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Who'll win the traditional queen stage on Willunga Hill?

Photo: Team Sky

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22.01.2016 @ 22:15 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Bonus seconds and a split in the peloton mean that Simon Gerrans has an almost insurmountable lead at the Tour Down Under and it seems that only disaster can prevent him from taking a record fourth overall win. However, he still needs to survive the traditional queen stage to Willunga Hill and with lots of riders still firmly in podium contention, the scene is set for another memorable battle on Australia’s most famous climb.

 

The course

As usual, Saturday is the day of the queen stage, with the general classification battle coming down to the infamous Willunga Hill. While the climb has featured on the route every year since 2002, the organizers decided to add an extra passage of its steep slopes in 2010, and in 2012 the stage finish was even moved to the top of the climb. This will again be the case for this year's queen stage which is completely identical to the one that decided the past four editions of the race.

 

The 151.5km stage starts in McLaren Vale and from there, the riders start a 39.7km lap that brings them to the coast and back to the starting city. The circuit will be tackled three times and the riders will even start a fourth lap. Along the way they will contest the intermediate sprints at the 63.4km and 103.4km marks respectively. Passing through the city of Willunga, the peloton will turn left and head up the famed climb for the first time. After the KOM sprint, they stay at a plateau for around 10km before tackling the fast descent back onto the original circuit. From there, they head back to Willunga to start the second and final ascent of the climb, with the final circuit having a length of 22.4km.

 

The category 1 climb is 3.0km long and has an average gradient of 7.5%. It is hardest at the bottom, with the gradient staying between 7.9% and 9.1% for the first 1.3km. From there, the gradient drops a bit and in the final 1.2km, it stays between 5.5% and 6.6%.

 

The teams of the favourites have always managed to bring things back together for a final sprint on the previous occasions, with Alejandro Valverde narrowly edging out Simon Gerrans in 2012, the Australian getting his revenge by beating Tom-Jelte Slagter one year later and Richie Porte dropping everybody to win the 2014 and 2015 editions of the stage. The uphill sprint suits the true puncheurs and Ardennes specialists more than the climbers and the gaps are never very big. Last year 19 riders finished within a minute of the winner and the top 6 riders were separated by less than 20 seconds.

 

 

 

 

The weather

The riders were fortunate to escape the rain and wind in yesterday’s stage and they are now likely to get to Adelaide on Sunday without having used their rain jackets. However, the weather has completely changed since the very hot start of the race as Saturday is set to be cloudy. The temperature will only reach around 23 degrees late in the afternoon.

 

The Willunga stage has often been marked by strong winds but for the 2016 edition it is unlikely to be the case. There will be a light wind from a southerly direction which means that the riders will have the wind coming from every direction on the flat opening circuit. There will be a cross-headwind on the climb and a tailwind in the exposed flat section after the top. It will be a crosswind on the descent and a headwind in the flat run-in to the final passage of the climb.

 

The favourites

Orica-GreenEDGE did exactly what we had predicted them to do in stage 4. Knowing that a 10-second time bonus could effectively seal the overall win, the team decided to sacrifice Caleb Ewan’s options and had Daryl Impey ride hard on the late climb to get rid of the faster sprinters. The effort paid off as most of the fast riders were dropped and as he only rejoined the peloton inside the final 10km, Giacomo Nizzolo was left too fatigued to beat Simon Gerrans who again proved that he is very hard to challenge in this kind of sprint at the end of a hard day.

 

While Orica-GreenEDGE’s tactics were spot-on, we are wondering what BMC and Sky were doing. Those were the teams to do most of the damage on the climb. Sky were obviously going for the stage win with Ben Swift but they knew that they would make it much easier for Gerrans to score bonus seconds in the process. However, they at least had a goal. BMC have no sprinter and nothing to gain so they only did the dirty job for their biggest rivals, possible destroying their chance of overall victory.

 

In any case, it now seems that only disaster can prevent Gerrans from winning the race. He may still have to survive the queen stage but Willunga Hill is not a challenge that creates big differences between the best riders. There is a 10-second time bonus at the finish so if he doesn’t finish in the top 3, Gerrans can allow himself to lose 18 seconds to most of his rivals, 16 seconds to Rohan Dennis and 4 seconds to Jay McCarthy. As he should be stronger than the latter, that is very unlikely to happen as he has proved to be one of the best climbers in the race.

