If Bora-Hansgrohe are finding it challenging to adapt to life with a new sprinter, you certainly wouldn’t know it. After three days of the 2024 Santos Tour Down Under, Sam Welsford’s first race with the team, the Aussie sprinter has won two stages, and done so with apparent ease.
Today’s stage into Campbelltown always looked like it would end in a sprint, but the run-in was far from simple. After catching the last of the breakaway riders with 30 km to race, the peloton had to negotiate the fast and technical descent of Gorge Road.
The pace was high, riders were nervous, and the battle for position at the front of the bunch was fierce. A nasty crash with around 15 km to go brought down a handful of riders, including Australian champion Luke Plapp who leaves today’s stage with far less skin than he started.
But while many teams expended energy on the descent, trying to keep their leaders out of trouble, Bora-Hansgrohe rode an impressively patient finale. It wasn’t until around 3 km to go, with the descent complete, that the German team appeared near the front, working to get Welsford into position.
“We knew at the top of Gorge [Road] we had to be in a good position with the crazy downhill that is quite technical with lots of corners,” Welsford said post-victory, having taken the lead in the points classification. “The boys did a really good job of just holding the right and making sure we weren’t too early and making sure that we kept out of the wind because we knew if you got caught on the front too early, you could really go backwards at that speed.”
When Welsford won the stage 1 sprint into Tanunda he did so from third wheel on the road. Only his teammates Ryan Mullen and Danny van Poppel were in front of him. It was the same story on today’s stage 3, with Bora-Hansgrohe again leading the sprint from the front.
“Obviously [with] the nature of the headwind finish people wanted to come from behind and obviously the best wheel to take in their eyes was ours,” said Mullen. “So no one really challenged us for the front.
“Sam obviously has the power from the track to handle our lead-out. It’s a pretty hard lead-out. Nine times out of 10 we take it on from the front. We just use brawn as opposed to brains, and that clearly suits Sam.
“Sam’s got the watts to handle it. Not a lot of sprinters do. A lot of guys like to come up the wheels, but Sam’s got the HP [horsepower] to actually take the wind on and just lay down the watts.”
When he did lay down those watts, Welsford did it easily. He sat up before the line and even had time to look behind as he celebrated. For a moment it looked like Elia Viviani (Ineos Grenadiers) might snatch victory, but another stamp on the pedals from Welsford ensured he wouldn’t be beaten.
“I thought I went a little bit too early, but I could see the finish – it’s a bit hard to judge,” Welsford said. “But we were going so fast, and I felt good so I just committed. Then I could see someone kind of underneath my shoulder and I went to maybe just park it a little bit too early and salute but then I know Viviani was behind me. He’s always super smart with coming in the last minute so I had to make sure I didn’t lose it.”
Normally when a sprinter changes teams, it takes at least a few races for the lead-out to gel. Welsford and co have made it work immediately, despite only doing a few simulation efforts at a training camp. To Mullen, that immediate success is the result of great trust between sprinter and lead-out riders.
“I mean, Danny for the last two years just knows to stick to me,” Mullen said. “He knows even if it’s not perfect we have the horsepower to fix our mistakes. We just have that trust and it’s just been drilled into Sam that he needs to follow Danny. Because even if I fuck up, [Danny] doesn’t.”
That trust between riders was also mentioned by sports director Bernie Eisel at the finish. He added that the instruction to Welsford from the start has been very simple.
“I said to Sam Welsford on the first day, first race here, ‘Just stay with the boys, just trust them. Don’t start thinking.’ A sprinter should never think, he should just sit on the wheel and just follow,” Eisel said. “And that’s what he’s doing and he’s pretty comfortable then.”
Welsford said that while he did make some decisions about positioning on the run-in, he has found it easy to put trust in his new lead-out men.
“With a guy like Danny and Ryan in front of you, you can literally turn your brain off and they’ll do the whole thing for you,” he said. “They’re so smart. And they also are on the same wavelength with everything we do, and Danny knows exactly when to go.
“I mean with those guys leading me, out it’s almost hard not to get it right.”
Bora-Hansgrohe has definitely gotten it right in their two opportunities so far this race. They’ll almost certainly get another on tomorrow’s stage 4, when the race heads from Murray Bridge to Port Elliot south of Adelaide. With much of the race in proximity to the coast, there’s always the chance of crosswinds, but if it does end up in a sprint, it’ll be hard to bet against a third win for Welsford.
Isaac del Toro (UAE Team Emirates) continues to lead the race after finishing safely in the bunch.
Tom McCracken contributed reporting to this story.
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