They were the two favourites going into the 2019 Jayco Herald Sun Tour, and on Thursday's second stage from Wonthaggi to Churchill, which included a gravel climb in the final 15 kilometres, Michael Woods (EF Education First) and Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) demonstrated exactly why.
Woods' attack just before the start of the gravel sector on the day's final climb drew Porte with him from a select group made up of Kenny Elissonde, Pavel Sivakov and Dylan van Baarle (Team Sky), Mitchelton-Scott trio Lucas Hamilton, Nick Schultz and 2017 Sun Tour winner Damien Howson, as well as the only non-WorldTour rider to make the selection, Chris Harper (Team Bridgelane).
When Porte and Woods hit the gravel, it wasn't enough to slow them down, and they continued to open up a gap on their rivals as first Woods, followed a second or two later by Porte, crested the climb and began their descent on the continuing gravel for a short way before it gave way to some more familiar tarmac.
Woods was happy for Porte to make contact on the descent, and the two agreed to work together until – Woods said – the final kilometre, where Porte was frustrated to see Woods take a back seat before coming around him in the final few hundred metres to take the stage win and the leader's jersey.
"I figured Richie would get back on on the descent because he's such a strong time-triallist, and I didn’t want to gas myself trying to hold him off," Woods said afterwards.
"I just wanted to put him under some stress and see if he could take the descent nice and fast, and see if he could get back on. And he did, because he’s such a strong rider."
While many would have expected Woods to have beaten Porte in a sprint regardless, the Canadian put his stage win down to having waited for a small rise that he knew was there in the final few hundred metres, having done a recce of the route on Monday with sports director Tom Southam.
"I knew that if I hit that with momentum, I could take down Richie," said Woods. "And I knew that gravel section would be important to know, so we reconned it, and it made a big difference on that course."
Enjoying the rough stuff
For his part, Porte said that he enjoyed the inclusion of the gravel section, even if Woods was slightly stronger on the rough stuff.
"I think on the gravel, Michael was a bit punchier, and I found it quite hard to follow him there," Porte said.
"It was actually quite steep at that point – probably around 12 per cent, or something like that – so it was different climbing on the gravel. You kind of have to pick a bigger gear and try to sit in the saddle, which I was doing, but 'Woodsy' was dancing out of the saddle. He's obviously done a bit more on the gravel than I have.
"But I think it's nice to have some of it in races. It wasn't dangerous, and we've done a bit of it in races like the Giro. You probably don't want to have too much of it in road racing, but it's something different."
Porte insists that the pressure will continue to be on Woods and his EF Education First squad, having kept the leader's jersey won by Woods' teammate Dan McLay on Thursday's opening stage.
"Michael's got all the pressure on him now to control the race, although he's going to be hard to beat on Arthurs Seat [on stage 4 on Saturday]," admitted Porte.
"We took some good time on everybody else today," he continued. "But you wouldn't say that it was only a two-horse race; Kenny Elissonde [third overall] could climb well on Saturday as well. I think Sky really made the race there when they took it up in the crosswinds today. I'm enjoying it, though; it's been fantastic racing so far."
'Luke Rowe was going full biscuit'
"Sky lit it up on today's stage," Woods, the new race leader, explained. "I saw Luke Rowe just going 'full biscuit'. But since we had Dan in yellow, the team just rode incredibly today.
"We had Mitch [Docker] keeping everyone calm as team captain, and both Mitch and Tom Scully were riding the front all day. Dan also did a great job keeping me protected, while he was in yellow, which was really cool. No one is going to push you around when Dan's in yellow.
"Then Lachlan Morton was right up with me at the start of the climb, and Jimmy [Whelan] rode really well, too. It was just a really good team effort, and so I had to pull something off for those boys.
"I think this bodes well for the team. We came in with the goal of winning the race and winning some stages. We've already checked the stage wins off the list, and now it's time for the GC."
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