Why stage 4 of the Tour Down Under could be more exciting than Willunga

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ADELAIDE, Australia (CT) – Last year’s Santos Tour Down Under was something of a procession. Caleb Ewan won all of the sprint stages — four plus the People’s Choice Classic — and Richie Porte won both the uphill finishes and secured the overall.

In 2018, the race has been far more open. After four sprints, each of the big-name sprinters at the race — Peter Sagan, Ewan, Andre Greipel and Elia Viviani — has secured a victory. The battle for the general classification, meanwhile, is intriguingly poised.

Stage 5, the now-traditional visit to Willunga Hill, will again have the final say in the GC. But Friday’s stage 4 looms as the most fascinating and unpredictable of the race.

Speak to those within the race — riders and team directors — and all will say the stage is a huge unknown. It’s not a straight uphill finish like Willunga where the strongest climber (likely Porte) will win. Rather, it’s a far more complicated finale and as such, predicting how it will unfold — let alone who will win — is far more complex.

“We looked at it a few times,” said Porte of BMC’s reconnaissance efforts, “but it’s a massive unknown.”

For the first time in the race’s history, the stage will finish in Uraidla, a small town in the Adelaide Hills. But it’s the 15km before the finish that are of most interest.

The riders will hit the Norton Summit climb with a little over 13km remaining in the stage, at which point the fireworks are bound to begin. This 5.4km ascent is Adelaide’s most popular testing climb, and one that should serve to thin out the peloton considerably.

“The climb itself is quite steep at the bottom and then it goes up in ramps,” Mitchelton-Scott sports director Matt White told CyclingTips. “But unless a team really puts a lot of pressure on in the first kilometre of the climb I still expect to see 30 guys get to the top.”

There are eight rolling kilometres between the top of the climb and the finish, some of it flat, the last few kilometres downhill, and some of it uphill. A steep, 1km ramp, roughly 5km from the finish, is particularly eye-catching — it is perhaps the perfect launch pad for climbers hoping to shed faster-finishers that have survived the Norton Summit climb.

“It’s quite undulating [and] there’s lots of ramps,” White said of the final 8km. “I can see individuals or little groups going, and no team will have more than two or three riders and that makes it difficult [to organise a chase].”

For White, this challenging finale could mean we have a surprise winner of the 2018 Tour Down Under.

“I really expect that tomorrow is an opportunity where even an outsider may be able to win Tour Down Under,” White said at the start of stage 3. “If the right combination goes to the line … if you go to the line with 15 seconds plus the time bonus [ed. 10 seconds for winning], it could be enough to win Tour Down Under.

“So I really think tomorrow’s going to be even more crucial than Willunga.”

For Porte, the tour’s defending champion and winner of the past four Willunga stages, stage 4 represents both an unknown and a danger.

“We did it in training and it’s such a fast climb that you’d expect guys like Sagan perhaps can get there, which is not ideal,” Porte told CyclingTips. “We’ve got climbers but not fast guys so it’s really an unknown to be honest.”

If the likes of Sagan, Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin), Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe) or Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) reach the finish in the lead group, Porte will find it difficult to stop them taking important bonus seconds at the finish. And if those time bonuses put Porte behind going into the Willunga stage, it could make things harder than they might have been for the Tasmanian. At the very least, it sets things up for an even more intriguing battle on the 3km Willunga climb.

Another important factor on stage 4 is the heat. The stage has been moved forward an hour due to the extreme forecast, but riders will still have to contend with temperatures as high as 41ºC in the final part of the stage. That will almost certainly have an impact on the outcome.

“[It’ll] probably come down to a bit of temperature on the day and how aggressive it’s been ridden from the start,” UniSA-Australia sports director Andrew Christie-Johnston told CyclingTips. “If there’s a lot of fatigue coming into the bottom of that [climb], I reckon it will split to pieces.”

So which team will take control as the riders turn left onto Norton Summit and start to fly up the popular climb? BMC isn’t expecting Mitchelton-Scott to do the work at the front, even though they have the ochre leader’s jersey and at least one rider who could very well win the stage.

“Impey’s a dark horse,” Porte said. “He’s obviously in fantastic form and he can probably get there tomorrow but I don’t think the onus is on them to ride.”

Christie-Johnston expects to see BMC on the front up the climb, driving the pace for his former rider.

“No doubt BMC with Richie will be trying to get rid of everyone there [on Norton Summit] — that will be clear,” he said. “But then you have people like Nathan Haas and some of those other guys that are punchier than Richie — they’ll be hanging on for dear life.”

The consensus among those at the race seems to be that stage 4 will be won from a small group. And depending on who’s in that group — and who isn’t — that could have a significant impact on the general classification. It could even decide the race.

Regardless, the design of stage 4 is surely a great thing for the Tour Down Under. Gone are the days when the race comprised a week of stages designed for the sprinters. In this modern era of the TDU, the race doesn’t just have uphill finishes, it has intriguing stages like Friday’s which create a sense of anticipation that sprint or uphill finishes arguably can’t.

“I think it’s a great idea having a climb so close to the finish,” White said. “Look, Tour Down Under’s changed. Pro cycling’s changed. The way the guys look at their calendar’s changed. I even think we can put even more stages in like this.”

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