The Santos Tour Down Under has become a race of two parts, with Australian Sam Welsford and Bora-Hangrohe devouring three of the first four stages that all finished in sprints.
The WorldTour event will undergo a reboot this weekend and become a climbers’ race with the fifth and sixth stages finishing on Old Willunga Hill and Mount Lofty respectively.
And because of the time differences those stages will create on general classification, one of the climbers should win the tour overall by Sunday’s end. The big question is: who?
After four stages, Mexican Isaac Del Toro (UAE Team Emirates) still leads the tour by one second over Eritrean sprinter Biniam Girmay (Intermarche-Wanty) and two seconds over New Zealand’s Corbin Strong (Israel-Premier Tech). Who knows? Del Toro, who won Wednesday’s stage two with a blistering attack inside the last kilometres, may well defend the lead, given his climbing ability that played such a huge role in him winning last year’s Tour de l’Avenir.
But behind him are a plethora of riders who can climb and have otherwise ridden within themselves as Welsford and the other sprinters fought for stage wins during the week.
One such rider is 21-year-old Scot, Oscar Onley (DSM-Firmenich-PostNL) who is placed 24th overall at 11 seconds with 56 riders. A product of DSM’s development team and in his second year on the WorldTour, Onley is an emerging star. Denmark’s dual Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard (Team Visma-Lease a Bike) has probably already registered that.
In the 2022 CRO Tour, Onley went toe to toe with Vingegaard in the two hardest days – stages 3 and 5 – placing second behind him on both to finish third overall. In 2023, he was second overall at the Alpes Isère Tour, sixth in the Tour of Hungary and 10th in the Tour of Poland.
Onley’s form in Australia was there to see before the Tour Down Under began on Tuesday. Last week on a training ride, he clocked the 12th fastest all-time ascent of Old Willunga Hill in 7:07. The record of 6:34 is held by the retired Richie Porte. Onley was also sixth in the Down Under Classic criterium last Saturday after featuring in the winning break.
Asked about his Old Willunga Hill ride that he did alone, Onley said: “I rode out there to look at the course, and I had some efforts to do. So, I thought I’d give it a little rip up there.”
Onley is not shy about his ambitions here. He travelled to Australia with a winning mindset.
“I came here going for the best result possible,” Onley said in Murray Bridge before Friday’s fourth stage. “I know my shape is really good. So, I really want to try and go for the win.”
Onley says he will not waste any opportunity that Saturday presents either, even though some riders may prefer to save their biggest hits for Sunday’s tour finale on Mount Lofty.
“With the bonus seconds, it’s a little harder, but I’ll give it everything [on stage 5] and see where I end up,” he said. “I’m ambitious for this race. Hopefully, I can get something good out of it.
“Del Toro has 11 seconds on most guys. That’s a hard gap to bring back … especially with the bonus seconds [up for grabs]. Tomorrow [Stage 5] is all out and then see where we are.
“Sunday is probably a little more tactical. On paper it’s maybe a bit harder, but the finish is not. Maybe it can open up a bit earlier and the teams with numbers can play a bit more.”
Pressed on Del Toro’s capabilities, Onley clearly regards the Mexican. “I did the Down Under criterium with him [in the break] and he was really punchy,” Onley said. “He is going to be a tough guy to beat when you can sprint and climb like he does. He’s got the whole package.”
Two other riders, among many, who could figure strongly are Welshman Stephen Williams (Israel-Premier Tech) who is placed fifth overall at seven seconds, and his Canadian teammate Derek Gee who bettered Onley’s Old Willunga Hill time two days later with a 7:04 effort.
Gee, 26, who finished second in four stages of last year’s Giro d’Italia and is the Canadian time trial champion, is also among the 56 riders at 11 seconds to Del Toro, sitting in 38th place overall.
Williams, 27, is in his second year with Israel-Premier Tech after four with Bahrain Victorious. At the Tour Down Under, Williams and Gee have both been well supported.
But Williams’ better position is due to his third place on stage 2 won by Del Toro that earned him a four-second time bonus.
“Whether they become important or not, we’ll see,” Williams said. “But it’s not bad to have them in your pocket.”
As with Onley, he is relishing the prospect of Willunga Hill and Mount Lofty under his wheels. “They are very ‘puncheur’ type classic climbs; although, not so steep,” Williams said.
However, while the climbs will heighten the chances of the best climbers getting big time gaps, Williams concurs with Onley that the race for time bonus will be just as crucial.
“The most important thing that changes everything in these races is bonus seconds,” he said. “If you can snatch a few here and there, and especially at the finish line, it’s very important going into the next day. A lot of teams will be wary of the bonus times.”
Israel-Premier Tech has the rider power to cover all scenarios this weekend. It has already done well in the first four days, with Williams and Corbin snatching bonus seconds.
In the hills, the team will have the likes of Williams, Gee, New Zealander George Bennett and Australian Simon Clarke to help him or one another should they emerge as contenders.
“We have seven guys riding very well, a good balance of climbers and strong guys,” Williams said. “We have all bases covered with support for ‘GC’ [general classification] ambitions.”
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