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Six takeaways from the Australian summer races

With the biggest Aussie races now done, let's look back at the stand-out performances and what they can tell us.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 29.01.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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Australia’s international summer of cycling is all done for another year. As local and international riders leave Australia behind and head to the Middle East or Europe for the next phase of their season, let’s take a look back at what we’ve learned over the last few weeks.

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After a great start, it really wasn’t GreenEdge’s summer.

Australia’s only WorldTour team came out swinging at the Aussie Road Nationals. They won the men’s criterium (Caleb Ewan), went 1-2-3 in the women’s criterium (Ruby Roseman-Gannon, Georgia Baker, and Alex Manly), took the top four places in the men’s time trial (won by Luke Plapp), went 1-3 in the women’s road race (Roseman-Gannon and Manly), and then, to cap it all off, swept the podium in the elite men’s race (Plapp, Chris Harper, and Kell O’Brien).

Yes, the top local team should do well at Nationals, but this was easily Jayco AlUla / Liv AlUla Jayco’s best-ever Road Nats since the team began in 2012. It seemed as if the team would dominate at Tour Down Under and Cadel’s Race as well. It turned out to be a frustrating few weeks for the local outfit.

The team stayed positive throughout, but it was a frustrating home campaign.

In the women’s TDU, Georgia Baker took second in the opening stage … and that was the highlight of the team’s race. Ahead of the men’s TDU, new recruit Luke Plapp spoke confidently of the team targetting every stage and the overall (which we loved to hear), but nothing really fell the team’s way all week.

New-old sprinter Caleb Ewan was sick at the start of the race and ultimately couldn’t manage a stage win. His fourth on the opening stage was the closest the team got to victory and Simon Yates – the pre-race GC favourite – was ultimately seventh overall.

Cadel’s Race and its side events offered the chance for redemption but that wasn’t to be either. At the Geelong Classic, the women of Liv AlUla Jayco finished second with Baker, and in the Surf Coast Classic, Ewan was the team’s best finisher in 12th. The frustrating results continued on the weekend, too, with Ella Wyllie and Kell O’Brien both 12th as the team’s best finishers in the women’s and men’s WorldTour Cadel’s Races.

In all, it was a tough campaign for Australia’s team, after such a promising start. There will likely have been some robust discussions within the team camp before they all head over to Europe to begin the bulk of the season.

Thankfully for the GreenEdge organisation, though, it hasn’t been an entirely terrible January. Dylan Groenewegen and Michael Matthews each won a race last week, which will go some of the way to salving the pain of missing out on home soil.

Israel-Premier Tech exceeded all expectations.

As the only ProTeam (second-tier) squad in the men’s Tour Down Under, Israel-Premier Tech didn’t come in with much pressure. All eyes were on Jayco AlUla, and no one really expected Israel-Premier Tech to challenge the 18 WorldTour teams when it came to the GC.

In the end though, Israel-Premier Tech won the final stage and the overall with Stevie Williams who showed himself to be a fantastic all-rounder, very reminiscent of his now-sports director, Daryl Impey. Williams had some good results prior to Tour Down Under, but his first WorldTour GC victory surely boosted his reputation among a great many.

Corbin Strong also impressed on Aussie soil. The Kiwi sprinter was second on a stage of TDU before withdrawing due to illness, and he took third at the Surf Coast Classic. At Cadel’s Race, Israel-Premier Tech took it upon themselves to ride the front for well over 100 km (with Guillaume Boivin) and Strong ended up a respectable fourth.

Both Strong and Williams look set for a promising year ahead, and perhaps their team does too, more generally. Israel-Premier Tech is a team much-maligned as a “retirement home” for ageing riders, but they rode well beyond that reputation over the past few weeks. Of course, it’s only January and the bigger, more important races are yet to come. Will we see the same intent and success as the season rolls on?

AG Insurance-Soudal look right at home in the WorldTour.

Just as Israel-Premier Tech stood out on the men’s side, AG Insurance-Soudal impressed on the women’s side. Tour Down Under was the team’s first race as a WorldTour outfit but they rode like a team with far greater experience.

It wasn’t just that Sarah Gigante won on Willunga Hill and took out the Tour Down Under overall. And it wasn’t just that Ally Wollaston was super strong to win the stage 1 sprint. It was the way the whole team took on the race.

AG Insurance-Soudal rode with intent and weren’t afraid to mix it with the biggest teams. They were particularly impressive in helping Gigante with her positioning throughout – something that Gigante has admitted she is still struggling with.

Gigante and Wollaston have clearly taken a step up in 2024, and Anya Louw also seems to have improved. As with Israel-Premier Tech, it will be curious to see how the team goes once the so-called “real races” begin over in Europe.

The men’s sprint battles are shaping up very nicely.

Sam Welsford was easily the best sprinter of the men’s Tour Down Under, winning three stages off the back of the best lead-out duo in the world: Ryan Mullen and Danny van Poppel. Moving to Bora-Hansgrohe this year and having those lead-out riders to work with has certainly helped Welsford’s chances, but the West Australian appears to have improved as well.

