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Reporter’s notebook: The Tour Down Under stories you didn’t see

A bunch of interesting tidbits and behind-the-scenes goodies from the women's and men's Tour Down Under.

Yours truly interviewing Jackson Medway for a story on Escape. (Image: Christopher Jones/Bicycles.net.au)

The 2024 Santos Tour Down Under delivered an exciting week and a half of racing that gave us plenty to report on. But at any event we cover in person, there are always going to be little tidbits that don’t necessarily earn their own story, but that are worth sharing anyway.

And so here’s the latest edition of Reporter’s notebook, coming to you from the women’s and men’s Tour Down Under. Of course, if you came across a story from TDU that you don’t think people have spoken enough about, please feel free to share in the comments below!

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Names you should know

There were a bunch of riders that put themselves on the radar with impressive performances at Tour Down Under, but that didn’t attract the same sort of coverage as a rider like Isaac del Toro, say. Here are some of the riders that didn’t win a stage, but certainly turned heads.

Nienke Vinke (DSM-Firmenich PostNL) – The 19-year-old Dutchwoman was largely anonymous until the final stage of the women’s race, on Willunga Hill. While Sarah Gigante rode away to the stage win and overall success, Vinke – a second-year pro – was comfortably the next-best rider on the road, to the surprise of many, including herself.

Vinke explained that getting a chance to lead her team was a rarity. “I don’t have a chance to go for results often because we have a lot of strong riders in the team, so I will help the other girls [back in Europe],” she said. Maybe she just earned herself a chance to ride for results more often.

Neve Bradbury (Canyon-SRAM) – Aussie readers probably feel like Bradbury’s been around for ages, but she’s still only 21. Her third on Willlunga Hill and on GC (to add to her U23 national road race title earlier in the month) was the biggest result of her career and further confirmation of her great talent. Hopefully this is the year Bradbury takes another step forward over in Europe.

Bart Lemmen (Visma-Lease a Bike) – Talk about flying under the radar. Twenty-eight-year-old Dutchman Bart Lemmen finished fifth on Willunga and fourth on Mt. Lofty in the men’s race, to finish fifth overall. If you haven’t heard of Lemmen, that’s probably because he’s very new to the sport. He only turned professional in 2023 having been a platoon commander in the Royal Netherlands Air Force. 

Laurence Pithie (Groupama-FDJ) – There was a brief moment in the closing kilometres of the final stage of the men’s race when it looked like 21-year-old Kiwi Laurence Pithie was going to win the day. He punched away from the lead group and was leading solo to the line, before ultimately getting caught.

Pithie ended up fifth on the day, and was seen loudly berating himself afterwards for missing out on the victory (he said in a team press release that he should have waited for the sprint). It was an impressive ride though, particularly when you consider that Pithie was top-five on two bunch sprints earlier in the week. He’s an exciting young rider who seems to excel on all sorts of terrain.

Jayco’s sticker prank

The men and women of Jayco AlUla / Liv AlUla Jayco had some fun with their TDU video content, including trying to secretly stick team stickers on the backs of people not on their team. Most victims seemed to have no idea what was going on, others worked it out and found it funny, while others were very much unimpressed.

On the morning of stage 3, Kell O’Brien rode to sign-on and slapped race leader Isaac del Toro on the back, saying “well done bro!” for his stage win the previous day. When a UAE Team Emirates staffer spotted the Jayco AlUla sticker that O’Brien had left on Del Toro back, he strode quickly across to the Mexican and ripped the sticker off in obvious disgust. Del Toro seemed oblivious to the entire sequence of events.

A plan to extend the women’s TDU

It’s easy to criticise Tour Down Under organisers for the relative size of the women’s race compared to the men’s race – the women only have three stages where the men have six. But a side-by-side comparison doesn’t tell the full story.

As explained by assistant race director Nettie Edmondson in the pre-race press conference, the race is building every year, and TDU organisers have gone above and beyond in recent years. Here’s some context:

The race might not expand next year (it was four stages long pre-COVID), but the organisers certainly want it to. Expect it to continue growing in the years to come.

Crit protest fizzer

In the lead-up to the men’s curtain-raiser criterium (on the night of the women’s penultimate stage), there were real concerns that a large group of anti-Israel/pro-Palestine protesters would attend the race and cause trouble. There was talk of possibly thousands coming along to protest the attendance of Israel-Premier Tech at the Tour Down Under, after those protestors had been at a pro-Palestine rally outside Adelaide’s Parliament House. Israel-Premier Tech was certainly nervous of a disrupted evening and police presence at the crit was noticeably heightened.

In the end, the whole thing fizzled out.

There were several hundred people at the rally outside Parliament House but when organisers asked for a show of hands to indicate how many would be heading to the race, only a few dozen did so. That was reflected at the crit – barely any had made the walk down to Wakefield Street.

All those that attended seemed very well behaved. The rally organiser had warned the crowd of the need to behave appropriately and safely, even reading out relevant sections of the South Australian Major Events Act that would penalise anyone found behaving inappropriately.

Finish line drama

Stage 2 of the men’s race will be remembered for Isaac del Toro’s amazing last-kilometre attack that earned him the stage win and the overall lead. Behind him, though, Israel-Premier Tech rode their way to second and third on the stage with Corbin Strong and Stevie Williams. But it was very close.

Check out this photo from the finish line, taken from an Israel-Premier Tech Instagram reel. It sure seems to show Williams (#67) finishing ahead of Strong, doesn’t it? 

It would have been immaterial if there weren’t time bonuses available on the line. Strong got six seconds on the line whereas Williams got four. Had it been the other way around, Williams would have come into the final stage with a two-second advantage on GC, rather than on the same time as Oscar Onley.

In the end it didn’t make a difference, given Williams won the final stage to extend his overall lead, but it was a curious affair nonetheless.

