It would be fair to say veteran Simon Gerrans has mastered Adelaide’s rolling terrain. After a crash removed him from contention on Stage 2, Gerrans accelerated away for victory the next day before adding another sprint win on the flat finish of Stage 4. He claimed 20 extra seconds courtesy of these wins and made himself an unassailable target for the waiting climbers. He had chipped away at their hopes all week collecting bonuses and a calm ride up Willunga Hill extinguished the flicker of hope Richie Porte breathed into BMC’s pursuit of back-to-back titles.
Three-time Willunga conqueror Porte missed out on the win by a handful of seconds – a fate he knows only too well. As safe a Tour Down Under bet as seeing an inflatable Koala, Porte left himself too much to do on old Willunga Hill. Whilst the BMC co-captain’s attack was relentless and highly impressive – barely pausing to relax back on his saddle – it had been left too late, resembling an attack on the stage and not the GC. He cut a cool customer in his post-race interview making all the right noises and taking a holistic view of the season, but his superior climbing had once again gone unrewarded. This time around the Ochre jersey eluded Porte by nine seconds, following two and ten in a succession of close deficits.
Gerrans’ win appeared more comfortable than Rohan Dennis’ twelve months ago but this wouldn’t have been the case had Porte not sacrificed eight seconds in a field split on Stage 4. The cause of the split was likely the speed on the descent of Port Elliot and it could have been cautious riding, a lapse in concentration or just bad luck that saw Porte distanced. Celebrating through the line as he completed a Willunga hatrick, it looked as though Porte could have found 18 seconds had that been the number needed to be crowned champion.
Australian success was prominent throughout the race and young Caleb Ewan continued on his rocket to the top of World Tour sprinting. The way in which he wins looks astoundingly easy. Orica put Ewan in good positions and when the right gap opens up he propels himself to the head of the pack. His sprinting style is unique; low on his frame, aerodynamic and seriously quick. It remains to be seen whether Ewan’s sprinting position will be the mould for the next generation or an individual style, never replicated. It would almost look bizarre if it wasn’t so successful. Ewan bookended the race with wins on Stages 1 and 6.
Together with Porte’s win and Orica’s four, Jay McCarthy made it a clean sweep for the home nation. Tinkoff’s McCarthy had a hugely impressive race emerging as a lot more than just a fast finisher. He jumped away from the bunch on the uphill finish of Stage 2, holding off Diego Ulissi and taking the race lead. In the days that followed McCarthy switched to a GC focus, riding steadily and looking alert at the front of the pack. Though Gerrans prized the jersey one day later, McCarthy remained second in the GC until Willunga Hill where, despite a solid showing, he fell to fourth.
To say the Australians possess higher fitness and motivation than the Europeans at this time of year would be to disregard the talents of the current crop. Gerrans, Dennis, Porte, Ewan, McCarthy and even Jack Bobridge will be taking serious challenges to the European mainland in the coming months. Ewan seemed to have the clear beating of Giro d’Italia points’ competition winner Giacomo Nizzolo and that looks unlikely to be reversed. Ulissi was another Italian who showed only patches of good form. A contender early on, the Lampre rider lost avoidable chunks of time on Stages 3 and 4 before a resurgent fourth on Willunga Hill.
Sky’s Sebastian Henao actually prevented a second consecutive Australian podium sweep and was next best to Porte on day five, cracking under his former teammates continued efforts to shake him off. The rest of Team Sky appeared to be building form – most obviously Geraint Thomas.
With a full set of stages this year and five of the last six titles going their way, Australia’s grip on the race looks tighter than ever.