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The Men's Santos Tour Down Under 2024 Race Report

The Men's Santos Tour Down Under 2024 Race Report

Last weekend, the first WorldTour race of the 2024 season also came to its conclusion for the men’s peloton. Already, it’s shaping up to be a fascinating year for cycling, with rejuvenations and young stars abounding.

This year’s edition was wide open for a new rider to claim the Ochre Jersey, as it was the first time since the inauguration of the race that no previous winner would be rolling up to the start line. Plenty of the big names were there, hoping to bid for stage wins or the general classification including double World Champion Julian Alaphilippe, newly minted Australian Champion Luke Plapp, Caleb Ewen and Biniam Girmay.

Of the established stars, many had a TDU to forget, Ewan and Alaphilippe failing to impose themselves upon the race, Plapp being forced to quit the race after a bad crash on Stage 3 despite some spirited riding in the first couple of days; whilst Biniam Girmay thrice lost out to the new look sprint train of Bora-Hansgrohe.

Indeed, if the TDU is anything to go by, then we may just have a new super-team on our hands. The German team have signed a whole host of new talent including, but not limited to, Primož Roglič, Dani Martinez, and securing the continued services of Jai Hindley. However, the most transformative signing might just be the creation of the dynamic duo of Australian sprinter Sam Welsford and Dutch lead out man Danny van Poppel, the Aussie victorious in all three pure-sprint stages in dominant fashion. Welsford’s explosive speed meaning that there were few who could catch him once launched from van Poppel’s tactically astute wheel. 

Welsford was certainly the highlight for Australian fans, ARA, the Australian national team, showed off some good young talent, but failed to make much of an impact whilst Jayco-AlUla had a week to forget. Brimming full of confidence before the race, the Aussie WorldTour team failed to make their home tarmac advantage count and looked off the pace set by Bora Hansgrohe, UAE and the other WorldTour teams.

Another of the race’s themes had to have been the prevalence of young riders within the peloton, with 74 of the 139 starters making their World Tour debut and two of the stage winners in their early twenties claiming their first WorldTour titles. All in all, an exciting stage race, with plenty to get your teeth into!

 

Stage 1

Tanunda to Tanunda

The first stage of the TDU got off to a lively start, the peloton reaching speeds of 85kmph at the off. The course was an interesting one, 144km across three laps of Tanunda with 490m of elevation over 1km with a gradient of 5.2% climb of Menglers Hill punctuating the route and giving some hope to a breakaway attempting to escape the predicted bunch sprint finish. Quinn Simmons of Lidl-Trek was the first rider to attack out of the peloton, although the true breakaway of the day was made up of Louis Barre (Arkea B&B Hotels) and Georg Zimmermann (Intermarché-Wanty) whose advantage was 3 minutes at its greatest with 100km to go, but they were reeled in before the final lap.

It was to be a day for the sprinters however, despite the vicious crosswinds and intense 34-degree heat. The jostling for positioning was competitive to say the least, but it was Bora Hansgrohe who managed to get their new look lead-out into position, Danny van Poppel proving his worth in the last 400m as he drove a hard pace for eventual winner Sam Welsford. A “dream come true” start at his new team according to the Australian, who beat Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Victorious), winner of this stage last time around, and Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty) to take the biggest, but not the last, WorldTour win of his career.

 

Stage 2

The 141.6km route from Norwood to Lobethal had been touted as the most difficult and potentially decisive course of the race. With several short, but sharp hills, not least the 7.5% average gradient of the Fox Creek Climb and the greatest total metres of climbing. The day was perfectly poised for a surprise victory.

Luke Burns (Team Bridgelane) and Jardi van der Lee (EF Education-Easypost) formed the two-man breakaway, battling for King of the Mountain points on the three category two climbs. Although van der Lee got off to a strong start, it was Burns who won the war, bringing his total to 23 points in the classification and making the first pedal-stroke on his journey to eventually claim the polka-dot jersey. It wasn’t all business however, as the young Australian waited for his opponent to change a tyre in a fine display of sportsmanship.

