By the numbers: What it takes to win on Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under

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It wasn’t a surprise when Richie Porte (BMC) danced away from his rivals to win a fifth-straight Willunga stage at the Tour Down Under last week. The lack of surprise didn’t detract from the fact it was such a strong and impressive move.

In the following article, former pro Stephen Gallagher from Dig Deep Coaching breaks down Porte’s stage-winning attack and other key moments throughout the queen stage of the 2018 Tour Down Under.

Note that this article discusses the power outputs and power-to-weight ratios of professional cyclists. For more information on these concepts, and to see where you stack up, click here.


The early break

As has been the case in previous editions of the Tour Down Under’s Willunga stage, a break went early and led for much of the stage. Within the first kilometre a select group of seven riders made the selection, forming the day’s main breakaway. Among the lead group was the eventual winner of the King of the Mountains classification, Nicholas Dlamini (Dimension Data), Australia’s Zak Dempster (UniSA-Australia) — who was also in the breakaway a day earlier — and the ever-aggressive Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal).

The effort needed to jump into the break was clear from the data recorded by De Gendt and Nuno Bico (Movistar), another member of the break.

Once the initial gap was formed the leading seven riders rode hard in the opening 7.5km to extend the gap as far as possible. These 7.5km took 11:15 and saw De Gendt ride at a solid 384W (5.57 W/kg) for the duration. This was matched by Bico who pushed 348W (4.97 W/kg) during the same time. The opening 10km of the race saw Bico produce all his peak powers from five seconds to 14 minutes — a hard start for the young Portuguese rider. Bico would crash shortly afterwards, suffering cuts and bruises, but fought back bravely to regain contact with the leaders.

There was a calmness in the peloton in the opening flat circuits as Bora-Hansgrohe allowed the break to gain a maximum lead of around five minutes. This gave the GC contenders time to prepare themselves for the final showdown.

We can see the differences in effort in the opening laps when we compare rider data from those in the break and those in the peloton. During a 40km section of the race, after the break was formed, we can see there was a roughly 1 watt-per-kilo difference in the effort required.

As the breakaway fought to keep a lead over the bunch, the focus turned to the two ascents of Willunga Hill. On the first climb, Dlamini and De Gendt set a tempo that was too fast for their fellow escapes as they powered away on the lower slopes of this 3km climb. With a strong headwind on the climb it proved to be difficult for anyone to regain contact once the elastic was broken.

The effort required to maintain a position within the peloton on the first ascent of the climb can be seen in the data of both Logan Owen (EF Education First-Drapac) and Ben O’Connor (Dimension Data). Both riders rode the climb in around 8:20, with O’Connor setting an average power of 398W (6.03 W/kg) and Owen doing similar at 385W (5.92 W/kg).

With much of the breakaway caught, and with only De Gendt still in front by 25 seconds, the peloton hit the descent off Willunga, hitting speeds close to 90 km/h. With the wind picking up and the potential for some crosswind action prior to the final ascent of Willunga, positioning at the head of the peloton was becoming more crucial. De Gendt was caught with 10km to go and the peloton hit the long straight of Main Rd with a nasty crosswind hitting them on the left shoulder.

Fighting the crosswinds

EF Education First-Drapac set a blistering pace just prior to the left turn into the cross winds and then along the 4.5km straight stretch of road before Willunga Hill. The aim was to position their GC hopeful Brendan Canty in a strong position onto the climb, while also causing some other GC riders to lose contact with the lead group prior to the climb.

First to force the pace was Will Clarke. The Tasmanian rode full-gas just prior to the left-hand turn and then set a strong tempo in the opening 2km of the long straight, causing the peloton to explode into a number of pieces. This put riders like Richie Porte and Jay McCarthy in trouble further down the bunch, at least for a little while.

Clarke’s initial jump saw him hit 1206W (15 W/kg). He hit the left-hand corner at nearly 55kph as the peloton swung left into the strong crosswind section. Once safely out of the corner, and with his teammates all taking shelter behind him, Clarke set an incredible tempo which caused the first split. In the next 400m Clarke rode at 803W (10 W/kg) for 30 seconds. This is a huge effort after already 140km of racing in the legs.

The pace did not stop there. Over a total of 2.7km and 3:30 Clarke rode at 493W (6.16 W/kg) hitting a max of 1321W (16.5 W/kg). This was enough to split the bunch and have Canty close to the front.

If we are to compare Canty’s effort to Clarke’s, we can see the difference in energy saved by riding in the wheels and shelter of one’s teammates. Canty rode the same 2.7km stretch of rode at 330W (5.5 W/kg) hitting a max of 859W (14.32 W/kg).

Willunga showdown

It was a leading group of around 40 riders that hit the last ascent and final 3km of the race to the top of Willunga Hill. The UAE Team hit the front for Diego Ulissi and Rui Costa and set a hard pace in the opening kilometre of the climb.

The pace stayed high as the lead group started to thin down under the pace of Rohan Dennis (BMC). As we can see in Richie Porte’s data, the pace was consistent. He continued to ride at 397W (6.61 W/kg) for the next 600m (over 1:53) prior to him making his move. The opening 1.8km of the climb saw Richie ride around 390-400W average (6.6 W/kg) for five minutes. All of this was done before he made his explosive attack to power away from the fragmented lead group.

When the world’s top climbers attack, the most impressive thing is the fact they do so at high W/kg after already doing a solid sustained effort for a period of time. This is visible in Richie’s blistering acceleration with around 1.2km to go. Richie put out 622W (10.37 W/kg) for one minute as he opened a gap on the others. Having already done five minutes at 6.6 W/kg, a full-gas effort of over 10 w/kg for one minute is something that sets the top professionals apart from mere mortals like the rest of us.

In the group behind, Egan Bernal (Sky) did not jump hard when Porte attacked but rather kept a solid pace of 461W (7.69 W/kg) as he tried to stay within 10 seconds of the leader.

We can see that the last 750m of the stage was a scramble for many riders to regain lost time and to squeeze out every last drop. Riders such as Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates) did the final 750m in 1:41 at 492W (8.1 W/kg). This was a very similar effort to that produced by fourth-placed rider Dries Devenyns (QuickStep Floors) who averaged 495W (7.5 W/kg).

Porte’s final time for the 2.9km climb was 7:08, impressive stuff riding into a strong headwind. To do this he had to average 443W (7.08 W/kg) for the duration of the climb. Impressive stuff given it’s still only January.

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