Willunga Hill set to shake up Tour Down Under, with GC battle shrouded in mystery

Two climbing stages follow four days of largely flat racing in South Australia, so the weekend will decide the race

Simon Yates on Willunga Hill in 2020
Simon Yates on Willunga Hill in 2020
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Eleven seconds separate first from 69th at the Tour Down Under after four days of racing. Eleven seconds, the time an elite runner can do 100 metres, or the time it takes to tie a shoelace, or to microwave a pre-made pancake. It is not a lot.

Those 11 seconds cover everyone from a Grand Tour winner, in Simon Yates (Jayco AlUla), to sprinters like Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty) and puncheurs like Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step). It is safe to say the first four stages of the Tour Down Under have not been particularly selective, with all but one ending in a sprint - the one that didn't, pretty much did anyway. Sam Welsford won three of the four.

As a result, no-one really knows what form riders are in, or who is really in contention for the overall. The final two stages both have the potential to be decisive, with stage five seeing riders race up Willunga Hill twice, and stage six concluding after three ascents of Mount Lofty. They might not be the toughest climbs the peloton will face this year, but if raced hard, they will split things up. That's what everyone is hoping, anyway.

"In some ways it hasn’t been the most aggressive racing so far," Jayco AlUla directeur sportif Mathew Hayman said on Thursday. "Particularly on stage two, I would have expected more fireworks, so maybe everybody’s waiting for tomorrow. It could be a quite exciting stage."

There are a lot of unknowns, principally how good the race leader, Isaac del Toro (UAE Team Emirates) will be this weekend. The Mexican took the ochre leader's jersey following stage two, and has the ability to win the whole race - he won the Tour de l'Avenir, the premier under-23 race, last year - but this is his first WorldTour race.

Asked if he had tackled Willunga before, the softly-spoken 20-year-old replied: "I went up it in training, it's a good climb, I hope to do my work really good tomorrow. I need to talk to the team about that [his role on Saturday]." He doesn't give much away. 

"It’s a couple of totally different stages now," Hayman explained. "Tomorrow, being back at Willunga, which is a staple of the Tour Down Under, it’s always an exciting race and you normally have great crowds out there. So we’re looking forward to returning there and and we’ll be seeing how Simon can go up there. 

"[Isaac del Toro] is a bit unknown, he’s a neo-pro. We came into this tour 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. 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."

Jayco AlUla have Yates and Chris Harper here as GC options, with the former ostensibly the leader, but they're not alone. There are a lot of contenders in amongst the 68 riders within 11 seconds of Del Toro - Jack Haig (Bahrain-Victorious), Michael Storer (Australia), Jhonatan Narváez (Ineos Grenadiers), Stevie Williams (Israel-Premier Tech) and Alaphilippe to name just five.

"There’s enough of them [competitors]," Hayman said. "Obviously the leader at the moment, and there’s a number of other climbers. We’ve got to ride our own race. Simon’s in good shape and we’ll do what we can, it just hasn’t been a tour that’s gone our way so far, but hopefully it can turn around."

Jayco have been hampered with the loss of Luke Plapp, who crashed on stage three and retired before the next day, such were his injuries, but the home team will want to put on a show over the next two days. Yates won atop Mount Lofty in 2023, so he has previous.

All eyes will be firstly on Del Toro, but then Jayco as the peloton approaches Willunga twice on Saturday. The stage is set, with the famous climb - 3.4km at 7.4% - once again likely to be decisive. 

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