Richie Porte farewelled as king of Willunga as search for another gathers momentum

WILLUNGA HILL AUSTRALIA JANUARY 29 Richie Porte of Australia and Team Garmin Australia competes on the last race of his professional career during the 2nd Santos Festival Of Cycling 2022 Mens Elite Stage 3 a 1132km stage from McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill 224m TourDownUnder on January 29 2022 in Willunga Hill Australia Photo by Daniel KaliszGetty Images
Richie Porte (Team Garmin Australia) riding up Willunga during the Santos Festival of Cycling 2022 on the tempo setting wheel of best young rider Matt Dinham (Team BridgeLane) (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Richie Porte may have ended his reign as the king of Willunga Hill at the Santos Festival of Cycling after Saturday's Australian racing finale for the rider that has kept the nation’s Tour de France hopes alive since the retirement of Cadel Evans, but from what he saw among the field packed with young riders there is plenty of promise among those clamouring to take over.

Lining up at the Santos Festival of Cycling, it wasn’t the normal field stacked with WorldTour teams racing in South Australia as the international event, the Tour Down Under, was cancelled. Instead the nation’s top domestic teams and a national team got to line up alongside a handful of WorldTour professionals, including former Tour Down Under winners Porte and Rohan Dennis in the National Road Series event. 

That meant the nation’s most talented under-19 and under-23 riders got a rare opportunity to go toe to toe with some of the very best in the world in a race that may not have had the WorldTour ranking and obligations that came with it, but where organisers still went all out to provide the infrastructure, courses and coverage to deliver a similar experience.

As the race roared to its conclusion on the top of the iconic Willunga Hill on stage 3 and Porte, who is retiring at the end of this season, said farewell to the climb where he has delivered seven wins, he was flanked by under-23 riders. The discovery of last year’s tour, Luke Plapp (Team Garmin Australia), was just a little ahead and the winner of the best young rider competition this year, Matt Dinham (Team BridgeLane), just behind as the riders from the peloton raced up the climb behind the winning break, with Willunga pride and the GC positions at stake.

“Obviously the race was up the road so there wasn’t that massive pressure that there normally is to attack so it was just nice to just be able to sit back and watch the race unfold,” said Porte afterwards.

“The GC guys were around us and I had Luke Plapp there, who is my teammate going into this year and a massive talent. It’s just great to have guys like that around. Some of the Aussie kids here racing this week are absolutely brilliant.

“Who is to say there is not another Tour de France winner racing today. This is the breeding ground for Aussie cycling.”

Ineos Grenadiers rider Porte is testament to that. It was a somewhat fitting finale to Porte's time racing professionally in Australia as he was surrounded by fresh talent from both the national team and Team BridgeLane that were beating a very similar path to that which he had taken.

This time he may have been mentoring a group of riders – alongside new Ineos Grenadiers teammate Plapp – who missed out on racing the junior category at the World Road Championships in 2021 due to COVID-19 impediments, but 14 years ago he was the one stepping into the national team to race his first Tour Down Under.

2008 was also the year he joined Praties, the predecessor to Team BridgeLane and a squad that across its various incarnations has played a crucial role in the development of a number of top Australian cyclists, from Porte to Jack Haig and Ben O’Connor.

Team BridgeLane’s Dinham secured the youth classification and second place on GC even while supporting James Whelan to overall victory on the decisive climb of Willunga. His squad leader, for one, thinks his 21-year-old teammate’s effort to both help him and cross the line on the wheel of Porte and Jumbo-Visma rider Chris Harper – who was racing for Villawood and sat just six seconds behind Dinham on the overall –  made his the ride of the day. 

“On that climb I think he (Dinham) showed he was the strongest,” said Whelan. “He is an absolute talent. He is a young guy and for him to just ride the front like that when he is also high on GC, a credit to him and I’m just grateful for that.”

WILLUNGA HILL AUSTRALIA JANUARY 29 Matt Dinham of Australia and Team Bridgelane on second place poses on the final podium ceremony after the 2nd Santos Festival Of Cycling 2022 Mens Elite Stage 3 a 1132km stage from McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill 224m TourDownUnder on January 29 2022 in Willunga Hill Australia Photo by Daniel KaliszGetty Images

Matt Dinham (Team BridgeLane) takes out the white jersey at the Santos Festival of Cycling 2022 (Image credit: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Nineteen-year-old Declan Trezise, too, played a crucial role in shaping the outcome of the race as it was largely his unrelenting efforts on the front of the break that left his ARA Pro Racing Sunshine Coast teammate and stage winner, Angus Lyons, in a position to start the Willunga climb with a gap of more than three minutes on the peloton.

They, too, certainly weren’t the only notable performances from young riders during the tour.

The effort 21-year-old Blake Quick (InForm TMX MAKE) had put into preparing for the early season racing  couldn’t have been more clear right from the start of the year. Even before the Santos Festival of Cycling he was already looking like the young rider of the Australian summer after winning the Lexus of Blackburn Bay Crits and then Australia’s U23 National Championships road race.

Quick then dominated in the two days of racing that came down to a sprint in South Australia, taking out both the criterium and stage 2 to sweep up half of the victories available in the men’s racing at the event.

Additionally, Dinham, who also excels in mountain biking, was joined by three other U23 riders in the top ten of the GC, with Rudy Porter (InForm TMX MAKE) fourth, Alastair Mackellar (Team Westpac) sixth and Carter Turnbull (InForm TMX MAKE) ninth.

It's clear that while one king of Willunga may be ending his reign, there’s plenty of hope the next generation is capable of filling the void.

“I’m looking forward to racing here in future years,” said Dinham. “And hopefully an Aussie can continue his tradition of being the first up Willunga.”

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