Five takeaways from the Santos Tour Down Under

From Sarah Gigante’s comeback to Sam Welsford’s dream debut for Bora-Hansgrohe, what did we learn from the first big races of 2024?

Clock20:00, Monday 22nd January 2024
One notable takeaway which didn't quite make our list: Sarah Gigante is well and truly back

© Sprint Cycling Agency

One notable takeaway which didn't quite make our list: Sarah Gigante is well and truly back

As the first WorldTour races from the season, the men’s and women’s Santos Tours Down Under are always events that begin to set the tone for the rest of the calendar. It’s the first time we see riders racing for new teams, using new equipment and tech, and showing off their form ahead of their year-long goals.

The races are also increasingly becoming important points on the calendar for teams other than Australia’s only WorldTour outfits, Jayco AlUla and Liv AlUla Jayco. As such, the quality of racing is going through the roof and this can be seen in the lightning-fast times set on Willunga Hill that indicate the end is nigh for Richie Porte’s Strava KoM. The road season is upon us, and upon us at full canter.

Read more: Sarah Gigante smashes Strava record on Willunga Hill, as Oscar Onley falls just short of KoM

Oscar Onley (dsm-firmenich PostNL) may have come up just one-second shy of Porte’s all-time record, but there were talking points aplenty well before the men’s peloton tackled Australia’s most recognised climb. In the women’s Tour Down Under, the story of the race was Sarah Gigante (AG Insurance-Soudal), who made Willunga Hill her own along with the ochre jersey, which she was able to win for the first time in her career.

It was a race to remember for AG Insurance-Soudal, who claimed victory on stage 1 with Ally Wollaston, before FDJ-SUEZ left their imprint on Australia with Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig’s fearsome uphill sprint on the penultimate day. Where Uttrup Ludwig led, UAE Team EmiratesIsaac del Toro followed, with the Mexican also producing a lung-busting sprint to outwit the peloton in the men’s Tour Down Under.

From the arrival of Delo Toro into cycling’s elite to the British takeover of the final two hilly stages, the men’s Tour Down Under was never without excitement from the moment the flag dropped on stage 1. Over the combined nine days of racing, this year’s Tours Down Under were perhaps the most memorable in recent memory.

Read more:

Before the WorldTour makes its slow march to Europe via the Middle East, we sat down to reflect on the five biggest takeaways from this year’s WorldTour curtain raiser.

New team, new success for Sam Welsford and Sarah Gigante

Joining a new team often means riders need a little bit of time to really bond and gel with their teammates and get into a race-winning rhythm, but Sam Welsford and Sarah Gigante roundly disproved that theory down under.

Sarah Gigante made a last-minute, unexpected move to AG Insurance-Soudal from Movistar over the winter, and took to her new team like a duck to water. The Australian often said that she didn’t even feel new in the team, which speaks to how well she gelled with her new teammates. The squad bonded on and off the bike, and Gigante clearly linked up well with her new sports director Servais Knaven. With a new team, Gigante truly seemed like a brand new rider in Australia, with no first-day-of-school jitters to be found.

In Welsford’s case, the quick team gelling is perhaps even more impressive, given the fact that lead-outs are one of the parts of cycling where dialled-in communication and collaboration are crucial. If you hadn’t known Welsford was a new addition, you’d have thought he’d been sprinting behind Danny van Poppel and Ryan Mullen for a few years, not just a few days. Results-wise, too, Welsford was as transformed as Gigante, shifting from arguably a second-level sprinter to one who seemed totally unbeatable. More challenges await against stiffer competition, but the move has already paid off for Welsford.

Read more: Trust, power, and brawn over brains - why the Bora-Hansgrohe lead-out works so well

The kids are alright, already

In the era of ultra-talented young riders, it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising to see them being successful, but it was interesting to see just how quickly some of the most hotly-tipped talents of 2024 proved themselves at the Tour Down Under.

