Kerry and Scott Gigante run frantically past the finish line at Willunga Hill and up towards a growing huddle of riders and media personnel. They’re shoving barriers out of the way, pushing into areas they’re not really supposed to be, inching ever closer to their target.
Kerry hauls one final barrier aside and then the pair are on the road, working their way towards Sarah. Kerry envelopes her daughter in a giant hug. Scott joins in, holding arms around both his sister and mother. Sarah is sobbing.
This is the biggest moment of the 23-year-old’s career. A career that’s been defined by a handful of brilliant moments – national titles, a first pro win in Europe, racing at the Olympics – but even more tough moments. Serious injuries, long-term illnesses, even a heart scare. Kerry and Scott have been there throughout.
Today, Sarah’s won the third and final stage of the 2024 Santos Tour Down Under, blowing the legs off a very strong field on the race-ending ascent of Willunga Hill. It’s her first WorldTour win, and one that delivered GC success as well.
One by one Gigante’s AG Insurance-Soudal teammates start arriving. One by one they wrap Gigante in a giant embrace. “So proud of you,” says Kimberley (Le Court) Pienaar. “The first of many.”
Ally Wollaston, winner of stage 1, is particularly energetic in congratulating Gigante, reflecting the amount of work the Kiwi champ did in supporting her Australian teammate throughout the day.
Gigante is as grateful to her teammates as they are proud of her. And understandably so – while it was Gigante who got the job done on Willunga, she wouldn’t have had that opportunity were it not for her colleagues.
Gigante’s positioning and confidence in the bunch have often been viewed as her main weakness and that was highlighted again today. Gigante was frequently caught out of position on the 93.4 km stage. She regularly had to fight her way back up the outside of the bunch, her face in the wind. On several occasions she found herself on the very front of the peloton, again in the wind. At other crucial moments, she found herself at the very back of the bunch, right when the race threatened to split apart.
Indeed, with around 35 km to go, with crosswinds lashing the field and causing havoc for many, Gigante was dropped from the front group momentarily. It would have been little surprise had she not made it to the base of Willunga with a chance to contest the win.
“That’s clearly my weakness,” Gigante says later of her positioning. “I think I just need to race more. Even though I have been pro for a few years I’ve hardly raced. So I still believe I can improve a lot. That’s what I’ll aim to do with more race days. I just need practice.”
“You can see that Sarah didn’t race much the last years,” adds her sports director Servais Knaven. “She needed a lot of help. But she gained a lot of confidence today, I think, by having such good teammates with her.”
Those teammates ensured Gigante was in ideal position when it mattered most: at the bottom of Willunga Hill with 3 km to go.
It was here, three years ago, at the domestic-level Santos Festival of Cycling, that Gigante attacked, ultimately putting a minute into her nearest rival. Today, she opted for the same tactic – a courageous move given the block headwind that was blowing down the climb.
“I was a little bit worried when she said ‘I want to attack from the bottom,’” admits Knaven.
“Originally, the team was saying maybe I should go later – go where Richie [Porte] goes [around 1.5 km to go] – but I said ‘No, I want to go from the bottom and I believe I can do it,’” Gigante says. “Even though I have no results for years and hardly any races, I knew that I was in great form.
“I’m back with my old coach Dylan Lindsey and we just said the steepest part’s at the bottom and a longer effort suits me and I believe I can do it. So I went from the very bottom.”
It was little surprise when Gigante’s attack came – all her rivals were expecting it. The question was whether anyone could stay with her.
We had our answer within less than a kilometre when only a handful of riders remained on Gigante’s wheel: stage 2 winner and overall leader Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-Suez), Gigante’s fellow Aussie Neve Bradbury (Canyon-SRAM), and 19-year-old Dutchwoman Nienke Vinke (DSM-Firmenich PostNL) in what was the best ride of her young career. Pre-race favourite Amanda Spratt (Lidl-Trek) was gone, as too were any other would-be contenders.
“I looked behind after, I don’t know, maybe a minute and … there were still quite a few girls and I was like, ‘Uh oh, what if it’s a sprint at the top of Willunga? That wouldn’t suit me,’” Gigante recalls. “So I just knew I had to keep drilling it despite the headwind and despite everyone sitting on and yeah, slowly, one by one they dropped off.”
With around 2 km still to climb, Gigante surged again, dropped Uttrup Ludwig and Vinke, opened a gap, and rode away on her own.
“I could hear all my teammates and my DS Servais in the radio, they were just saying ‘Go Sarah! Go Sarah! Go Sarah!’” Gigante says. “I was just doing it for them because they worked so hard for me.”
By the time Gigante crossed the line she’d put 16 seconds between herself and second-placed Vinke. Uttrup Ludwig finished well down in 14th, over a minute behind Gigante. The stage win propelled Gigante from 16th on GC right to the top of the standings.
“We knew she had good legs today but I didn’t know they were that good,” Wollatson says. “I’ve never seen anything like it. We’re just so proud of her.”
As Gigante makes her way down to the podium for official presentations, she crosses paths with Uttrup Ludwig. The Dane, so convincing in victory a day earlier, pats Gigante on the back and offers her heartfelt congratulations. “So strong!” Uttrup Ludwig says.
There’s so much of Gigante’s career left to go, but it feels like, as of today, a new chapter has begun. Regardless of how the rest of 2024 goes, this season is a success. The comeback is complete.
She started out as such a strong and promising junior, burst into the senior ranks with an elite road title as an 18-year-old and then, through a series of unfortunate events, her career stagnated. Her tenure with Movistar, while peppered with moments of happiness, was a largely frustrating experience.
Joining AG Insurance-Soudal in 2024 was a much-needed reset. Even that started with heartbreak. In the Australian Nationals time trial 10 days ago – her first race of the year and one she prepared heavily for – a mechanical issue just before the start forced her to complete the race on a road bike.
But at the Tour Down Under this week, and especially on Willunga today, Gigante’s has charted a new course for herself.
“It means everything to me,” she says in the ochre leader’s jersey, after coming down from the presentation podium. “I was really hoping to come out and show I was back at Nationals, but with the bad luck in the time trial … I was proud of my road race, but I wasn’t able to get a result.
“So to come here and have such amazing support – my team believed in me even when I was struggling – it just means so much to me. To come back full circle after winning here three years ago and then since then, so many different things went wrong. Now I’m back and I’m so happy.”
On paper, this is easily the biggest win of her career. But for Gigante, she’s even prouder of how she handled the rocky road that took her here.
“I only had one race the whole year [in 2023] and just keeping going out there every single day – I didn’t miss a training session,” she says. “Just always believing in myself and listening to the people that [believed in me]. I think that that’s what I’m most proud of and this is just the result of that.”
Gigante’s next big race will be the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in Geelong, a little under two weeks from now. Her program isn’t clear beyond that, but whatever happens, there’s much to be excited about.
“This year I’m able to do more hilly races, more races in general,” she explains. “I’m looking forward to keep improving, hopefully – I have a long way to go but this does help my confidence.
“I think for now I’m just gonna celebrate this win. I was always happy with my wins but sometimes you just go on to the next goal straight away, and you don’t appreciate the moment enough. I think I’m just gonna be happy with this. And no matter what, I’m gonna be happy with 2024 because it’s already started out so well.”
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