And as for an explanation for that photo? Perhaps there was difference between the positioning of the camera used for the image/video above, and the official finish line camera. Or perhaps lens distortion in the case of the image/video above is to blame.

Either way, here’s what the official photo looked like, showing Strong just ahead.

The curious case of Caleb

It was a tough old week at TDU for Caleb Ewan. In the lead-up to his first WorldTour race back with the GreenEdge organisation, Ewan fell ill and wasn’t able to race the curtain-raiser criterium or fulfil his pre-race media commitments. He was also clearly struggling when the race kicked off last Tuesday. Intriguingly, when reporter Rupert Guinness asked Jayco AlUla’s high performance director Matt White what the illness was, White said he didn’t want to talk about it.

While illness certainly wouldn’t have helped Ewan’s chances of a stage win, it was clear his lead-out train needed a little bit of work as well. White was asked after stage 1 – where Ewan got his best result of the week with fourth – how much work the Jayco AlUla lead-out train had done in preparation for Tour Down Under.

“Zero,” White said. “Campbell [Stewart] met Caleb here [in Adelaide]. Campbell’s got experience leading out, they’ve just never worked together.”

A stage win would have been just the start to 2024 Ewan was after. But as White rightly pointed out later in the week, if Ewan goes on to win Milan-San Remo or a couple stages of the Giro, no-one’s going to remember or care that Ewan didn’t win a stage at TDU …

A frustrating way to end your TDU

The Tour Down Under didn’t finish in the most satisfying way for former rower turned bike racer Jason Osborne (Alpecin-Deceuninck). This screengrab from his Strava account tells the story:

Oof.

The Plapp files

It was an eventful Tour Down Under for Aussie champ Luke Plapp. He started off by turning heads in the pre-race press conference when asked what his team’s goals were for the week. “We are going to try to win every stage and the GC,” he said. “Whether it’s me, or Caleb in the sprints, or ‘Yatesy’ on the climbs, we want to win every day.”

Now, the easy reaction here would be to label this as arrogant hubris (particularly given the team didn’t come closer than fourth to a single stage win, and ended up seventh overall). But here are a couple of points in Plapp’s defence.

I think the way that quote came out wasn’t exactly how Plapp meant to say it. I think he was trying to say that every day, the team would start the stage with a plan to win the stage. And justifiably so – they had the riders to do so.

But even if Plapp said exactly what he mean to, and even if there was a touch of arrogance to Plapp’s comments, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. It’s all too easy for riders to give sterile, repetitive answers to reporters’ questions. Believe me when I say we see it all the time. Instead, we should be celebrating and encourage those who are willing to be a bit more flamboyant and put themselves out there like Plapp did. I hope he continues speaking from the heart going forward.

Plapp ended up crashing on the fast descent at the end of stage 3, leaving the race the following morning. But even with his short time at the race, Plapp still gave us plenty more to talk about:

What the podium means

Sometimes you don’t need to win a race to be delighted with your performance. Just after stage 2 of the women’s Tour Down Under, last year’s National Road Series winner Emily Watts (Australian National Team) was riding through the teams paddock to join her teammates when a national team staffer stopped her. “What are you doing here?” they asked. “You need to get to the podium. You won most aggressive.”

“Oh my god, did I?!” Watts yelled, clearly delighted that her late attack had been rewarded. It was a lovely, wholesome moment that showed there’s more to bike racing than just winning.

Sam Welsford’s Olympic plan

Sam Welsford (Bora-Hansgrohe) was clearly the best sprinter at the Tour Down Under, winning three of the six stages and denying any other fastmen a victory. After winning stage 1, he explained that his biggest goals this year are the Giro d’Italia and, after that, the Paris Olympics (where he’ll likely be part of Australia’s team pursuit squad).

After taking a silver and bronze in the TP in the past two Olympics, Welsford has his eyes on “the hardest [medal] to get.” And after that? “It’ll be my third Olympic cycle so maybe that might be enough for the track and then [I’ll] just focus on the road I think.”

Royalty returns to Willunga

Willunga Hill played a crucial role in both the women’s and men’s TDU, but as we all know, the real contest was on Strava for new KOMs and QOMs. The King of Willunga himself, Richie Porte, was back in town for an open-to-the-public time trial on Willunga, which he won, posting an impressive time of 6:47 – less than 20 seconds off his own KOM which was set during the 2020 Tour Down Under. Fair effort to get so close when he’s been retired for more than a year, and when the effort was solo and not in race conditions.

Porte did come close to losing his KOM in the TDU though. Stage 5 winner Oscar Onley rode a 6:35 on his way to the stage win – just one second slower than Porte!

Meanwhile on the women’s side, Sarah Gigante couldn’t get a new QOM during her stage win in the race (thanks to a block headwind) so she returned to the same TT as Porte and broke her own record. Her 7:53 makes her the first woman to ride the 3 km climb in under eight minutes.

Oh, and if you’re wondering how that stacks up power-wise: that’s an effort somewhere north of 6 W/kg for nearly eight minutes – a truly world-class performance.

A shoutout to Rupe

This week the Escape crew had the pleasure of Rupert Guinness’s services, and he wrote some great stuff. A particular shout-out to Rupe for his story previewing the climbing stages of the men’s race where the two riders he chose to interview happened to be the guy who won stage 5 (Oscar Onley), and the guy who finished second that day, took the overall lead, then won the final stage and won the Tour Down Under overall (Stevie Williams).

If Rupe’s goal was to speak with those likely to have an impact in the climbing stages – and it was – I’d say he knocked it out of the park.

Overheard

You overhear some interesting things as you walk around at bike races. Here are a few that stood out, either because they were funny, endearing, or instructive in some other way.

What did you think of this story?