Pint of Guinness: Welsford’s tightrope between the WorldTour and Olympics

Bernie Eisel is glowing in his review of the Aussie sprinter.

Rupert Guinness
by Rupert Guinness 17.01.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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Bernhard Eisel has seen road sprinters come and go. The Bora-Hansgrohe sports director raced for many of the world’s best in his 19 years as a professional cyclist in his capacity as a road captain and crucial member of their lead-out train, including Briton Mark Cavendish.

After a professional career that spanned from 2001 to 2019, it has been a long time since Eisel has been as excited as he is now about the latest high-speed talent under his wing.

That is Sam Welsford who is in his third season as a road professional and first on Bora-Hansgrohe. On Tuesday, Welsford won stage 1 of the Santos Tour Down Under in a bunch sprint.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a sprinter who is dialled in to the point [he is at],” said Eisel on Wednesday before stage 2 of the Tour Down Under from Norwood to Lobethal.

Eisel did not hide his excitement about Welsford’s win the day before at Tanunda, especially with how the Bora-Hansgrohe sprint ‘train’ gelled in their first WorldTour outing with Welsford [Saturday’s Down Under Criterium where Bora-Hansgrohe did most of the work to try and reel in the winning breakaway was not a World Tour evented.]

Eisel is also astounded by Welsford’s sheer speed. Asked what trait makes the West Australian’s stand out, he replied: “The speed. The speed is definitely the one that sets him apart.”

But Eisel is even more excited about Welsford’s prospects when he can focus solely on road racing after fulfilling his track commitments at the Olympic Games. Welsford has already won two medals in the team pursuit – a silver at Rio in 2016 and bronze at Tokyo in 2020.

Bora-Hansgrohe has worked with AusCycling to ensure Welsford’s training and racing program accommodates his need to be as well prepared for the Olympics as possible, while still optimising his opportunities on the road. Those opportunities are likely to include the Giro d’Italia.

Welsford’s transition from the track to the road started after the Tokyo Games that were postponed to 2021 due to COVID. He rode for the Dutch WorldTour DSM team in 2022 and 2023; and while Welsford joined Bora-Hansgrohe this year, the team followed his progress.

In those first years Welsford won a stage in the 2022 Tour of Turkey, and then in 2023 he won two stages of the Vuelta a San Juan Internacional in Argentina, one stage of the WorldTour Renewi Tour, and Grand Prix Criquielion in Belgium. He also finished the Tour de France.

“We shouldn’t forget that it’s a third year now that he is starting as a roadie, and still with a focus on the Olympics which is a big, big year for him,” said Eisel on Wednesday. “It is very impressive to have made that progress in just such a short time. That shows his potential.”

With two WorldTour victories now on his ‘palmares’ – his stage wins in the 2022 Renewi Tour and 2023 Tour Down Under – some aficionados might anticipate that extra pressure will be put on Welsford to rise through the ranks of the world’s best sprinters this year.

But Eisel said the team wants him to develop naturally without KPIs on his 2024 ‘to do’ list.

“We’re just happy where he is, as a teammate and with the progress,” he said. “We said we want to start well, and he definitely did that. And the guys [teammates] are super happy.

“The riders, they have their own agenda [for training] … this is their free will and they should do whatever they feel is the best for them and the coaches are much closer than me. I always try at the races to focus on the guys I have and not on really getting involved.

“But [Welsford is] one of those modern sprinters, modern cyclists. They come to the scene and are professional. They do everything you have to know. It’s the nutrition, the training.

“They don’t miss out on training … they have that communication with their coaches and do everything they have to to become the best in the world. This for me is very impressive.”

His high regard for Welsford aside, Eisel believes that Australia’s other top sprinter at the Tour Down Under, Caleb Ewan (Jayco-AlULa), who has struggled for optimal form and opportunity so far, will still have his say in the bunch sprints before the tour finishes Sunday.

Asked if Welsford’s current form might indicate a changing of the guard among Australian sprinters, he said: “That would be great. But I wouldn’t write off Caleb … 100% sure.

“He is still one of the fastest. He missed that kick [in the stage 1 finale] a little bit, but he wasn’t fine in the days leading up to the race. It was a good effort off him [in stage 1.]

“Caleb is not giving up. Being back in an Australian team is also giving him an extra boost.”

Welsford is certainly not getting ahead of himself. He knows Ewan will be getting hungrier by the day for that first win of the season. In Wednesday’s second stage, Ewan did well to get back into the fray and place fifth after changing bikes shortly before the last climb near the finish.

Welsford also wants to respect the program that has been designed to follow his Olympic track and WorldTour road ambitions in the same year.

“I still have the passion for the track,” he said after Tuesday’s win. “I’ve got silver and bronze at the Olympics, so I’m missing the hardest one to get. I’m in my third Olympic cycle so maybe that might be enough for the track and then to just focus on the road.”

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