It could have been a disaster for FDJ-Suez.
The French team had rightly come into stage 2 of the Santos Tour Down Under riding for Grace Brown. The 31-year-old Aussie won on the same finish back in 2019, in her first season in the pro ranks, when she rode team leader Gracie Elvin off her wheel. Brown also happens to be the defending champion.
But today, Brown wasn’t feeling her best.
“Well, in the beginning, she felt good,” Brown’s teammate Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig said after the finish, “and that was why we went for the [first] intermediate sprint. And she actually got third, so she got one [bonus] second. But then after that, she said that she was not feeling good when we came into the laps.
“With one lap to go, she came up to me, and she said ‘You go for it.’ So then we changed the plans.”
As far as Plan Bs go, Uttrup Ludwig is about as good as they come.
While Brown battled to limit her losses, eventually finishing 38 seconds down, FDJ-Suez focused their energy on supporting Uttrup Ludwig on the tough uphill drag into Stirling. The 28-year-old Dane has proven to be among the world’s best on short uphill finishes, best exemplified by her win into Épernay on stage 3 of the 2022 Tour de France Femmes.
That day in Épernay, the finish was considerably steeper than the stepwise approach to the line here in Stirling. In the end, the result was much the same.
With the day’s attackers all wrapped up and a reduced bunch sprint looming, Uttrup Ludwig was perfectly placed coming into the final kilometre. After waiting patiently in third wheel for the right moment, she made her move with just under 200 steep metres to go. By the time she reached the line, she’d put several bike lengths between her and her nearest rivals, Soraya Paladin (Canyon-SRAM) and Sofia Bertizzolo (UAE Team ADQ).
The apparent ease of Uttrup Ludwig’s victory is striking. Not because her strength and ability were ever in dispute, but because it’s January.
Traditional wisdom suggests that Europeans who come out to race in the Australian summer tend to be a long way off peak form. They come out here for what is essentially training – a solid hit-out before the “real races” begin in Europe next month.
We might have expected that to apply to Uttrup Ludwig. After all, she will have much bigger goals later in the year. Races like the one-day Classics, say, and the Tour de France Femmes. But there was evidence on yesterday’s opening stage that she’s taking this race more seriously than she could have – the fact she, as a lightweight puncheur, was interested in getting involved in the bunch sprint, eventually finishing eighth.
Uttrup Ludwig confirmed to Escape today that she’s in better form than she would normally be this time of year.
“Oh yeah, I think so, phew,” she said. “This is quite an early start for me in January but therefore the training up to this has also been a little bit different and a bit more intensity early on to be ready for this because, oof, it is hard racing.”
Uttrup Ludwig’s been in Australia for a while, spending time with her boyfriend, fellow pro Miles Scotson.
“I’ve been here in Australia since Christmas also to get ready, for the heat, and just to have good training,” she said. “The Adelaide Hills has been amazing training.”
Uttrup Ludwig’s win vaults her to the top of the general classification, two seconds clear of Bertizzolo in second, and three seconds ahead of third-placed Ruby Roseman-Gannon (Liv AlUla Jayco). Just one stage remains, but that stage is the one everyone’s been waiting for: the uphill finish on Willunga Hill, a first for the women’s Tour Down Under.
Ludwig’s been out to ride Willunga in training and she was succinct in her assessment of whether the 3 km ascent suits her. “I like it,” she said with a smile.
When the road heads up tomorrow, she’ll be watching two riders in particular: Sarah Gigante (AG Insurance-Soudal), who won on Willunga when the race was demoted to a domestic-level event during the COVID years, and three-time overall winner Amanda Spratt (Lidl-Trek). Both Gigante and Spratt sit 10 seconds off the overall lead – the size of the time bonus available for winning the final stage.
But Uttrup Ludwig believes she’ll face more threats than just Gigante and Spratt tomorrow.
“I think there will be a few surprises actually,” she said. “I think it’s gonna be a very hard race, especially also with the wind. I think at the coast? Phoar. If it’s windy like today or harder, I think it’ll be hard before the climb.”
When asked whether he thought Uttrup Ludwig could defend her lead on Willunga, FDJ-Suez sports director Nicolas Maire wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know what she’s able to do,” he said. “I think, at the top shape she’s able to do [it]. There is an advantage for the Australian riders, but she looks good. So we will fight for this.”
For FDJ-Suez, Brown’s bad day could have spelled disaster for its title defence. Instead, it was an opportunity for Uttrup Ludwig to step up, and do so in imperious style. Pretty handy for a backup plan.
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