 

This means that Gerrans can have a relatively defensive approach and there is no reason to go into the red zone to try to follow the best climbers. Furthermore, there will be a cross-headwind which will make it much harder to make a difference and it is worth remembering that the easier gradients mean that Willunga suits Gerrans much better than the Corkscrew. The riders have to make the difference in the steepest part near the bottom but with a headwind, it will be much harder to stay clear when the gradient eases off in the finale where Gerrans can use his explosiveness to take back any lost time. Even if he should lose the jersey, he still has a solid chance to pick up bonus seconds in the intermediate sprints on stage 6.

 

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be much to play for. The fight for the top 10 and podium positions are still at stake and the stage win on Willunga is the most prestigious of the entire race. It may be less about the overall win than it has been in the past but we are still in for an exciting showdown between some of the best puncheurs in the world.

 

The first part of the stage is usually not too exciting but sometimes the wind has played a role. This year there won’t be much of that so it should be a relatively calm affair. History shows that the race is always decided on the climb so there really isn’t much incentive to go on the attack. As the KOM classification is also likely to be decided by the GC riders, that’s not a reason to move either. Hence, we expect the break to be formed relatively early.

 

The riders will stay attentive until they are sure that the wind will not be a threat and then Orica-GreenEDGE will assume their position on the front of the peloton. With Gerrans’ comfortable lead, there is no reason to waste any energy by going for the intermediate sprints so the bonus seconds will probably be taken by the escapees.

 

Orica-GreenEDGE have no real incentive to bring the break back as they would love the 10 bonus seconds to disappear and so it will be left to other teams to lead the chase. BMC, Sky and maybe Cannondale all have their eyes on the stage wins though and we can expect them to take responsibility. Hence, there is no real chance that the break will make it to the finish and we should get the usual uphill sprint between the GC riders.

 

The first key point in the race will be the first passage of the climb. BMC have vowed to try to isolate Gerrans and Sky and Cannondale also want the race to be as hard as possible. BMC don’t really have their best climbing team here as neither Alessandro De Marchi nor Peter Velits seem to be in good condition. However, Sky and Cannondale can do a lot of damage if they put riders like Geraint Thomas, Peter Kennaugh, Patrick Bevin, Moreno Moser or Simon Clarke on the front.

 

We expect a pretty big selection on the climb. In the past, things have split even more in the subsequent crosswind sections – just recall how Astana created panic in the flat run-in to the climb last year when they briefly dropped Richie Porte by forming echelons – but this year it will be a head- or a tailwind so it should all come down to the climb.

 

When we get to the ascent for the final time, we can again expect Sky, BMC and Orica-GreenEDGE to try to make the race hard. Dennis is no longer the clear BMC leader and so he and Porte are more on equal terms. This means that it will probably be left to Sky to ride on the front and we expect Thomas and Kennaugh to do the damage in the steep first part before the GC riders battle it out in the finale.

 

Going into the race, we expected Sergio Henao to be the strongest climber in the race and the Corkscrew proved us right. When the Colombian made his move, only Michael Woods could match his speed but the pair was unable to stay away until the finish. Henao has admitted that it will be hard to win the race but he has his eyes on both a stage win and the overall podium.

 

Sky will try to make the race hard and then it will be left to Henao to make the difference. The headwind doesn’t favour him but with his explosive punch, it will be very difficult to follow him. Woods will probably be able to do so but Henao seemed to be the strongest on the Corkscrew. Furthermore, he is strong in an uphill sprint and he won’t be easy to beat if he still has a bit of company inside the final few hundred metres. Henao is the best climber in the race and even though he would have preferred a steeper finish, he is our favourite to win the stage.

 

We had already mentioned Michael Woods as a joker for stage 3 so we weren’t very surprised to see him with the best. In fact, he was already climbing very well in 2015 in both America and Algarve in his pre-race blog on Cyclingnews and he had done nothing to hide that he was in very good condition.

 

Woods claims to have had very good legs in stages 3 and 4 and is very confident that he can finish on the podium despite losing 8 seconds in today’s stage when the peloton split. The Canadian has the right kind of explosiveness for this kind of challenge and was the one to make the move that only Henao could follow on the Corkscrew. If pair are again the strongest on Willunga, it could come down to an uphill sprint between them. Woods is fast as he proved by sprinting to third yesterday and by winning an uphill sprint in the Tour of Utah last year so there is definitely a chance that he will be able to beat his Colombian rival.