Isaac del Toro (UAE Team Emirates) has been on most people’s radars since his Tour de l’Avenir victory last summer, and his WorldTour debut was keenly awaited. The 20-year-old wasted absolutely no time in delivering on his massive promise in Australia, winning stage 2 in impressive fashion. Later in the week, Oscar Onley took a similarly big result, with a win atop Willunga Hill, and neither rider has been shy in outlining their ambitions for improved results going forward.

Read more:

When comparing this year’s edition to Tours Down Under of days gone by, where the likes of Richie Porte and Daryl Impey used to dominate, 2024 was all about the young riders over the experienced ones. These fresh 20-somethings aren’t hanging around, they’re keen, ready and capable of winning. If the rest of the peloton weren’t sensing a threat already, they should be now.

Read more: Isaac del Toro: Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana inspired me to follow my dream

Jayco AlUla can’t assume success down under anymore

Jayco AlUla and Liv AlUla Jayco failed to win a single stage of either the men’s or women’s Tour Down Under this year, which has only ever happened a handful of times before and was a fairly big disappointment for the only Australian team in the WorldTour.

Both teams turned up to their respective races with stacked line-ups, peppered with riders from Australia and New Zealand coming in with top form, and both looked on paper like they could probably win every stage between them - Luke Plapp even said that’s what the men’s team had eyes for.

Instead, they won nothing. It wasn’t for want of trying, and the men’s team were unlucky in losing Plapp mid-race, but it also speaks to where Jayco sit in the hierarchy of this race these days. They used to be the big dogs, one of the main teams taking Down Under seriously as their European rivals just sought some training and sun, but everyone is racing even in January these days, and Jayco are being relegated down the pecking order.

Read more: Tour Down Under: Simon Yates and Jayco AlUla struggle to make Willunga Hill hard

What can they do to remedy this, and win again at a race that’s so important to them? That’s probably the biggest question of all, and the main thing their staff will be taking away from this race.

More climbing is always welcome

It’s not always easy to find vertical metres in Adelaide and South Australia, and there are good reasons why the Tour Down Under isn’t an overly hilly race, but the race organisers are trying to fit in more and more climbing each year, and the results are positive.

In the women’s race, the first visit to Willunga Hill was an all-around success, providing exciting racing and a well-deserved winner in Sarah Gigante. The race split up, and whilst Gigante was dominant, it was far from a procession where she just rode away. Her performance was so good that in some ways we were left wanting to see more. Willunga was great, why not Mount Lofty next year?

The men’s race had more climbing, but all the talk over the final weekend was still that the racing could have been harder. Perhaps this is down to the race growing in stature, or riders arriving here increasingly fresh, but it’s clear there’s an appetite for more climbing, and the peloton wants the racing to be really, truly hard even in January. It’s hard to say how the organisers might do this, but if there are any bigger climbs to be found - or more laps around the same climb - it seems clear that this would be a welcome addition to the Tour Down Under.

Fresh retirees make the best sports directors

In the men’s race, one phenomenon became clear: sports directors who have recently retired as riders really are great assets to a team. Behind Welsford’s wins were Shane Archbold and Bernie Eisel, whilst Stevie Williams was guided by Israel-Premier Tech’s duo of Sam Bewley and Daryl Impey.

The conversation around how ex-pros often step straight into team cars, and how good or bad that can be - they know the peloton inside out, yes, but sports directing is a different skill - is always rumbling in cycling, but these four directors acted as arguments in favour of it this week. The recently-retired riders used all their tactical nous to deliver success in a race where tactics, timing and strategy are sometimes just as important as legs.

Read more: All change: sports director transfer market in full swing

The old guard of veteran sports directors will always be there, but teams are seeing just how quickly talented riders can become equally talented sports directors, and it seems like a new, more youthful generation of DSs is coming.

For more about the 2024 women's Santos Tour Down Under, including the latest news, startlist and final standings, visit our dedicated race hub.

For more about the 2024 men's Santos Tour Down Under, including the route, startlist and final standings, visit our dedicated race hub.

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