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‘Nobody really knows what he’s capable of’ – Isaac del Toro stuns at the TDU

It looked like it would be a bunch sprint, and then it didn't.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 17.01.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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When most neo-pros come to their first WorldTour race, they don’t tend to do much. They normally roll around in the bunch, learn what they can from more experienced teammates, and work on honing their craft. Even the mercurial Tadej Pogačar was largely anonymous in his first WorldTour race in his neo-pro season (the 2019 Tour Down Under).

But 20-year-old Mexican Isaac del Toro (UAE Team Emirates) has taken a rather different approach. On stage 2 of the 2024 Santos Tour Down Under, with around 1 km to go and a bunch sprint looking likely, Del Toro hit out, hard.

The overheard footage is staggering. Del Toro bridges across to the leaders on the road, and then speeds past like they are stationary. As the sprinters and their teams scramble to get organised behind, last year’s Tour de l’Avenir winner surges into Lobethal alone to take his first professional win, in his first WorldTour race, in just his second day of professional racing. He’s the second-youngest stage winner in Tour Down Under history, after Michael Rogers in 2002.

Speaking to the gathered press after his stage win, Del Toro appears overwhelmed. His English is very good, but his answers are short, clipped.  Being softly spoken, it’s hard to hear him over the Tour Down Under anthem that’s blaring from nearby speakers. When asked how it feels to win, he doesn’t give much. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s too much for me.”

Based on Del Toro’s Tour de L’Avenir victory last year, the natural assumption is that he’s a climbing specialist. The world’s biggest U23 stage race for men is typically decided in the mountains, and it was in the mountains that Del Toro made the difference last year. He won a stage on the 22 km climb up the Col de la Loze and then, on the two remaining stages in the mountains, he worked his way up from third overall to first. But Del Toro’s late attack today suggests a rider that’s far more than just a climber. 

Speaking to Escape immediately post-stage, UAE Team Emirates’ Michael Vink was in awe of his young teammate.

“[In] a hard finish like that the best riders come to the front and obviously Isaac’s a huge, huge talent,” Vink told Escape. “It was hard up that climb and yeah it looked like it was gonna come back together for a bunch sprint. So then for Isaac to have that sort of initiative to attack when he did, especially for such a young guy and then to pull it off really shows the class and the potential of the guy.”

Del Toro’s attack was the perfect combination of timing and strength; a perfomance that would have been impressive from a rider with a decade in the WorldTour, not just two days. And it was Del Toro that decided when to make his move, having been given the opportunity by team management.

“We had a few cards to play today with Finn [Fisher-Black], Diego [Ulissi] and as well Isaac,” said UAE Team Emirates sports director Marco Marcato. “And actually he did it perfect. We tell him in case of reduced bunch sprint to try to anticipate and he did it, so it was fantastic work from him.”

While Del Toro only joined UAE Team Emirates this year, he’d long been on the team’s radar as a young talent with great potential.

As reported by Escape’s Dane Cash last year, Del Toro spent four years racing for the A.R. Monex development team before joining UAE Team Emirates. A bad crash in 2022, in which he fractured his femur and damaged his femoral artery, derailled much of Del Toro’s season, but in 2023 he bounced back with a strong campaign that culminated in his Tour de l’Avenir victory.

Today, with his first WorldTour victory, he ascended to even greater heights and highlighted his potential for even bigger things.

***

While Del Toro would have earned himself many fans today, his ride in Saturday’s curtain-raiser criterium was an exciting one too. He was part of the winning breakaway – in a race where the break rarely survives – and ended up taking third. Most endearing was the way he congratulated the winner, Jhonatan Narváez (Ineos Grenadiers). Del Toro celebrated as vigorously for the victor that day as he did his own win today.

With his thrilling stage victory today, Del Toro also moves into the overall lead of the Tour Down Under. He now sits a couple seconds clear of his closest rival – today’s runner up Corbin Strong (Israel-Premier Tech) – while the race’s big GC favourites sit 11 seconds behind.

So does he now look ahead to the possibility of winning the Tour overall? After all, the climbing days on stages 5 and 6 should surely suit a rider that won the Tour de L’Avenir. Plus, there’s the fact he’s been targeting bonus seconds, picking up a single bonus second in the first intermediate sprint on today’s stage.

In fact, attacking late today was apparently an attempt to secure some of the bonus seconds at the finish line.

“The last chance to take more seconds was the sprint,” Del Toro said. “That was the last try and I need to take the opportunity.”

So does that mean Del Toro is now leading UAE Team Emirates’ tilt at the GC? Is snaffling bonus seconds an attempt to improve his position ahead of the two climbing days that end the race? The Mexican is adamant he’s not the team’s leader. And when asked who is  the leader, he replies succinctly with a smile: “Maybe the next days you know.”

His sports director, Marco Marcato, is equally cagey when asked whether Del Toro can win the race overall. “We will see,” he says. “It’s too early you know. One day is not like it’s over.”

***

If winning the Tour de l’Avenir last year didn’t already put Isaac del Toro on the map, his win today certainly did. And if he can win a stage like that, at just 20, in just his second day of WorldTour racing, what might the future hold?

“Honestly, the sky’s the limit with him,” Vink says. “I think nobody really knows what he’s capable of.”

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