Back in the peloton, a skirmish had been going on for the final point and time bonus available for the third man through the intermediate sprints, one which Isaac Del Toro (UAE Team Emirates) won despite stiff competition.

Attacks from Luke Plapp, Jonathan Narvaez and Quinn Simmons were all brought back in by a relentless peloton but on the final kilometre, the fiery young Mexican of UAE Team Emirates punched over the top of the last climb, opening up a considerable gap with a long-ranged attack that the other riders simply couldn’t match.

Del Toro beat out Corbin Strong and Stevie Williams (Both Israel Premier Tech) to take his first WorldTour victory in emphatic fashion and the Ochre Jersey. The young rider is sparking conversation and excitement amongst fans and team-mates alike, his fire and brimstone style of attacking and quietly charming personality not yet dulled by the relentless nature of life in the peloton and bringing comparisons to a certain Slovenian. It would be a surprise if the first Tour Down Under stage winner from Mexico, didn’t go on to achieve great things.

 

Stage 3

The first time the TDU had started at Tea Tree Gully, stage 3 was definitively a sprinters stage. That’s not to say however, that the journey to Campbelltown was simple, with the technical downhill Gorge Road’s tight corners causing havoc and a crash involving four riders, including Australian champion Luke Plapp.

A four-rider breakaway explosively formed by Burn’s aggressive riding on the Tea Tree Gully climb just 2km from the start line never truly looked like threatening a stage winner or significantly altering GC standings. Burns continued to prove his strength to the World Tour teams by cementing his control of the King of the Mountains points.

A strong day for the Australians continued as Sam Welsford dominated the final run in, the breakaway having admitted defeat long before. A long, straight last kilometre led to a chaotic battle for positioning amongst the sprint teams. Soudal Quick-Step burnt through their lead-out train too early, and Bora Hansgrohe again managed to capitalise. First Ryan Mullin and then van Poppel perfectly launching Welsford to what, in the end, proved to be a fairly comfortable victory, Welsford sitting up long before crossing the finish line.

Two-time TDU stage winner Elia Viviani (Ineos) came 2nd, whilst Arkea B&B’s British rider Dan McLay finished in third. Jayco-AlUla continued to struggle in the sprints, apparently due to having had “zero practice at lead outs” according to Matt White (Jayco-AlUla’s Director of High Performance) and their top lead out man Campbell having only met Ewan at the Tour Down Under itself. Hopefully the season turns around quickly for Ewan.

 

Stage 4

The start line at Murray Bridge was sadly devoid of Luke Plapp, Australia’s national champion on the fourth day, as the battering he had taken in his crash on the previous stage proved too much.

A very flat stage, with only one significant climb of Gemmell Hill with 48 kilometres to go, it was the final opportunity for a sprinter other than Sam Welsford to make their mark. Julian Alaphilippe attempted an early breakaway, before dropping back into the bunch. Vinicius Rangel (Movistar) and the youngest rider in the history of the Tour Down Under, Jackson Medway (ARA), composed a breakaway which, containing no GC threats, Ochre Jersey wearer Del Toro’s UAE Team Emirates were happy to let range ahead.

It was a fairly un-complicated day for the two riders, sharing the points at each KoM and Intermediate Sprint way marker. Back at the head of the peloton Narvaez continually attempted to get the points and seconds advantages for third place, beaten by riders from other GC teams protecting the interests of their teammates.

Luke Burns continued to pick-up the minor KoM points from within the peloton, minimising the work he would have to do on the final couple of stages to secure his Polka-Dot jersey. Jackson Medway stayed ahead of the peloton for as long as he could manage, ensuring he claimed the prize as the most competitive rider, but with just a few kilometres to go, the peloton won out and the contest for sprint positioning began.

Perhaps the most chaotic finish of the race ensued, Ineos attempted to get Narvaez into pole position but couldn’t quite manage it whilst Caleb Ewan got caught out of position in 20th place as the group turned into the final straight.

Even Bora Hansgrohe didn’t quite get it right, van Poppel again performing an aggressive and decisive lead out, but without Welsford directly on his wheels. For a fleeting moment it seemed as though their monopoly might be broken, with Biniam Girmay launching a strong sprint.

