Progress is not always linear in sport, as in life. Fortune’s wheel turns and shapes a lot of what goes on in professional cycling, and can interrupt what seems what could be exponential growth.
2023 looked like it was going to be Oscar Onley’s year, following his breakthrough performance at CRO Race the previous autumn, where he almost beat Jonas Vingegaard. The young Scot was fast tracked to dsm-firmenich PostNL’s senior squad from its development team, and was also given a programme which befitted his talent, including big WorldTour events, from the Volta a Catalunya to the Vuelta a España.
While he rode well throughout the season - winning the youth classification at the Volta ago Algarve, finishing fifth on a stage of the Tour de Romandie, and 10th overall at the Tour of Poland - a big podium or a win eluded him. He was all set for a great Vuelta a España, part of the winning squad in the opening TTT, only to crash out on the second stage.
Onley made up for that disappointment with victory on Willunga Hill on stage five of the Tour Down Under on Saturday. The 21-year-old looked the strongest on the climb on the final ascent, matching Chris Harper (Jayco-AlUla) as he pushed off the front, before out-sprinting the elite handful of riders who made it to the summit together. He didn’t just beat anyone, either, with Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal-Quick Step) and Simon Yates (Jayco AlUla) among those finishing in his wake.
He was so good on Saturday that it was almost a record time up Willunga Hill, just one second behind Richie Porte’s benchmark. If there had been a bit less tactics from the reduced bunch, he might well be in the history books now. Onley now sits second on general classification, on equal time with Stephen Williams (Israel-Premier Tech).
“I wasn't really sure what to do,” he explained post-stage. “I was strong but I wasn't sure, I didn't want to go too early. Alaphilippe went first, I got onto his wheel, and he went a bit early, and I managed to kick off of his wheel.”
While his name might not be as well known as some of those around him on general classification, a performance of this level is not a surprise. A first win, a WorldTour win at that, was coming.
“To be honest, I came here with quite high expectations,” Onley said. “Obviously, you come into every race wanting to win, but I really felt like I had a good shot if I played it right. It was more about making sure that I played it smart and didn't waste energy at the wrong points.
“I have to credit the team over the winter, who have helped me with this tactical game. In the past, I've had the legs to get better results, but I've not been tactically so smart. It's something I've really focussed on.”
The result was certainly not a surprise to his team. Chris Hamilton, who has been working for him all week, knew Onley was capable of this.
“He's been a massive talent, ever since he came through our development team,” Hamilton said. “I did my first race with him a couple of years ago in Croatia, and it was a big race for him to find his feet, and he ended up going toe-to-toe with a Tour de France winner. From there, he raised a few eyebrows.
“He has just been chipping away, developing slowly. He's always had a massive engine, but he has just taken a bit of time to find out how and when to use it. He's worked it out.”
If working it out means this kind of performance, then there is a lot to come for Onley. His team said he will be back at a Grand Tour, without revealing which one yet.
“It's a pretty incredible start to the year, and I hope to kick on from here,” Onley said. “I want to be able to show this form throughout the year, not just in January. Hopefully, at some point in the coming months.”
The 21-year-old is still learning, but his early exit from the Vuelta a España gave him the opportunity to reset and focus on 2024, something which he is clearly reaping the rewards of.
“He was a bit nervous in the bunch at the beginning of the week, and just in the last four days, the improvement we've seen in him is massive,” Hamilton said. “It's unbelievable to see him pull it off.”
“There were some struggles last year, and the Vuelta was really unfortunate, he'd prepared well,” dsm directeur sportif Luke Roberts added. “It was just bad luck. It opened the door up to take his break a bit earlier, prepare a little bit earlier, and come to this race ready. We took that opportunity, and set him up here in top shape.”
For now, the focus is on the final stage of the Tour Down Under on Sunday, which features a triple ascent of Mount Lofty. His team are secretly confident, believing that denouement to suit their young charge better. His start to 2024 has the potential to get even better yet.
Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1