When you think of Willunga Hill at the Santos Tour Down Under, you don’t tend to think of sprint finishes. You think of solo winners, and more specifically, one solo winner: Richie Porte. In six of the nine Willunga finishes in the men’s Tour Down Under before today, the winner had a time gap back to second place. In that sense, today’s 10th summit finish was something of a rarity.
On this occasion three riders made the final left-hand bend into the finishing straight with a chance of winning: Oscar Onley (DSM-Firmenich PostNL), Stevie Williams (Israel-Premier Tech), and Jhonatan Narvaez (Ineos Grenadiers). In the end it was 21-year-old Scottish rider Onley who took line honours and with it, his first professional victory.
To many onlookers, that result might have been a surprise. Look at the top 10 on the stage and you’ll see a Grand Tour winner (Simon Yates), a two-time world champion (Julian Alaphilippe), and the overall leader of the Tour Down Under, who happened to be the winner of last year’s mountainous Tour de l’Avenir (Isaac del Toro).
But to those in Onley’s camp, today’s win was anything but a shock.
“I’m not the least bit surprised,” said DSM-Firmenich PostNL’s Chris Hamilton immediately after congratulating his teammate at the finish. “He’s been a massive talent ever since he came through the DSM development team.
“I did my first race with him a couple of years ago, in Tour of Croatia, and it was a big race for him to sort of find his feet, and then he’s going toe to toe with the Tour de France winner.”
In that 2022 CRO Race, Onley finished second to Jonas Vingegaard on two uphill finishes. He was the only rider able to finish on the same time as the two-time Tour winner. Onley finished that raced in third overall.
“From there, I think he raised a few eyebrows,” continued Hamilton. “He’s just been chipping away, and developing slowly. He’s always had a massive engine, but it just takes a bit of time to find out how and when to use it. And he’s worked it out.”
Winning the stage today didn’t just require a world-class climbing performance from Onley; he also needed to finish if off in the sprint. The fact he was able to that also didn’t shock Hamilton.
“I’ve done quite a few training rides with him and in the lead up to this race, Oscar and I were training a little bit more than the other boys,” he said. “Every day we had the same training and every day I thought I was going pretty well and then every day he just towelled me up. So I knew he was on good form.”
Onley’s sports director, Luke Roberts, told a similar story.
“We’ve prepared him well for this race, he was out here for training last week and he set one of the top 10 fastest times up here in training, so we knew what he was capable of today,” he said. “We tried to look after him the last four days, set him up well for today, and knew he’d be right up there. So the stage was not a surprise.”
That belief was reflected by Onley himself. He might be a young rider, but he knew he was capable of a ride like he produced today.
“To be honest, I came here with quite high expectations,” Onley said, after visiting the podium to accept stage honours and the best young rider jersey. “Obviously you come into every race wanting to win, but I really felt like I had a good shot if I played it right. It was more about making sure I played it smart and didn’t waste energy in the wrong points.
“I really have to credit the team over the winter who have helped me with this kind of tactical game, because I think in the past, maybe I’ve had the legs to get better results. But I’ve not been tactically so smart. So it’s something I’ve really focused on the last few weeks.”
The stage followed a similar script to the opening four stages of this year’s Tour Down Under. A small breakaway got up the road, led for most of the day, and then was caught inside the closing kilometres. The race was mostly together after the first of two ascents of Willunga before the pace increased in the bunch on approach to the second and final ascent.
For DSM-Firmenich PostNL, the plan was to keep Onley as safe as possible, knowing what he was capable of on the final climb.
“We just wanted to make it as easy as possible for Oscar,” Hamilton said. “He was our main objective for the day – nothing else mattered except for keeping his nose out of the wind, keeping him safe. And the boys did it perfectly.
“He was a bit nervous in the bunch in the beginning of the week, and just in the last four days, the improvement we’ve seen in him is massive.”
When the race hit the bottom of Willunga again, Jayco AlUla’s Chris Harper did much of the early damage, thinning the bunch to just a handful of riders. When he got clear with 2.2 km remaining, only Onley was able to follow, not that he was all that certain of himself.
“When Harper went I followed him, and at first I wasn’t really sure, but I still felt quite comfortable,” Onley said. “And then, yeah, I was expecting someone else to go.”
Harper and Onley’s move was neutralised a short time later, before Harper tried again to get clear. The most dangerous move, though, came when Harper’s team leader and one of the overall favourites, Simon Yates, surged with around 1 km to race. But he too wasn’t able to get away, and a small bunch sprint was looking increasingly likely.
Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step) hit out from the lead group with a little over 200 metres to go, again leaving Onley a little uncertain of how to manage his effort from there.
“I wasn’t really sure what to do,” he said. “I felt strong, but … I really didn’t want to go too early. I think Alaphilippe went first and I got into his wheel and then I think he maybe went a bit too early, and I managed to kind of just kick off his wheel.”
That kick was enough to distance Alaphilippe, and to hold off Williams and Narváez in the dash for the line. Six seconds later, overnight leader Isaac del Toro (UAE Team Emirates) crossed the line in eighth place, losing his ochre jersey.
With Onley taking a 10-second time bonus for his win, and Williams taking six seconds to add to the four he claimed by finishing third on stage 2, the pair are now locked on the same time atop the GC. As per UCI rules, the sum of each riders’ stage placings is then used to break the deadlock. With a total of 111 to Onley’s 140, Williams now takes the overall lead.
“I knew that this race, the parcours is suited to me,” Williams said after donning the ochre leader’s jersey. “So yeah, I was confident coming here with a good team and it’s nice to be in this jersey now. It’s not over – we have one more day, and we’ll try and do everything.”
And so the stage is set for a final-stage showdown with seven riders within 15 seconds on GC. Sunday’s stage 6 features another uphill finish, this one on Mt. Lofty where the riders will complete the finishing climb three times. While longer on paper than today’s Willunga ascent, the Mt. Lofty climb isn’t as tough, possibly opening the way for another small group to sprint it out for victory.
Mt. Lofty also played host to the final stage of last year’s race. On that occasion Simon Yates won the stage ahead of eventual winner Jay Vine, the pair just a couple seconds ahead of another 15 or so riders.
Roberts says the finish to the final stage suits Onley better than the Willunga finish does, but the young Scot believes he’ll have his work cut out trying to wrestle the ochre jersey from Williams’ shoulders.
“It’s gonna be pretty tough,” he said. “Stevie was obviously up there in the sprint today on my wheel, so I think tomorrow is gonna be really tight, but we’ll give everything and hopefully come away with that jersey.”
There are also time bonuses available at the day’s two intermediate sprints, which are likely to be hotly contested.
“It’ll be a tough stage; it’ll be hard to control,” Williams said. “Everybody’s still very close there on GC at the top. The five or six guys are all within a handful of seconds. So I expect a pretty stressful day.”
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