However, almost inevitably, Welsford, using his competitors as his lead out, powered up the right-hand side, protected from the caress of the cross-tail wind and simply over-powering the rest of the field to claim his third WorldTour stage win of the season on his 28th birthday.

 

Stage 5

Saturday the 20th brought with it the 129.3km Queen stage of the tour, with Willunga Hill returning after a brief sojourn in 2023.

Two laps of the 3.4 km climb with an average gradient of 7.3% would once again prove to be decisive on the day, albeit not for the race as a whole. It was a gruelling experience, with high winds and an aggressive breakaway group containing Casper Pedersen (Soudal Quick-Step) riding in defence of Alaphilippe; Johan Jacobs (Movistar), Samuele Battistella (Astana Qazaqstan Team) and Liam Walsh (ARA) stringing the race out and maintaining a consistent gap either side of 3mins.

The first time up Willunga Hill, Luke Burns once again picked up maximum points in the KoM qualification, all but confirming his hold on the Polka-Dot jersey. A rapid descent, reaching speeds as fast as 90kmph was a precursor to the final climb.

At the base of Willunga, UAE tried to get Del Toro into a good position before Chris Harper launched an attack, bridged by DSM-Firmenich’s British youngster Oscar Onley’s determined response.

The final big attack came from the two-time World Champion Alaphilippe, who misjudged the climb and went early, flagging before he could gain a discernible advantage. Onley (only 21 years old) sprinted in from the right to ride for his first world tour win. Narvaez, Simon Yates and Alaphilippe were the famous names beaten by the young Brit from Scottish Borders whose rise to the WorldTour has been far from simple. His professional career didn’t start with much of a bang, but he credits DSM’s team with allowing him to develop at his own pace, and he’s now paying back their faith with a confident performance which left him on the same time as Stevie Williams in the Ochre Jersey heading into the final day.

 

Stage 6 

The final, decisive stage of the Tour Down Under was a palindromic one for Quinn Simmons, attacking early out of Unley just as he had on the opening stage. Luke Burns finished off an impressive performance for Bridgelane, securing his King of the Mountains title by coming second through the first checkpoint.

It was a tight competition in the GC standings, with the virtual Ochre Jersey switching shoulders several times throughout the stage. At one point resting upon Stefan De Bod’s (EF Education-Easypost) shoulders as he led a breakaway group with a 3-minute advantage. Back in the peloton, Onley and Williams, who had started the day on equal times, bided their time conserving energy and in the end wisely so as the breakaway was eventually reeled in.

Del Toro was the first to go in the final battle for the Ochre Jersey, followed by Williams and Narvaez. But sprinting up the final few metres of the climb it was Williams of Israel Premier-Tech who rode a gripping last 300m from 3rd to claim the biggest win of his career and the Ochre Jersey. A key moment for Israel Premier-Tech’s campaign to climb back into the WorldTour roster.

 

Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale won the Team’s General Classification, with, somewhat inevitably given their imperious displays, Sam Welsford and Luke Burns lining up in the Blue and Polka-Dot jerseys respectively.

Overall, the Tour Down Under was an explosive start to the season, with the big names not performing as expected, young riders such as Del Toro, Onley and Burns proving that cycling’s ‘Golden Generation’ have some stiff competition waiting in the wings, two British riders picking up stage wins (as well as the overall title) and Bora Hansgrohe announcing their intent to compete with Visma-Lease a bike and UAE Team Emirates for the biggest titles. We can’t wait to see how Sam Welsford, Del Toro and others perform this year, so check back here with our cycling experts to get the definitive breakdown.

 

If you enjoy our coverage, pick-up our cycling book! The Road Book is the world’s only Cycling Almanack, with all the results from the entire cycling season, alongside race reports and essays from the sport’s best and brightest.

Pick-up one of our copies here: https://theroadbook.co.uk/collections/books

Our 2023 edition has sadly sold out, but if you would like to read all there is to know about last season then email: office@theroadbook.co.uk and we will put you on the waiting list for a limited re-print coming later in the year.

 

Written by Henrik Bassett

Images courtesy of Russ Ellis

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