Why Old Willunga Hill makes such a stir

Tour Down Under's 'queen' stage maintains the suspense

The Tour Down Under has its own queen stage, from Snapper Point to Willunga. The 148km run from the coast to the hills - the penultimate stage of the race - takes in some of the finest scenery the Fleurieu Peninsula has to offer, plus there's the climbing of the best-known cycling attraction in Adelaide, Old Willunga Hill.

Fans from outside Adelaide speak of Old Willunga Hill in revered tones and all who visit the race with bicycle in tow want to ride the approximately four kilometres of winding road and imagine themselves competing against the likes of 2009 Tour Down Under Allan Davis or noted Aussie climber Matthew Lloyd.

So that's what we did - rode the course, much like the fans who want to get a taste of what their cycling heroes experience in a race. While we didn't do it in competition mode, it offers its fair share of challenges.

In previous editions of the race, riders with hopes of winning had to endure ferocious attacks from rivals intent on stealing the victory up the climb, whilst fans are always treated to some of the best racing of the tour as sprinters do their best to hang on when the riders more suited to scaling the mountains turn on the gas when the road gets steeper.

It's a stage pivotal to the chances of victory in Australia's biggest bike race - if you lose time against your rivals on Old Willunga Hill, you can kiss goodbye your chances of holding the trophy atop the podium on King William Road the following day.

This year André Greipel will be defending a 20-second lead, which technically can be lost during the stage, although it will be a heavy task for Greg Henderson and Team Sky to overcome the HTC-Columbia juggernaut. The question remains, however: could there be an unexpected result from a surprise corner?

Names such as Simon Gerrans, local boy Pat Jonker and Davis have all sealed their overall victory after tackling the slopes of Old Willunga Hill, but why is this climb - which on paper is technically a fairly straightforward bump in the road - so decisive during the race?

Team Milram's Luke Roberts, who is very familiar with the climb thanks to growing up in Adelaide and having raced the Tour Down Under on eight previous occasions. In 2004 he was pivotal in helping Pat Jonker ride to overall victory (pictured below), the Willunga stage important in the victory.

"That was huge for us - it was Patty's last race and he said he wanted to win. He attacked from kilometre zero on the first stage and rode to the finish with two other guys then on the next stage he took the jersey," recalls Roberts.

"When we came to Willunga Hill, Patty was worried he had used all his energy in the first day but I was there and thought, 'I've got to get over this hill with Pat and make sure he's got someone to help him to the finish'.

"I gave it everything I had that day - rode over the climb on the front from bottom to top and there were only about 15 guys left at the summit. Two Italians went away and I had to work pretty hard across the ridge to bring them back. I hd a good day and it was great to be able to help Pat like that."

Luke Roberts helps Pat Jonker up Old Willunga Hill during the 2004 Tour Down Under.

Battling nature and each other

While there's a race to be won between Snapper Point and Willunga and the favourites will be watching each other, riders will also be battling the elements, including the heat, wind and an undulating course on dead roads.

The parcours is essentially two adjacent circuits and riders take each on twice to complete the 148km total. The first element they will be battling is the wind. A south-westerly coming off the coast will buffer the peloton as it makes it way up South Road and back towards the beach along Aldinga Rd and Norman Rd.

Heading towards Port Willunga, the possibility exists for a breakaway to try its luck - a group of plucky riders intent on animating the day's proceedings and brave enough to battle the winds on their own could make a run for it along the Esplanade and use the tailwind along Tatachilla Rd to get a head start through the vineyards of McLaren Vale.

This has been the case in previous years, with a breakaway making its way ahead of the pack on the approach to Willunga before the ascent of Old Willunga Hill; it's a risky move but in 2006 it paid off, as another Adelaide boy, Russell Van Hout, won the stage after breaking away before the day's climb and finishing hand-in-hand with UniSA teammate Paul Crake on Main Rd. It remains one of the race's most enduring images.

The peloton makes its way along the stunning coast through Snapper Point.

Summer time, and the racing ain't easy...

As is always the case at the Tour Down Under, another factor that may play a role in deciding the outcome of the stage is the heat. With the mercury set to hit almost 30 degrees Celsius, temperatures may not be such an issue this year but the favourites will aim to arrive at the final climb of the day in the best condition to launch an attack or defend a lead.

And more often than not, Old Willunga Hill is the place where the serious attacks start flowing. The peloton is usually drained after a testing 100 kilometres already ridden at a blistering pace, the race distance usually spent maintaining sentinel for any breakaway riders, all of which contributes to why 'The Hill' is considered decisive - it's the focus of the field and the fans.

To ride Old Willunga Hill is easy enough; to race it is another proposition and to maintain any advantage gained on the climb even tougher. Having hit the summit and turned left into Meadows Rd, the roads become 'dead' - large aggregate bitumen that's lifeless and offers plenty of rolling resistance for bicycle tyres.

Despite being relatively small, Old Willunga Hill is a testing climb.

The run down through Range Rd is tough and exposed, the usual crosswinds making it difficult for a breakaway to survive before the glorious downhill charge along Pennys Hill Rd, which is brilliant for the cyclo-tourist but an opportunity for the sprinters to pin their ears back and catch the whippets who have motored up the climb just 10 kilometres earlier.

An average bike rider will hit speeds of 85km/h down this stretch, the pros more likely to be nudging 100km/h. It's spectacular, dangerous and ensures a thrilling finale as the riders take on this loop twice, offering fans double the excitement and twice the racing to decide who will earn the title of Tour Down Under champion.

From this point it's a fast run back into Willunga along McMurtie Rd and Main Rd; a likely headwind blowing straight into the riders does nothing to aid the cause of a breakaway as they hope to hold their advantage to the finish.

With a quality field of sprinters taking on the 2010 edition of the race it's unlikely an escape group will take line honours, although it's certain someone will give it a go. And it's this fact, plus the combination of showcase scenery, wind, sun and a big bump in the road all tackled at top speed that will stage five of this year's Tour Down Under one for ardent cycling fans.

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