After three sprint stages at the Santos Tour Down Under the climbers will have their first foray on stage 4 from Norwood to Uraidla on Friday. The stage, previewed by Cyclingnews and Mitchelton-Scott earlier this week in an exclusive podcast, does not finish on a climb but the ascent of Norton Summit will be the first significant uphill test of this year's race.
Defending champion and race favourite Richie Porte (BMC Racing) may have his focus firmly on Willunga Hill on stage 5 but Norton brings with it an entirely different challenge. The gradient never sharpens to anything near extreme but the changes in tempo – coupled with the expected 40 degree heat will be defining features.
For Matt White and his Mitchelton-Scott team the options are clear. Although they have the race lead in Caleb Ewan it is unlikely that the Australian will hold the jersey after Friday's endeavours. That said, Mitchelton do have another card to play in Daryl Impey. The South African sits third overall, just ahead of a number of GC rivals, and given his sprint legs, he has a realistic chance of cresting the top of Norton Summit with the leaders.
"The pure climbers have to take it on from the bottom of the climb because if the bottom part of the climb is easy then a much bigger group will get over, which creates more issues from the top of the climb to the line. Caleb is going to have to be on ride of his life to get over tomorrow but Daryl isn't going to be dropped if there's a group of thirty," White told Cyclingnews.
"The danger is if a group of pure climbers gets away and then it becomes a bit more complicated. That could certainly happen but they'd have to go early. I'd be more worried about random guys launching in the final seven kilometres. It's going to be hard for any team to stay organised in the final 7km. Every team will struggle but it should be an even situation."
The 7km road from the summit of the climb to the finish is complicated in itself. The terrain from that point is rarely flat and provides a number of sections for riders to skip away. If a rider or two can create a fifteen second window just after the summit they'll be out of sight. That could be an opportunity or a threat for a team like BMC Racing who have Simon Gerrans and Rohan Dennis in their cadre - although former will be used as a domestique after losing time - but even the likes of Nathan Haas, Jay McCarthy and Diego Ulissi will be in contention. Peter Sagan, as he is with every stage in this race, is another top favourite who cannot be ruled out.
For White, the key will be the heat, and more importantly, how the riders handle it. With temperatures again expected to breach 40 degrees the organisers have decided to shift the start to an hour earlier. That will make the first part of the race more comfortable but the roads inland, where the race heads on Friday, will be scorching by the time the race reaches full throttle.
"The heat is going to be a big factor. We've seen in the last two stages that it hasn't been the most aggressive style of racing and that pretty much down to the temperatures," said White.
"It's going to be a good test because although it's not the hardest of climbs not many guys have gone deep in 40 degree heat except for the people from the southern hemisphere."
"We've got a plan for tomorrow and we're going to play that out. Impey's not the best climber here, so it's for the other climbers to get rid of him."
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