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Santos Festival of Cycling: Game on for final stage to the top of Willunga Hill

LOBETHAL, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 27: Richie Porte of Australia and Team Garmin Australia crosses the finishing line during the 2nd Santos Festival Of Cycling 2022 - Men's Elite Stage 1 a 114,2km stage from Stirling to Lobethal / #TourDownUnder / on January 27, 2022 in Lobethal, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)
(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The final stage of the Santos Festival of Cycling men’s race plays out on Willunga Hill on Saturday, and with the overall crown not so far out of reach and the prestige of the iconic stage of the race up for grabs, there’s little doubt the field will be laying it all out on the line. 

Add in a fond farewell for the King of Willunga Richie Porte (Team Garmin Australia) plus a drive for vindication for James Whelan (Team BridgeLane), it is the stage of the South Australian race not to miss.

Even last year, when the overall was clearly decided ahead of the stage, the climb created a story it will be hard to forget, with a new generation emerging in Luke Plapp, as he sat up and clapped as he rolled over the line just behind his mentor Porte, who had ushered him onto his wheel mid-climb.

This year the GC battle is still in play too, as a door that looked like it had been slammed shut for Whelan’s rivals was jimmied open when his lead was cut from around a minute and a half to close to 30 seconds after he received a controversial one-minute time penalty. 

“I’m still in a good position,” said Whelan after stage 2. “And more or less I need to do the same thing as if I had a minute and a half gap, which is hold the wheel up Willunga. 

“I think I’ve got the legs to do that and I’ve got the team to help me out so there is no reason why I can’t be speaking to you after Willunga."

The last time Whelan raced up Willunga at the Tour Down Under was in 2019, when he finished 48th, 3:05 down on the winner of the stage, which was, of course, Porte, but the circumstances couldn’t have been more different. Back then, Whelan was just starting his first full year as a WorldTour professional and working for team captain Michael Woods.

This time, he is the team leader, with everything to gain and he entered the race in fierce form and with plenty of reason to seek vindication with a Santos Festival of Cycling win. 

His step down from the WorldTour after his contract with EF Education-Nippo wasn’t renewed fired him to a scorching solo and hard-earned second place at the Australian Road National Championships earlier this month. 

Now, with the minute penalty, he has another reason to be fired up.

“Negative motivation is not a problem for me,” he said wryly. “So happy days, maybe it’ll actually give me a bigger gap. We’ll see.”

There are a few riders eager to prevent that from happening. 13 riders sit within 33 seconds on the general classification, including last year’s winner Luke Durbridge, who came third up the climb, just eight seconds back from Porte and Plapp. 

Then there’s Brendan Johnston (Giant Racing). Although he was fifteenth and one minute back on the stage last year, the mountain biker has shown his road this year at the National Championships, finishing third. 

There are also a couple of teams with two solid options among that group, from InForm TMX MAKE with Rudy Porter and Carter Turnbull, as well as Villawood, which has Jumbo-Visma rider Chris Harper, who came fourth on the stage in 2021, and former BMC rider Tim Roe. 

But the GC is far from the only thing at stake up Willunga. The stage and the climb will the last Australian Adelaide hurrah for Porte, who is this year racing with a young national team, filled with a group of young riders plus new Ineos Grenadiers teammate Plapp.

Porte and Plapp are the names rivals have mentioned as the wheels they’ll be trying to follow. With Plapp’s GC hopes abandoned after a puncture in a crucial moment on stage three, the team are clearly all in to make it a final climb to remember for Porte.

“The king has got one last crack up Willunga before he retires so let’s get him the win up there,” said Plapp after stage 2.

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Simone Giuliani

Simone joined the team as Production Editor based in Australia at the start of the 2021 season, having previously worked as Australian Editor at Ella CyclingTips and correspondent for Reuters and Bloomberg.