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After a perfect lead-out, Sam Welsford won the opening stage of the men's Tour Down Under.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 16.01.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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What a difference a few days can make. On Saturday evening, in the Santos Tour Down Under curtain-raiser criterium in Adelaide, Bora-Hansgrohe were left ruing a missed opportunity.

In a departure from the established norm, a six-rider breakaway that probably should have been caught managed to go the distance. Bora-Hansgrohe didn’t get the help they wanted in the chase, denying new recruit Sam Welsford a likely sprint victory.

Fast forward to Tuesday afternoon, on stage 1 of the Tour Down Under proper, and the result was markedly different. On a scorching day in the Barossa Valley, the main breakaway was just two riders, and even that was caught with 58 km still to race.

After a long lull in proceedings, the sprinters got their chance to shine. In the end it was Welsford who shone brightest, the West Australian beating last year’s winner in the same finish, Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain Victorious), and the fast-finishing Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty).

In the approach to that final sprint, Jayco AlUla showed the greatest intent. Speaking in the official pre-race press conference yesterday, Australian champ Luke Plapp explained his team’s ambitious goal of winning every stage and the overall. And so it was little surprise when Plapp himself came to the front with around 5 km remaining, sprinter Caleb Ewan tucked safely at the end of the Jayco AlUla train.

Had Ewan won, we might have described it as a demonstrative and purposeful ride well executed. Instead, the temptation is to say that the Australian team burned their matches too early. With 1.2 km to go, Ewan ended up on the back of the Bora-Hansgrohe train, on Welsford’s wheel. At that point, though, he was still in with a great shot.

But when Danny van Poppel dropped Welsford off with just under 150 metres to go, it was quickly evident that Ewan wasn’t quite at his best. And that’s not entirely surprising.

Ewan missed Saturday night’s criterium due to illness, his absence being a big part of why Bora-Hansgrohe got no help in the chase. Ewan also sat out his media commitments in the days before today’s stage.

And while Ewan’s seemingly on the mend, he clearly hasn’t recovered fully. The heat certainly didn’t help.

“My legs felt alright but when the intensity went up, I felt it, and my heart rate was super high, but that’s normal with the heat,” Ewan said immediately post-stage. “As the Tour goes on, hopefully I will get better,” Ewan said. “I was on Sam’s wheel, in perfect position, but I just didn’t have the legs to come around him.”

While Ewan and his team will look back on fourth place with a sense of disappointment, there’ll be no such feeling at Bora-Hansgrohe. In the team’s first sprint opportunity with Welsford at the helm, the team rode an impressively patient lead-out. If there was some doubt about the timing of Jayco AlUla’s lead-out, there was no such question about Bora-Hansgrohe’s.

“For us the big focus was getting the lead-out right,” Welsford said. “We knew it was a bit of a headwind so we didn’t want to be on the front too early. Coming into the sprint it was really hard. We were in the wind a little bit and I was like ‘Woah, I don’t know how my legs feel.’ But once you get that red line fever, when you can see the finish, you just put your head down and give it everything you got.”

Welsford was full of praise for his final lead-out man, Van Poppel, who showed again today why he’s regarded by many as the world’s best in that role.

“He was amazing,” Welsford said. “He was also rallying us in the last 3 km, keeping us calm, telling us where to go. Everyone says he can almost see it before it happens, he can see stuff in slow motion. That’s such one of his biggest strengths to have in the team.

“He was incredible in the last 400 meters or something he did before me, before the sprint. I was on the wheel and I was like ‘Oooh, this is already hard for me on the wheel’ and then I had to kick.”

You wouldn’t know it from their display today, but Bora-Hansgrohe didn’t actually spend a whole lot of time practising their lead-out with Welsford over the European winter.

“I did a training camp in Mallorca with them and we only did a couple of simulation efforts,” Welsford explained. “But, I mean, you don’t need too much training when you’ve got Danny van Poppel, Ryan Mullen and all the boys in front of you. They’re pretty special.”

This is Welsford’s second victory at WorldTour level, after taking a stage of the Renewi Tour in 2023. With this win, though, he gets his 2024 season off to a perfect start with his new team, building confidence for the days, weeks, and months ahead.

“Sprinters feed off confidence and the only time you get that is if you’re getting good results,” he said. “So for us to get the first win of the season here as a team, first race together, it’s good signs for what we can do together.” 

The stage win also drops Welsford into the ochre jersey of overall leader – a first at any race in his pro career. The natural question is how long the West Australian can manage to hold onto the jersey.

Stage 2, while perhaps most likely to end in a sprint finish of some kind, is far from a regulation sprint stage. A short but steep climb that peaks just 8 km from the line could well thwart Welsford and the other fast-finishers. Indeed it was Plapp who soloed to victory here three years ago during the Santos Festival of Cycling.

“I think tomorrow could be tricky with the climb 10 km out from the finish,” Welsford said. “I think if the GC teams really decide to light it up on us it could be hard. We’ll have to see. I think if a lot of sprint teams want to try to keep it together then it possibly could work but it’s quite a difficult climb I think.”

Regardless of how stage 2 unfolds, we’ll likely see another battle or two between the fastmen before the week is out. Hopefully Ewan has fully recovered from his illness by then, giving us a clearer idea of how the best sprinters stack up. For now though, early bragging rights go to Welsford and Bora-Hansgrohe.

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