The Tour Down Under concludes on Sunday but unless Richie Porte and his BMC Racing team can mount a stunning comeback or bad luck strikes, Daryl Impey will become the first South African to win the race in its twenty-year history.
Impey and Porte are on the same time and only separated on countback after a thrilling match-up on Willunga in which Porte claimed stage 5 and Impey usurped Peter Sagan as the race leader. The hilltop showdown perfectly encapsulated this year’s race: Porte - the aggressor - banking all on his prowess and record on Willunga; and Impey - the tactician - carefully plotting his race before riding the smartest of races to limit his losses.
The South African came into the race as a relative dark horse but Mitchelton-Scott’s tactics, rather than their brute force, were crucial throughout the race. For all of Porte’s muster and telegraphed attacks, Impey has not attacked once during the race. Instead, he has chipped away with bonus seconds and then solidified his position with a calculating ride on Willunga.
As rider after rider tried to match Porte and subsequently failed, Impey used his rivals perfectly before accelerating away to take second on the stage as Porte began to fade in the headwind. Those vital seconds ensured he dented Porte’s celebrations on the podium and effectively ended his reign as the defending champion.
“When Ritchie went, I was out of my depth to follow him. He’s one of the worlds best and it was important to conserve as much as I could. There were a lot of strong climbers behind and they were playing a few games with each other, so I used that to my advantage and they were just dragging me the whole way up. Ulissi gave a big turn to drop me, and I actually went off that and surprised myself. Then I saw five, six second and decided to sprint it in because it was close. It was fantastic. To be at the same time as Richie is special.”
Impey was quick to also mention Simon Gerrans – once his team leader and now a rival at BMC Racing. Gerrans was once the leader Impey served in this race but after a number of departures at Mitchelton-Scott, Impey has taken the opportunity at the Tour Down Under with both hands.
“It’s special. I’ve been a loyal lieutenant to Gerrans in this race and to feel this as well, lead the race, and have the boys support me all week is just fantastic,” Impey said.
Matt White: Daryl has proved that he’s the best bike rider here
Part of Impey’s success must be shared with Mitchelton-Scott’s riders and their manager Matt White. The Australian team has only been on the front of the race when it was truly required. But for some poor finishing from Caleb Ewan, they have enjoyed a near-perfect race. This, assuming Impey can hold on, will be White’s fourth race title as a director.
“Daryl has proved that he’s the best bike rider here consistently,” the Australian said.
“I said at the start of the week, and I’ll say it again, he’s the most versatile rider on our roster and he’s taken it to another level this year. He’s got a big opportunity to fill the shoes of some of the guys who have left and he’s taken that with both hands.”
“We had our plan and we knew that Daryl couldn’t react with the guys at the bottom of the climb.
We had Cam Meyer helping him through the middle section and Daryl made sure that he gave his maximum effort, and picking up those bonus seconds are what’s almost won him the Tour.”
Sunday’s stage is suited to the sprinters, although there are enough time bonuses to ensure that the race GC could still change. Last year, for example, Nathan Haas lost third on the podium due to a sprint time bonus.
Porte, however, appeared to concede defeat at the top of Willunga and it is unlikely that he will go head-to-head with a team that houses the best leadout in the race.
“I’m not too worried about Richie rolling him in any sprints and when you look at the countback, we’ve got a big lead as it’s every stage. Daryl is a long, long way in front,” White said.
Impey agreed with his team boss but will not celebrate until crossing the line on Sunday.
“I’m feeling confident, barring anything happening. If Richie wants to go for the sprints then we have Caleb, Edmondson and myself. I think he’s got his work cut out for him in that sense but cycling is a funny sport, so I’m not counting my chickens before they hatch.”
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