Now that’s how you start your first WorldTour season

It was a near-perfect Tour Down Under for AG Insurance-Soudal.

It’s hard to imagine a better start to AG Insurance-Soudal’s time as a WorldTour team. It wasn’t just that the Dutch team won two of the three stages and the overall at the Santos Tour Down Under, it was the way they went about it. 

With a young team, half of whom were racing with the team and each other for the first time, the new kids on the block denied the bigger, more-established and more-favoured WorldTour outfits on multiple occasions.

On stage 1, all eyes were on Liv AlUla Jayco. The home team dominated the first intermediate sprint – an early sign of their intent – and were favourites to win the stage as well. But not prepared to sit back and let others dictate terms, AG Insurance-Soudal took the initiative on the downhill run towards Campbelltown, riding for Kiwi champ Ally Wollaston.

Liv AlUla Jayco went a little early in the sprint, but even if they hadn’t, it likely wouldn’t have mattered, such was the margin of Wollaston’s eventual victory. The team had managed to win its first WorldTour race as a WorldTour team. As a bonus, Wollaston also took the ochre leader’s jersey.

“I think we’re pretty good as a team just taking on the race with confidence,” Wollaston said afterwards. “And yeah, I think we just hold on to the jersey as long as we can. Really fight for it tomorrow.” 

Wollaston struggled on a tough stage 2 into Stirling, getting dropped multiple times on the hilly circuit, but repeatedly fought her way back. Her tenacity was a preview of what would come 24 hours later.

While Wollaston would eventually lose her ochre jersey on stage 2, the team did a formidable job at the front at various points throughout the day, regularly setting the pace, riding to keep Sarah Gigante in contention for the tricky drag to the line. 

“Half the team is new as well so we’re still learning how each other ride and learning to follow each other in the peloton,” Anya Louw told Escape after the stage. “But it’s a really big goal of the team to ride together and ride as a unit and to protect our leaders.”

They did exactly that. Gigante finished the day in ninth, putting her on the same time as her big rivals ahead of the following stage. The team was understandably buoyed by its prospects for the decisive Willunga Hill stage.

AG Insurance-Soudal riders were a frequent sight at the front of the bunch throughout the race.

That final stage would be the team’s crowning achievement. Gigante frequently struggled for position on a day affected by crosswinds and it was thanks to her teammates – with Wollaston the stand-out – that she managed to arrive at the base of Willunga with the lead group.

“I think Sarah has had a bit of time off racing, so is not quite as confident in the peloton,” Wollaston said later, after Gigante had ridden away from everyone and won the stage and the overall. “With legs like that we’d do anything to support her. It was no burden on me to go back, pick her up, take her to the front again. At the end of the day, we trusted that she could finish it and we just had to protect her the whole day.

“I’m so so proud to be a part of this project and this team. The first day, second day, third day – I think we just keep proving ourselves, that we deserve to be here and we deserve to be a WorldTour team. I couldn’t be any more proud of the girls.”

Wollaston win on stage 1 wasn’t just the team’s first win as a WorldTour team, it was the team’s biggest-ever win – it’s first in a WorldTour event. It now has three WorldTour wins, including Gigante’s overall victory. Those results certainly haven’t happened overnight.

The AG Insurance-Soudal team joined the elite ranks in 2019 as the Rogelli-Gyproc U23 squad. Women’s road racing doesn’t have an U23 category like the men’s, meaning the step between the junior and elite ranks is a big and daunting one. By creating a team for U23 women, team founder Natascha den Ouden hoped to help bridge that gap.

The 2022 season was a big one for the team that had by then become known as NXTG Racing. Patrick Lefevere, manager of the long-running Quick-Step men’s team, linked up with Den Ouden, and a plan was hatched to continue building the team. In 2023 the team would have an U19 squad, an U23 squad and, if the plan came to fruition, a WorldTour team as well.

The team’s WorldTour application was eventually denied – Fenix-Deceuninck got the one spot three teams had applied for and AG Insurance-Soudal-QuickStep remained at Continental level. But ahead of the 2024 season the team applied for the WorldTour again and was this time successful.

Speaking to sports director Servais Knaven – husband of Den Ouden – his pride for his riders at the Tour Down Under is clear.

“We have three new riders in the team and already, after one week together, it’s one team,” he said at the top of Willunga Hill, beaming. “This is what we do it for, isn’t it?”

That team spirit was evident throughout the race. It was clear in the way they rode the front on all three stages, and it was clear in the way they all celebrated Gigante’s win together at the top of Willunga. Team staff, riders, and even Gigante’s mother Kerry all shared numerous hugs with one another in the aftermath of Sarah’s win. Their pride in Gigante was obvious; her gratitude towards them equally so.

“I know that I’m going to be so happy with AG Insurance-Soudal,” Gigante said later. “Just the belief they had in me from the very start. It’s hard to come into a new team and take a leadership position straight away but everyone was so lovely. I don’t even feel like a new rider. I just feel at home.”

After Cadel’s Race in a fortnight’s time, the team will head to Europe full of excitement for the season ahead. Management will surely be wondering where else it can send Gigante. Flèche Wallonne? Maybe even the Tour de France Femmes with its Alpe d’Huez summit finish? Other races where, with a bit more experience, and with team support to keep her out of trouble, she can again put her formidable climbing to good use?

Of course, it’s not only Gigante. Wollaston, also just 23, continues to improve and appears set for a terrific year. The team’s biggest name, Ashleigh Moolman, is still waiting in the wings as well.

Many teams will be leaving the women’s Tour Down Under feeling a sense of disappointment. Liv AlUla Jayco, certainly; Lidl-Trek too. AG Insurance-Soudal, though – they’ll be anything but disappointed. In their first race as a WorldTour team, they took it to the bigger teams, rode with intent, rode well with one another, supported their leaders admirably, and ultimately reaped the rewards.

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