Willunga Hill's stature as the 'queen' of Australia's stage racing climbs is under threat this week at the Tour Down Under, with riders, director sportifs and even race director Mike Turtur suggesting Paracombe will usurp the 3km climb, taking the crown and new title.
Paracombe, also known as Torrens Hills Road, made its race debut in 2015, with Rohan Dennis coming from last wheel in the select front group to take the win three seconds ahead of BMC teammate Cadel Evans and set up the overall victory.
Whereas the peloton thundered down the Gorge before taking a sharp left-hander and exploding up the 1.6km climb, in 2017 the stage starts with five challenging circuits of the course in Stirling, which traditionally hosts a stage finish. The riders then head through the Adelaide hills and down Norton Summit, across to Magill and Athelstone before starting the ascent up the Gorge to Paracombe.
"I think it can go one or two ways. It can be really defensive and really slow then there is a big bunch or things are just going to explode," Dennis said of how he sees the stage playing out.
Not long enough for the likes of an Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) to fully express his talents but short enough for his teammate Simon Gerrans to display his full weaponry, the climb on paper is suited to a variety of riders. The weather and race tactics appear most likely to shape the outcome of the stage and determine who will shine brightest.
Director sportifs Kim Andersen (Trek-Segafredo) and Philippe Mauduit (Bahrain-Merida) both explained to Cyclingnews ahead of the Tour Down Under that they see a selected group contesting for the stage finish and little change to the top 10 on GC for the remainder of the race.
"Absolutely, the hardest stage, but I also think we can see maybe quite a big group going quite early with 20-25 riders going into Paracombe and the rest will be far behind," Andersen said.
"It is true that it will be a hard stage and probably some riders will take some seconds for the GC. But then we have some hard stages behind, stage 4 even it arrives on the bunch sprint and probably it will give some pain to the legs for the following days. And Willunga to finish. After stage 2, the Tour Down Under will not be finished," Mauduit said.
This year's Tour Down Under is the first in which Brad McGee will take up the reigns in the UniSA-Australia team after several appearances with trade teams. With several talented young climbers on his roster eager to make a name for their themselves, McGee isn't taking "lambs to the slaughter" as he eyes long-term development rather than a flash in the pan performance on Paracombe
"It is not just here at Down Under, it is not just through the summer of cycling. It is their whole careers. It has to be viewed in stages and this is just a great opportunity to make that step up the ladder and hopefully on towards, what I am engaged for, is successful professional careers."
Willunga Hill remains a protagonist in the race and therefore McGee won't be pinning all his hopes on Paracombe despite the potential pot of gold awaiting the first rider over the line.
"Win, lose or draw, I will support them all the way. We will reassess after Paracombe for sure like I think most teams will do," he said. "It will be whole new race opening up once we point towards Victor Harbor that is for sure."
For FDJ director sportif Jussi Veikkanen, Paracombe will be "decisive" but he believes Willunga Hill will be the deciding factor in shaping the general classification.
"I don't know if you can say it is the queen stage because there is something mythic in the Willunga Hill stage," he told Cyclingnews.
Since Willunga was used as a hilltop finish in 2012, Porte has gone on to make the climb his own with three straight victories but is yet to turn stage success into tour victory. Widely regarded as the outright favourite for the victory, Porte could stamp his authority on the race with a win at Paracombe, followed by a knockout blow on Willunga.
Hard enough to drop Sagan?
Race director Mike Turtur told Cyclingnews late last year he believes World champion Peter Sagan can win the Tour Down Under overall. It's not a view that he exclusively holds as Team Sunweb director sportif Luke Roberts suggested to Cyclingnews that the Bora man can't be discounted despite the number of climbers in the race who will want to make Paracombe as hard as possible to drop the punchuers.
"With Peter Sagan, we saw what he did here on Willunga Hill in 2010 so he is of course always a dangerous guy for the GC and a guy to watch," he said.
Roberts expects the top 10 at the top of the hill come Wednesday afternoon will be hard to shake with only minor readjustments over the remaining four stages.
With time bonuses at intermediate sprint points and on the finish line, a rider such as Simon Gerrans could ride Paracombe defensively and mop up time bonuses to secure a fifth title. The bonifications are also an advantage for Sagan who is expected to place well on all six stages.
"I don't imagine anybody will be investing too much energy in them until after we see how it pans out at Paracombe. Perhaps after that, a few bonus seconds here and there could reshuffle the GC then Willunga Hill of course where quite a few riders are defensive," Turtur explained.
With a long list of favourites and potential outcomes, all that's left is for the 132-rider strong peloton to point their bikes in the direction of Paracombe and discover who will be crowned the new king of the queen stage.
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