Standing at the finish line in Port Elliot on Friday afternoon, listening to Happy Birthday To You sung by Sam Welsford’s family, it was difficult to imagine a better start to 2024 for the Australian.
Bora-Hansgrohe had done it again. Three bunch sprints at WorldTour level this year, three victories for their new signing, who might have paid back the faith shown in him already. If it seems easy for the 28-year-old at his new team, it is because it is at the moment. A lot of training and work has gone into this moment, but Bora’s sprint machine has been able to beat all competition at the Tour Down Under.
The finish in Port Elliot was not completely straightforward, though, after a hot three hours in the saddle for the peloton. Other teams, notably Ineos Grenadiers, were not content to let another day go Bora’s way easily, but Danny van Poppel, the Bora leadout man, and Welsford were a match for them. On the latter's 28th birthday, too.
“It was a super hectic run-in,” the winner said post-stage. “We lost each other into the final corner. I knew I was only one or two wheels behind Danny, and he knew where I was the whole time, he was looking back. We almost had the same idea. He knew I'd be in a good position, my legs felt good for the sprint.
“I didn't have to think too much leading in, the boys are really good at picking a side and defending it. That's the big difference I've noticed this year.”
Welsford has won just eight races in his short career to date, and three of them have been in 2024; 37.5% of all his victories in just four days. Before this season, he’d won just once at WorldTour level, now he’s a four-time winner. The record is good, and the momentum Welsford has is even better.
“Once we got the first one, you roll that confidence on and the boys are really feeding off how we're going this week, and the momentum keeps on rolling,” he explained
“The earlier you can get it right and get on the right wavelength as the boys, as a unit, it's super important for the rest of the season. When you go to the UAE Tour or the Giro [d’Italia], that's when it's harder to get right, so if you're already hitting those big races with good experience under the belt, it makes a huge difference.”
Any win is obviously important, and impressive, but having comprehensively beaten the field at this race, attention will inevitably be on Welsford when he returns to Europe, or to the Middle East if he ends up at the UAE Tour. He can beat Caleb Ewan coming back from illness, or Phil Bauhaus and Biniam Girmay in January, but how he shapes up against the likes of Jasper Philipsen, Dylan Groenewegen or Arnaud De Lie is another question.
Welsford and his team, though, are understandably confident.
“He's won three stages already,” Bora directeur sportif Shane Archbold said. “If more than three sprinters win more than five WorldTour races this year, I'd be surprised, and he's already got three on the board.”
The fresh 28-year-old has had a perfect 2024 so far, and a dream birthday present to boot. If his sprint train keeps firing this well, his season could get better and better,
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