In a grassy clearing at the top of Mt. Lofty, the horn on the Israel-Premier Tech team car is blaring. New sports director Daryl Impey keeps the horn going as he finds his team’s allocated parking space. His fellow sports director, Sam Bewley, has his left arm out the passenger’s-side window, his fist pumping the air.
Impey pulls the car to a stop and he, Bewley, and their team mechanic jump out. Bewley, in bare feet, gingerly picks his way across the uneven ground as he runs around the front of the car. “Stage win and the overall!” the Kiwi yells. “What a week! What a week!”
“Come here my boy!” Impey yells at Bewley. Impey’s on his toes as he wraps his former teammate in a giant hug. “Fucking hell, brother!” responds Bewley. “Great job this week, man,” Impey says. “Ah, it’s so good.”
More hugs are shared as Bewley and Impey celebrate with two team staffers. Stevie Williams, the team’s 27-year-old Welshman, has just won the final stage of the Santos Tour Down Under in the ochre leader’s jersey, taking out the race overall.
As Impey, Bewley, and co wait for their riders to arrive, I ask Impey how he’s feeling in this moment.
“It feels like I won Down Under!” he says. He’d know better than almost anyone what that feels like – he’s a two-time winner of this race. “No it’s special. We came as underdogs, and then everyone just [believed] in the plan and we … I mean, what can you say? The guy wins Down Under, wins the stage. It’s amazing.”
Nick Schultz and Derek Gee are the first riders to arrive at Israel-Premier Tech’s temporary encampment. Schultz is still trying to get off his bike as Bewley envelops him in a hug. “We won Tour Down Under, brother!” Bewley exclaims. Schultz drops his bike to the ground to fully commit to the embrace.
Simon Clarke arrives, dropping his bike too, and hugs Daryl Impey. “So proud of you boys,” says Impey. “You boys were awesome”, adds Bewley as he hugs Clarke. “You guys were unreal.”
Much like yesterday’s stage 5 to Willunga Hill, today’s final stage came down to a small handful of riders. On the third and final time up Mt. Lofty, with just 1.6 km to race, stage 2 winner Isaac del Toro (UAE Team Emirates) surged away from a thinned-down peloton with only a few riders able to follow him. A late surge from that group by Groupama-FDJ’s Laurence Pithie looked promising, but coming into the final sprint, just four riders were in contention: Williams, in the leader’s jersey, Jhonatan Narvaez (Ineos Grenadiers), Del Toro, and Bart Lemmen (Visma-Lease a Bike).
Williams was the first to launch his sprint, with just under 200 metres to go, and when he did, no one could come around him. He’d come into the final stage on the same time as yesterday’s winner Oscar Onley (DSM-Firmenich PostNL) and with Narvaez and Del Toro within five seconds. His overall victory was anything but assured. But winning the final stage was the ultimate way of defending his lead.
“I’m over the moon,” Williams says later. “Yeah, really happy, really pleased to finish it off. I knew we’d give ourselves a good chance today on Lofty – it’s a perfect finish for me. So yeah, to come in a small select group like that I would always back myself going to the line in a sprint. To do it in this jersey as well makes it even more special.”
While Williams seemed to do it easily in the final sprint, there seemed to be a few nervous moments in the run-in. On several occasions in the final 10 km Williams seemed to find himself out of position, well back in the bunch. He wasn’t all that concerned.
“The road opens up so wide on Lofty so if you make a small mistake, you can correct it pretty quickly,” he says. “Nick [Schultz] just brought me back to the front and it was just a great job by him. Great job by all the boys today and all week. I’m just really proud to race with them and they’ve done a great job for me. This is definitely a team victory.”
It’s understandable that Impey saw Israel-Premier Tech as underdogs. The only ProTeam in a field full of WorldTour outfits, Israel-Premier Tech barely rated a mention in previews of the race’s possible GC contenders. All going well, George Bennett was perhaps an outside chance of the top five overall, in a race that many expected Jayco-AlUla to win with Simon Yates or Luke Plapp.
When a reporter describes Israel-Premier Tech as underdogs to Williams, the TDU winner seems almost offended.
“I thought the team we bought here, we were absolutely nailed on to do something, to be honest,” he says. “I think the caliber of riders we had here, I think we were backing ourselves to come here and perform. We weren’t here to make the numbers up for sure.”
The team had come in with Corbin Strong as its designated leader, and the Kiwi had started well, his second place on stage 2 earning him six bonus seconds and moving him to second overall. Strong would later fall ill and ultimately leave the race on stage 5. Thankfully, they had another option in Williams who’d taken four bonus seconds with third on stage 2, and was sitting inside the top 5 overall.
“We used Corbin as a decoy the next two days, actually,” Impey reveals. “The whole time everybody’s watching Corbin, talking about Corbin, we were just keeping Stevie back out of the limelight.”
Fast forward a few days and Williams is now the first Briton to win the Tour Down Under and the first European winner since 2013 (Tom-Jelte Slagter).
While Williams was riding under the radar until yesterday’s Willunga stage, he’ll likely have more eyes on him when he heads back to Europe in the coming weeks. He’s a rider that’s enjoyed success there in the past – a stage win and the overall at the 2021 CRO Race, a stage of the 2022 Tour de Suisse, a stage and the overall at the 2023 Arctic Race of Norway – but his overall win here is the biggest of his career.
“It’s nice to actually start a season well, for once,” he tells the gathered press. “If you look at my career over the last five or six years, it’s been pretty up and down. I think from here, it’s definitely something I want to kick on with and make sure the season is consistent and not just slow down. I want to really kick on and really try and race the best in Europe as well.”
His next big goals will likely come in April.
“The next most important thing will be the Ardennes Classics,” he says. “I’d like to go there and try and get a good block in and then once we know which Grand Tour I’m going to do when I get back to Europe, it’ll be all go for that then.”
Williams has shown himself this week to be a rider who’s more than comfortable on shorter climbs, and who has a strong kick at the end. But how does he see himself? And what might the future hold?
“It’s definitely a question I get asked; I get asked about whether GC is an option in the future,” he says. “But I think for the moment I’m definitely a puncheur with a fast finish. I think short, sharp climbs, being able to go into the red, recover, red, recover, I think that’s where I’m at [at] the moment but the longer climbs is something I really want to kick on with and try and improve as well.
“But if this is right for me at the moment and I’m winning then why change something?”
Behind the presentation podium, Williams waits to go on stage to accept his accolades. His teammate Guillaume Boivin walks up the stairs to where Williams is waiting, and the pair embrace, holding each other for a good few seconds. A few minutes later, Williams notices more of his teammates gathered backstage. He walks down the stairs and embraces them all, one by one.
For Williams and his Israel-Premier Tech team, there are bigger races ahead than the Tour Down Under; bigger goals where success will be valued even more highly than in the season’s first WorldTour stage race. For now though there can be no doubting the significance of winning Australia’s biggest race.
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