The Tour Down Under reaches its crescendo on stage 5 with the traditional stage to Willunga Hill on the penultimate day. The 2.9-kilometre climb has proven decisive time and again in the history of the Australian race and Saturday ought to be no different.
As usual the peloton will tackle Willunga Hill twice on Saturday’s stage, but the real shoot-out on the 7% climb will surely come the second time around. Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) is in the box seat as he bids for a fourth Tour Down Under victory, with Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff) is the best of the challengers, 12 seconds back.
Gerrans is the firm favourite to take overall honours in Adelaide on Sunday, but the impressive McCarthy is not the only threat, as there is a plethora of riders still within touching distance ahead of stage 5.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) – overall leader
Few riders know Willunga Hill quite like Gerrans, a three-time winner of the Tour Down Under, though it’s telling that his lone victory atop the climb came in 2013, a year when he was no threat on the overall standings.
As is his wont, Gerrans has clearly started the year in fine form, rattling off successive sprint wins at Campbelltown and Victor Harbor, and he carries a lead of 14 seconds over Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff) into Saturday’s rendezvous, with Rohan Dennis (BMC) and the other dangermen almost 30 seconds back.
One imagines, then, that Gerrans will dose his effort carefully on Willunga Hill, as he did at Corkscrew Road on stage 3, safe in the knowledge that he can allow the likes of Dennis and Richie Porte (BMC) a modicum of leeway and still hold the ochre jersey at the close of play atop the climb.
Few riders make on the hoof evaluations better than Gerrans, and he starts the day fully aware of the odds. “It’s difficult,” he said when asked about defending the overall lead earlier in the week. “But I'll tell you what: it’s a lot harder to get than it is to keep.”
Rohan Dennis (BMC) – 3rd at 26 seconds
Overall winner a year ago and hugely impressive in landing the Australian time trial title earlier in the month, Dennis has done precious little wrong at this Tour Down Under, but Gerrans’ efficiency in picking up the bonus seconds means that he will have to produce something special on Willunga Hill.
Earlier in the week, Dennis reckoned that he would need to be ten seconds clear of Gerrans on GC after Willunga Hill in order to breathe easily on the final stage in Adelaide, and so he must be aiming to put more than half a minute into the overall leader on the X-kilometre climb on Saturday. Easier said than done.
Dennis will, however, have some very robust help in the form of new teammate Richie Porte, who was his rival – and carrot – on the grind up Willunga Hill last year. Racing against one another, they finished 1st and 2nd on the climb in 2015, with Porte 9 seconds clear of Dennis at the finish. Riding in tandem this around, they ought to form a redoubtable double act.
Sergio Henao (Sky) – 4th at 28 seconds
If there isn’t a home winner at this year’s Tour Down Under, then the honours might yet remain in the southern hemisphere, as Sergio Henao has been an assured performer on his debut in the race. In years past, Sky’s British contingent has enjoyed success at the Tour Down Under, but the Colombian has been the team’s stand-out this time around.
Henao signalled his intentions with a sharp attack on Corkscrew Road on stage 3 in the company of Michael Woods (Cannondale), and the duo reached the summit with 10 seconds in hand on the chasers before being caught on the drop into Campbelltown.
On Saturday, the finale is all about the climb, and it ought to suit Henao’s qualities as a puncheur. He won’t want for support on the run-in either, with Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard and Ben Swift all on hand to marshal him to the front. “Sergio Henao is absolutely flying,” warned after stage 3.
Michael Woods (Cannondale) – 8th at 32 seconds
The former distance runner enjoyed a breakout season with Optum last year, placing 5th on the Alto do Malhao at the Volta ao Algarve early on, and then winning stages at the Tour of the Gila and the Tour of Utah.
That run of results was enough to earn Woods a call-up to the WorldTour ranks at the age of 29, and he has exceeded expectations thus far in what is his debut race in the colours of Cannondale. The Canadian held his nerve when Porte surged early on Corkscrew Road on stage 3, eventually dancing clear with Henao, and he had enough in the tank to place third in the sprint after they were caught on the descent.
Over half a minute down and with more immediate threats to Gerrans ahead of him, if Woods times his effort right on the final haul up Willunga Hill, the cards for stage honours could fall in his favour. His stated aim, however, is to secure a place in the top five overall, and he is just four seconds off that target ahead of stage 5. “With the uphill finish and the way I am climbing, I think I have a good shot at moving even further up,” he said.
Richie Porte (BMC) – 10th at 36 seconds
Porte lost another 8 seconds on stage 4 and he begins the Tour Down Under’s decisive day some 36 seconds down on Gerrans and surely out of the running for final overall victory. He does, however, have the potential to be the Tour Down Under’s kingmaker on Willunga Hill.
The former Sky man has won atop Willunga Hill in each of the past two seasons, beating Dennis a year ago and overpowering Diego Ulissi – another threat for stage honours this year – and Gerrans in 2014.
This time around, Porte’s brief will surely be to lay the groundwork for Dennis by setting a searing tempo from the base of the climb, much as he did at Corkscrew Road on stage 3 – though as his double-act with Chris Froome has shown in recent seasons, that won’t necessarily preclude him from being in the mix for stage honours himself come the summit. A hat-trick remains a possibility.
“Willunga isn’t the hardest climb in the world, so there won’t be massive gaps, but we’ll try,” Porte said. “The race isn’t over yet.”