Tour Down Under: GC finely poised around 'unknown' Isaac del Toro ahead of Willunga Hill and Mount Lofty

Teams unsure what to expect from race leader as the weekend brings big climbing challenges

Clock09:45, Friday 19th January 2024
Isaac del Toro (UAE Team Emirates) leads the Tour Down Under with two stages remaining

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Isaac del Toro (UAE Team Emirates) leads the Tour Down Under with two stages remaining

The Tour Down Under may be four stages deep already, but the overall race has hardly begun, with the general classification set to come alight on Willunga Hill and Mount Lofty as a double header of climbing caps off the week.

After three sprint stages and one slightly anti-climactic day in the hills, stage 2 winner Isaac del Toro (UAE Team Emirates) leads the race, but sits just one second ahead of a sprinter, Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty), in second. Only nine seconds separate the top 10, with most of the GC favourites all on the same time.

Stages 5 and 6 offer an interesting proposition in terms of racing: though the two main climbs are certain to be decisive, neither are huge efforts, and will lend themselves more to aggressive, head-to-head racing, rather than a long climbing effort.

As the first climbing days of the year, let alone the race, very little is known about who is going well ahead of the weekend. Last year’s runner-up Simon Yates (Jayco AlUla) is a big favourite, but Jhonatan Narváez is on sizzling form and being hyped up by his Ineos Grenadiers team, and of course the ochre leader’s jersey currently rests on a young rider that knows how to win races, in Tour de l’Avenir victor, Del Toro.

Though there are bigger names here, Del Toro’s is the one on everyone’s mind on the eve of Willunga Hill, as the WorldTour peloton waits in anticipation to see how the young star will go on the climbs.

“[Isaac del Toro] is a bit unknown, he’s a neo pro. We came into this Tour Down Under with a few guys on our radar. As a director you’re interested in how these guys are going to make the transition, and he didn’t stay under the radar for very long,” Jayco AlUla DS Mat Hayman told GCN after stage 4.

“It’s a bit unknown to us how well he can climb and how well he’s going, but we’re still looking forward to the weekend.”

Despite being one of the most hyped up riders in the world right now, Del Toro is equally unsure about how he will go on the weekend, in what will be his very first taste of climbing in a WorldTour peloton. His powerful victory on stage 2 shows he’s on good form, but a hilltop finish is a different ask.

“I feel good. A little bit nervous, but I feel good,” was Del Toro’s answer about his feelings for Willunga, though the current leader was apprehensive about declaring his plans and ambitions for the weekend.

“I went up it in training, it's a good climb,” he said of Willunga Hill. “I hope to do my work really good tomorrow. I need to talk to the team about that.”

Willunga Hill and Mount Lofty tough but open climbs

Though the weekend’s stages are what will decide this race, the climbs are not big ascents. They should be challenging enough but could be fairly open in terms of the competition.

Willunga Hill is a 3.4km ascent with an average 7.3% gradient - making it around a seven-minute effort for most male pros - and to make it tougher this year, the organisers are sending the peloton up it twice in succession on stage 5. Though there’s a fairly long descent and flat between the two efforts, the repeated climbing should make the stage harder.

The climbers haven’t gone head-to-head at all in this race, and the first ascent of Willunga may tempt riders into early action.

“In some ways it hasn’t been the most aggressive racing so far, particularly on stage 2. I would have expected more fireworks, so maybe everybody’s waiting for tomorrow. It could be a quite exciting stage,” Hayman said.

On stage 6, the climbing ramps up, with almost 1,000m more elevation and three ascents of Mount Lofty. The Lofty stage is perhaps more akin to a European hilly stage, with the road constantly rolling, and the climb starting long before the official 1.6km stretch - in truth the road goes up for over 10km before the line.

So whilst it may not be ultra-tough climbs that bring this race to life, it is definitely a climber’s race rather than something for the all-rounders, as this race perhaps once was.

“There’s a lot of racing to be done. In the past we’ve gone after this race through the intermediate sprints, with Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey to try and win it, but this year we’re kind of in the Richie Porte way, we’ve got to try and win this race on Willunga, and the next two days actually,” Hayman added.

Yates a favourite but Plapp loss will show, Alaphilippe form unknown

In terms of race favourites, there are several names in the mix, and Tour de France fourth-placed finisher Simon Yates is probably at the top of that list.

“It’s a massive dent [losing Plapp],” Hayman said. “We came into this race with three guys. We saw the form that he and Chris Harper had at the national championships, so we had a really strong team and the ability, so that’s really knocked us. One, it’s an option for a win but also just extra horsepower on those climbs to be able to make a difference, so a big dent.

“The guys saw him last night, and you could see how much pain he was in. It doesn’t matter how much willpower you have to want to line up, the doctors and myself were just saying it’s not worth it for him. It would have been a token. So I hope he’s doing well.”

Perhaps the second-biggest name here in Australia is Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step), who has stated his serious intentions around this race, but failed to impress on stage 2 when he wasn’t able to follow an uphill move from Plapp. Though an overall bid is still on the cards, his team were also keen to stress that preparation and testing for the season ahead is also a big factor for the Frenchman.

“He feels fine, he’s very happy to be here,” was what DS Geert Van Bondt said of Alaphilippe’s form before the weekend.

“The feeling is good, he said. Tomorrow we will see how good he is, but for us the most important thing is that he’s here. He’s feeling happy, and now he can prepare his Classics season, [which will be] from the end of February and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to the Tour of Flanders.

“For the moment it’s about seeing how far he can come. Then after tomorrow on Willunga Hill we can see what is that end result, and I think Sunday is also a nice stage, so we can see the values he’s pushing and what his general feeling is.”

Outside of the big stars, there are also a few names that are sneaking into contention, taking advantage of the more open field to show off their abilities. One rider who heads into the weekend in a slightly better position than most is Stevie Williams, whose lead-out-turned-sprint earnt him third on stage 2, and enough bonus seconds to place him fifth overall, four seconds ahead of most of his competitors.

Four seconds may not sound like a lot, but it can be important on climbs like Willunga and Mount Lofty, and may make a difference for Williams - who is a good climber - if things remain tight come Sunday.

“I think it will be an aggressive weekend of racing,” Williams said. “Everything is very close in terms of GC, so Willunga and Mount Lofty will be decisive. There are many teams with good leaders, and with it being January, I presume everyone is a little uncertain. We are in a good position for now, so we will do our best this weekend to fight with the best.”

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