But again, as good as Welsford was at Tour Down Under – and he was delighted to start the season so well – it’s at the bigger European races where the wins will really matter. Especially at the Giro d’Italia – one of his big goals for the season.

The question is, is this the year that Welsford steps up and takes his place among the top-tier sprinters? The sprint field at TDU was good, but how will he go when pitted against the very best in the world; the likes of Jasper Philipsen, Fabio Jakobsen, Tim Merlier, Arnaud De Lie, Olav Kooi, Jonathan Milan, and Dylan Groenewegen? And will Ewan factor into that discussion once he and his lead-out find their feet? (Stay posted to Escape for an interview feature with Ewan, coming soon).

It’s all going to be very interesting to watch.

It feels like the Australian summer is in a state of flux.

It’s a bit of a strange time for the Aussie summer of racing. This was the first summer since Bay Crits was cancelled, meaning riders didn’t have their traditional pre-Nationals hit-out to test their form. Nationals is about to leave Ballarat for the first time in nearly two decades, the new host of Perth changing the complexion of the event entirely. The Herald Sun Tour is still missing from the calendar and its future remains unclear. 

Tour Down Under remains solid, with the women’s race looking particularly promising for the future. But then there’s Cadel’s Race which perhaps has some question marks hanging over it.

“Cadel’s” is a beautiful race, but what might the future hold?

Mid-week races returned to Cadel’s Race this year, which gave international teams more incentive to stick around post-TDU (particularly the men’s teams). But even still, only 10 of the 18 men’s WorldTour teams were in attendance, down from the 11 last year, and the 15 from the edition before that (2020, pre-pandemic).

The word from the inside is that the race is getting harder and harder to run, thanks to rising costs, and the lower attendance of men’s WorldTour teams is not a great sign. There’s a legitimate question of whether it should actually be a men’s WorldTour race at this point.

As one of the WorldTour events created after 2016, it’s not mandatory for men’s WT teams to attend (hence the low turn-out), but a UCI spokesperson tells me that there’s no minimum number of WT required for it to remain a WorldTour event, like there used to be. Even still, if only around half of the WorldTour teams turn up, and two Continental teams are invited in order to get the startlist up to a still-small 88 riders, the UCI will surely be asking whether the race still belongs in the WorldTour.

(It’s worth noting that, by contrast, the women’s race had nine WorldTour teams in attendance this year, compared with six last year and in 2020.)

I really hope Cadel’s Race does stick around. While it’s not as popular as Tour Down Under – among riders, fans, or the media – it is invariably an interesting race that tends to produce some fascinating results. Speaking of which …

We have plenty of exciting young riders to keep an eye on.

It’s almost become a cliche to talk about how the stars of the sport are getting younger, but it really does feel that way. And we saw that in the Aussie summer, with a whole host of young riders thrusting themselves into the limelight and promising big things in the future. 

Here’s a selection:

Isaac del Toro (20) The Mexican’s win on stage 2 of the Tour Down Under was one of the highlights of the summer, a swashbuckling late move that really shouldn’t have worked. When Del Toro won the Tour de l’Avenir last year it was already clear that he was a star of the future, but winning on your second-ever day of WorldTour racing? Not even Tadej Pogačar did that. 

Nienke Vinke (19) – While most of the accolades on Willunga Hill went to Sarah Gigante, runner-up Nienke Vinke was very impressive in her own right. A second-year pro, the young Dutchwoman said she won’t get more chances to ride for herself this year, but hopefully that changes after her excellent result at TDU.

Oscar Onley (21) – Speaking of Willunga, a few of us had Oscar Onley pegged as a possible contender for the queen stage of the men’s TDU, and the young Scot lived up to that expectation in a big way. Onley is a great climber with a strong kick on him, and we’ll hear plenty about him in the years ahead.

Rosita Reijnhout (19) – I’m not embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard of Reijnhout until the final kilometres of Saturday’s Cadel’s Race. And judging by her results prior to that race, I’d say I wouldn’t have been alone. But the way this young Dutchwoman rode to victory this past weekend was hard to ignore. She was super strong on the climbs, and she had great tactical nous to attack when she did. One to watch for sure.

Dominika Włodarczyk (left) had an impressive trip to Australia too. Expect more from the 23-year-old in future as well.

Jackson Medway (19) – You can read all about Medway’s impressive trajectory in a story I wrote at TDU, but if the young Queenslander isn’t on a pro team in 2025 I’ll be shocked. Great at Nationals, great at TDU, super strong in the break at Cadel’s Race – he’s got a massive future ahead of him.

Laurence Pithie (21)  – Pithie was excellent on the final stage of the Tour Down Under but probably should have waited for the sprint rather than attacking late. It was super impressive to see him learn from that and be so patient in the finale at Cadel’s Race, taking the biggest win of his career as a result. The young Kiwi can sprint, he can climb, and he’ll win plenty of races in the next few years.

What did we miss? What will you take from the 2024 Australian summer of cycling? Let us know in the comments below!

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