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WILLUNGA HILL, Australia (CT) – Richie Porte’s reign on Willunga Hill has finally come to an end. Today, for the first time in seven years, the Tasmanian wasn’t the first across the line atop the Tour Down Under’s most famous climb.
But Porte wasn’t too disappointed — his second place on the stage was enough to distance all his GC rivals, including overnight leader Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott), and secure a second overall victory at Australia’s biggest race.
“Of course it would’ve been nice to have won the stage, but to win the race again, it’s a fantastic feeling,” Porte said afterwards. “And it was a hard day for our team. There were times there where I thought maybe the GC was over and done with because it was a big group up the road. But credit to the guys — they pretty much singlehandedly brought that all back and it’s a great feeling to finish their work off this week.”
On the final of two climbs up Willunga, Porte did as he’s done every year for the past seven: attacked with about 1.5 km to go and left the rest of the field scrambling. For a brief moment Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) appeared to be up to the task, the Vuelta a España winner shadowing Porte into the final kilometre and a half.
“I think when Yates was sat on the wheel … the mind battle starts there a bit because he’s a fantastic little bike rider,” Porte said. “I knew my work was cut out, that I had to ride him off the wheel as well. And he’s got youth on his side to me — you know, I’m getting on a bit.”
Within moments 34-year-old Porte distanced 27-year-old Yates and continued on his way. Unusually though, Porte’s battle didn’t stop there. With less than a kilometre to go in the stage, the remnants of the day-long breakaway were still up the road.
Porte bridged across to Michael Storer (Sunweb) and Matthew Holmes (Lotto-Soudal) with 700 metres to go, before gapping them both. At that moment it looked as if Porte was riding to a seventh-straight stage win on Willunga. But then neo-pro Holmes fought back impressively and latched on to Porte’s slipstream.
Despite having being in the breakaway all day, Holmes found the strength to put three seconds into Porte by the line. The 26-year-old Briton had taken his first professional victory, in his first WorldTour race, in his first month as a WorldTour rider.
The surprise win comes after a challenging week for Holmes.
“I’ve been trying my hardest to ride well in the GC but yeah, I couldn’t handle the speed and the sort of danger in the bunch, so I really didn’t do well the first few days,” he said. “And even last night I was saying, I don’t know if this is even for me. It’s too dangerous. Today’s a bit of a turnaround.”
Holmes was part of the early move of 26 riders that got away in the first few kilometres of the stage. With such a strong contingent out front, the break got as far as five minutes ahead before the peloton, led by Ag2r-La Mondiale and Trek-Segafredo, started to close in. In the break, Holmes tried to do as little as he could.
“It was perfect really,” said Holmes, who raced with the British Continental team Madison Genesis from 2014 to 2019. “My old manager would be proud. He’s always had a go at me for doing too much so today I did absolutely the minimum. I had the easiest ride of anyone probably in the whole race.”
With 10km to go in the stage, the breakaway still had a lead of 2:35 and a win from the lead group was looking very possible. By the time the peloton hit the final climb, the lead group had started to splinter leaving just a handful of riders — including Holmes — ahead of the bunch. At that point Holmes knew it was just about riding within himself and not responding to every acceleration from his breakaway companions.
“I just tried to not sprint every time that they did,” he said. “So I just rode hard and sensible and then just had to go with Richie when he came past. And he had obviously gone a hell of a lot quicker than me up there so he had no sprint left.”
Nearly half a minute after Holmes crossed the line with his hands in the air, Impey rolled across in 20th place. For he and his Mitchelton-Scott team it was a disappointing end to the week — he’d started the day in the overall lead, two seconds ahead of Porte, but cracked with more than 2 km of the final climb still remaining. He would have to settle for sixth overall.
“I knew I was out of it [GC] there once I got dropped,” Impey said. “I just kept fighting to try and limit the damage and try and finish on the podium. I wasn’t on a great day today. I struggled a little bit there on the bottom slopes and yeah, I was probably paying for quite a busy week.
“But yeah, that being said, we gave it our all. I’m still happy with the performance. Obviously disappointed today — I would have liked more.”
A year ago Impey finished on the same time as Porte up Willunga. This time around he seemed to pay a heavier toll for his efforts at intermediate sprints throughout the week; his efforts to take time bonuses where he could. But the South African leaves the race with no regrets — with two uphill finishes in this year’s race, Impey needed to take time wherever he could.
“I had to be in a position to get time and to put myself in a position to possibly win,” he said. “And, you know, last year I finished on his wheel [on Willunga] — I thought it was a possibility this year. But the body just didn’t respond today like last year.”
While Trek-Segafredo and Ag2r did most of the chasing throughout the stage, Mitchelton-Scott was a noticeable omission until the final 8 km. At that point the gap to those out front was still 2:30 — enough for some riders up front to threaten Impey’s lead.
“We wanted the stage to go away, actually, so the [time] bonuses were gone [at the finish],” Impey said. “In the end, we just put guys on the front just to close that gap so we didn’t lose the race.
“It wasn’t up to us really to chase all day. We had to just put ourselves in a position that, you know, the stage could go away to someone else. And, I think we ticked that box. I mean, the stage did go to someone else, but Richie was still flying, so [he was] hard to beat.”
By stage’s end Porte had won the Tour Down Under by 25 seconds. It’s the biggest winning margin at the race since the 2017 edition, which Porte also won. Not coincidentally, that edition also featured two uphill finishes.
Adding to the final stage’s surprise winner were two surprise podium finishers. Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates) took second overall while Simon Geschke (CCC) was third, both on the same time. They’d finished sixth and seventh on the day respectively — the peloton’s best finishers after Porte.
And as for Porte, well, today’s victory is a great launchpad. He had just one victory last season — on Willunga — and he’ll be hoping that 2020 delivers far greater satisfaction.
“It’s a fantastic way to start the year,” Porte said. “Everyone’s got their opinions on peaking and this and that but being from Australia to win the Tour Down Under, it’s a great satisfaction.
“I won’t let anybody take any of that away. I’ve worked hard for this. And now I know I can still win bike races. So it’s good for the season coming.”