys to be patient, wait for that 800m. And then one big effort from there, you’re always going to be sprinting for the win.”
Simon Yates (Jayco-Alula) led the charge on the last ascent of Willunga, attacking within the final kilometre but couldn’t shake a group of six riders who went with him, including Onley and Williams.
“Over the moon. I knew it was going to be close and obviously we’re on the same time, so got it on countback,” Williams said of taking ochre.
Speaking in a post-race press conference by the podium, the 27-year-old flicked his team press officer a quick glance before answering a question about a noticeable police presence around the Israel-Premier Tech convoy at the stage start and finish, describing it as “business as usual”. The security, which was said to be due to pro-Palestine rallies that have not interrupted the tour, didn’t serve as a distraction though.
Bewley was direct when asked about the strategy he and fellow sports director Daryl Impey – a two-time Tour Down Under winner – would employ in Sunday’s finale to Mount Lofty.
“Try to win Tour Down Under with Stevie Williams,” he said.
“He’s an unassuming guy, Stevie. The early part of his career was troubled with injuries and then he came to us last year, but he’s a super talented bike rider. He won Arctic Tour of Norway last year and he was pretty good in a lot of other races.
“He’s a guy for the future for this team. We know he can win these races and that was the plan here today. He’s showing us what we believe in is true, so it’s exciting.”
The faith that has been bestowed in Williams is also reciprocated, with the climber referring to his team when asked about the title-deciding final stage.
“I expect a pretty stressful day,” he said. “But the guys I have, have such experience and class that I have no worries we’ll do our best to fight for it.”
Bewley is confident his experienced squad – which includes George Bennett and Simon Clarke – has the manpower to defend the race lead and win the title but isn’t celebrating yet.
Several rivals on the general classification are within striking distance. Onley is second on the same time, Jhonatan Narváez (Ineos Grenadiers) sits in third with overnight race leader Isaac Del Toro (UAE Emirates) fourth, both five seconds in arrears. Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step), Bart Lemmen (Visma-Lease a Bike) and Yates are all 13 seconds adrift of the leader.
“Every year in Tour Down Under it’s always close,” said Bewley. “That’s why the bonus seconds are so important, and we were lucky we got four seconds with Stevie on stage two. It’s going to be a tough day tomorrow. Of course, we’re going to try and defend it and win the race, but there’s still plenty of road in front of us.
“If Stevie finishes on the same time as the leaders, we don’t need the bonus seconds, so that will be the focus, to make sure he gets to the finish with the front guys.”
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