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It’ll go down as a day for the sprinters. A day when, as expected, the fastmen got to duke it out on the flat, finishing straight into Port Adelaide. A day when one sprinter in particular, Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep), got to open his WorldTour account for 2019.
But there was more to today’s opening stage of the 2019 Santos Tour Down Under. Another storyline that unfolded under the scorching South Australian sun while the peloton meandered along, doing its best to stay cool. A storyline that could well impact the battle for the general classification.
When the day-long breakaway came together at kilometre zero it was little surprise to see the ever-aggressive UniSA-Australia represented. Far more surprising was the presence of newly minted Kiwi time trial champion, Paddy Bevin (CCC).
There were two possible explanations. One: Bevin had cast aside the GC ambitions he’d spoken of pre-race. After all, why would a GC contender waste energy in a breakaway on the first day of the race, especially with temperatures nudging 40ºC? Option two: Bevin’s GC ambitions were alive and well and his breakaway expedition was all part of a ploy to steal an early march on his would-be rivals.
It turned out to be the latter. An unusual and decidedly risk ploy but one that, at least in the short term, appears to have worked wonders.
“It was definitely our intention,” Bevin said later, when asked about his day out front. “We talked about it yesterday and if they were going to let a group roll away and you could kind of sneak off the front and take some sneaky seconds in a race that’s often decided by countback or seconds, then why not take it?”
Since 2011, five editions of the Tour Down Under have been won by two seconds or less. Two of those (including last year) were won on a countback, with the top two riders locked on the same overall time.
At the TDU, every second really does count.
“There’s not many points of this race where you could say ‘Hey there were five seconds out there just for being out there [in the breakaway]’”, Bevin said. “So we went out and took it and we start the next five stages with a head start.”
That head start measures five seconds, the result of winning the first intermediate sprint and finishing second in the next. It’s a head start that puts five seconds between Bevin and the likes of defending champion Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) and 2017 winner Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), not to mention the vast bulk of the field. Bevin currently sits third overall, behind Viviani and stage 1 runner-up Max Walscheid (Sunweb).
But that head start doesn’t come without it’s concerns. Riding in the breakaway is inherently more energy-sapping than staying sheltered in the peloton. And that effect is only amplified in the sort of infernal conditions the riders faced on stage 1.
But according to Bevin, his day in the break wasn’t as hard as it might have been.
“I didn’t find it too bad — up in the hills it [the heat] wasn’t terrible and because we had a group that was working well there was no big effort,” he said. “We rode hard for a brief period, we got a gap and we kind of went back and forward with the bunch. And we’re up there, we’re taking water — you’re not really doing any big accelerations.”
But Bevin acknowledges he’s not out of the woods yet — today’s ride could still take its toll.
“It’s definitely a gamble in the days to come — you could take five seconds today and lose two minutes in three days time, but that’s bike racing,” Bevin said. “We’re here to try and win it. To lie down and wait for Willunga [on the final stage], well, I’m not going to win it.
“I’m going to have to fight for every single second and that started at kilometer zero today.”
While five seconds might be a decent advantage at this early stage, there’s a lot of the TDU left to go. Crucially, the two main GC stages are still several days away.
Stage 4 concludes with the steep climb of Corkscrew Road before a fast descent to the finish in Campbelltown. The last time the stage finished there, in 2016, Bevin finished 15th, some 22 seconds down on a small-group led over the line by Simon Gerrans. Bevin’s sport director Jackson Stewart believes the Kiwi is capable of a significantly better result three years on.
“I honestly think he could win that stage,” Stewart told CyclingTips. “I won’t tell him that, but I do. I think it’s a really good climb for him and it’s downhill and he’s a strong finisher so if he goes with the right guys I think he could really win out of a group there.”
Willunga Hill on the final stage is a trickier proposition. Climbing to the finish line doesn’t suit Bevin quite as well, but he has been 10th there in the past — also in 2016, en route to 10th overall. His win on the similar Arthurs Seat climb at the Herald Sun Tour in 2014 shows he’s no slouch on such finishes.
All those factors combine to give Bevin confidence of a high overall finish at this year’s Tour Down Under. He’s hopeful of a top five.
“I’ve been here before, I’ve been top 10 before,” Bevin said. “I think top five in a WorldTour GC’s hard to come by and this race, without a time trial, which is my specialty, is kind of hard. You’re kind of boxing on a little bit outside of your zone.
“But that’s not going to stop us. We’re here to try and do that and I’m going to scrap for every second until I can’t because that’s the only way you can take this bike race on.”
An obvious question follows: will we see Bevin in the break in the days ahead, trying to replicate his stage 1 achievements?
“By this point I don’t think they’d let me do it again,” Bevin said of his GC rivals. “I think it was a bit of a gimme today just to kind of roll off and see what happened. It is an investment of energy and you don’t get that energy back, so you’ve got to make sure it’s worth the five seconds.
“If I could guarantee it to be as easy as it was to get the seconds today then I’d definitely go again tomorrow but I just don’t see that being the case.”
He’s probably right. After the time Bevin took today, it’s hard to imagine his GC rivals letting him roll away and snag any more time.
They say that fortune favours the brave. Today, Paddy Bevin reaped the rewards of a gutsy ride, snagging five bonus seconds and the Most Competitive Rider prize. Of course, his real battle will begin later in the week when the road tilts up and the other GC contenders come out to play.
Will be able to stick with the likes of Daryl Impey and Richie Porte up Corkscrew Road? What about on Willunga? And will he pay for his efforts today?
Even if he does, he and his CCC team should be applauded for getting on the front foot. For taking the race to the favourites and livening up the GC battle before it has even really begun.