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Crowning the first queen of Willunga Hill at the Santos Festival of Cycling

Santos Festival of Cycling
Sarah Gigante a fitting first victor on the iconic South Australian climb (Image credit: Getty Images)

The race for the overall may have been all but over after Sarah Gigante’s (Team Garmin Australia) dominant performance on the second stage of the Santos Festival of Cycling but for many riders there was still a prize they wanted just as much and that was to be crowned the first-ever queen of Willunga Hill. 

The climb isn’t overly steep or, at three kilometres, even that long but nevertheless, it has always been the stage to look forward to in the men’s race at the Santos Tour Down Under. The prestige of winning on the climb is high and the exciting racing is lifted by the atmosphere of the boisterous crowd lining the ascent. It is an entrenched tradition, an icon of the race.

That’s why even entering the 48.8-kilometre stage 3 with a general classification buffer of 1:53 and the lead for every single individual classification of the race wasn’t enough to overshadow the prestige that would come for winning on that iconic climb in its first-ever appearance in the women’s racing.

“I’m a bit nervous today and I haven’t been nervous the other days. So maybe that just means I care a lot about this stage. This is the one I looked at before the race, I was like ‘stage three so exciting.’ I’m pumped,” said the 20-year-old Gigante before the stage.

The headline act of this year’s event Richie Porte (Team Garmin Australia) is the undisputed Willunga Hill king, but while many exciting climbs have been worked into the women’s event in the past there has never been the chance to crown a Willunga Hill queen. That all changed this year because the four-day women’s National Road Series event was running on the same day and through the same area as the men’s race after the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of the Tour Down Under international races. 

“It has been such a classic finish and it has kind of taken on a life of its own so what a great opportunity to send the women up for the first time. Everyone knows that Richie is the King of the Hill and so this year we get to see which of the female athlete makes it up first,” said women’s race director Kimberley Conte,

Fittingly it was the flying form of Gigante that took the honours. Despite riding solo for more than 40 kilometres yesterday to deliver a crushingly emphatic win there was no sign of fatigue in her legs, when she took off as soon as the road turned up.

Gigante easily could have played a conservative hand and focussed on limiting any potential losses and in the race for that overall jersey, but that never seemed like a realistic option for the young rider who just loves to race.  She often talks with an innocent grin on her face about how much fun she is having as she tortures her legs on the climb and makes her rivals hurt.  It looked like there was lots of “fun” had as she took off on Willunga Hill.

No one could follow the young rider with limited international racing experience yet a track record that makes it wise for even the most experienced riders to be wary. Not even the climbing specialist from the only Women’s WorldTeam at the event, Lucy Kennedy of Team BikeExchange, could hold her wheel and she came over the line one minute back.

“I really wanted to have a race with her today but when she went I just couldn’t respond to that and had to try and to diesel my way up and never saw her again,” said Kennedy after the stage. “She was just the strongest rider today.”

Now the young Australian time trial champion and former road champion has another sought-after title to add to the list and that’s Willunga Hill queen, not just at the race but on Strava as well. Her time of 8:13 knocked more than a minute off the record of former professional Carlee Taylor.

The extra lead on the overall that the climbing performance delivered means she will also likely add Santos Festival of Cycling winner to that list of titles as well, as something would have to go very wrong for her to lose all of her 3:11 lead on the final criterium stage.

Far less a certainty though, is whether anyone will have a chance to challenge that Willunga Hill title in years to come.

Conte said “we’ll see” when asked if the women’s race would be heading up the climb again next year. “I am actually a really big fan of constantly changing the course. We are so fortunate here in South Australia, we have so many epic climbs that really haven’t been exploited yet so as great as Willunga is … I love being able to mix things up so we see it some years, we see other climbs other years. That really keeps the riders on their toes.” 

Gigante would unsurprisingly like to see it make a comeback and Kennedy, who came second on the climb, is also hoping that the chance to take that crown comes along again.

“I’ve been wanting to have the Willunga Hill climb in the Tour Down Under for many years now so it’s exciting that it is in there and hopefully now that it has made an appearance it is there to stay,” said Kennedy.