 

While the Corkscrew was a bit too steep to suit Gerrans who had a defensive approach to stage 3, Willunga is much better for him. The gradients near the top are a lot gentler and it is no wonder that he is a past winner of this stage. However, the stage win is not his main goal and there is no reason for him to try to follow the likes of Henao and Woods. He will take no risks and this makes it harder for him to make it three in a row.

 

On the other hand, this climb really suits him and he is obviously in great condition. The headwind will make it harder to make a difference and everybody knows that no one is going to beat Gerrans in an uphill sprint. Even if he decides not to follow the best climbers, the likes of Henao and Woods may look at each other if they can’t get clear in a solo move. This could allow Gerrans to get back in contention and then unleash his lethal sprint.

 

Richie Porte is a double winner of this stage and he would love to make it three in a row. However, he doesn’t have the explosiveness to win a sprint and he needs to make the difference with his climbing skills. That’s what he has done two years in a row but in both 2014 and 2015 he was in much better condition than he is now. However, he was greatly surprised by his performance on the Corkscrew where he was obviously one of the best and this has provided him with confidence for this stage. As Rohan Dennis should also be up there, BMC can play the team game and he won’t be as heavily marked as the defending champion. This could open the door for him to win the stage.

 

Rohan Dennis was clearly suffering on the Corkscrew where he chose to ride at his own pace and he managed to limit the losses. The less steep gradients on Willunga are much better for him and last year he proved how strong he is on this climb. Furthermore, he is relatively fast in an uphill sprint and this could open the door for him. Furthermore, he can play the team game with Porte and if those two riders attack in turns and their rivals have no teammates left, he could win the stage.

 

It was no secret that Jay McCarthy was riding really well but the Tinkoff captain has still exceeded expectations. He has never been riding at this level before and now finds himself in a position where he can realistically go for the podium. He rode strongly on the Corkscrew where he was not far behind the best and this climb should suit him better. Furthermore, he is very strong in uphill sprints – just remember how he was close to a stage win in last year’s Tour of Turkey – and he could be one of only two riders who can realistically challenge Gerrans in a final dash to the line.

 

The second rider to potentially do so is Diego Ulissi. The Lampre-Merida rider had a disappointing ride on the Corkscrew but he should be able to bounce back here. Willunga suits him better and in stage 3 he mainly lost time because of poor positioning. In fact, he was close to rejoining the best riders when things split up but never made the junction. The headwind should suit him as it makes sprinting skills very important and he is one of the very best if it comes down to a battle between the puncheurs at the finish.

 

Another very good puncheur is Julian Arredondo. The Colombian seems to have returned to his former level after an injury-plagued 2015 season but he has not had a chance to show himself as he crashed in both stages 3 and 4. Even if he has not suffered any major injuries, those tumbles may hamper him but he will definitely be motivated to make up for the disappointment. He is very strong on short climbs and he won’t be heavily marked.

 

It was no surprise that Domenico Pozzovivo was one of the strongest in stage 3 but he will have a harder time on Willunga Hill which is more about explosiveness. Last year he also came up short on this climb and it won’t be easy for him to change the outcome. On the other hand, he has flown a bit under the radar and recently he has proved that he knows how to make a right tactical move in a hectic finale.

 

Rafael Valls is a bit similar to Pozzovivo and has confirmed that he is always good at the start of the season. Like Pozzovivo, he doesn’t have the punch to win a sprint but he will definitely be up there. If the headwind makes it a tactical battle, he can be the one to make a well-timed move.

 

Lieuwe Westra was very unfortunate to crash in stage 2 and that took the best out of him for stage 3. However, he claims to be in outstanding condition and will probably feel a bit better tomorrow. Furthermore, this climb suits him much better and he won’t be easy to get back if he can make a well-timed move.

 

George Bennett was very strong at the New Zealand Championships where he was taken out by the mechanical. He confirmed his good condition in stage 3 but paid the price for getting caught behind the crash in the run-in to the climb. He has no explosiveness and so is not really suited to this climb. He is unlikely to win the stage but his good condition could allow him to get a good result.

 

There is no doubt that Ruben Fernandez is the Movistar leader but the Spaniard is unlikely to win the stage as he is a GC contender. Instead, Movistar could try to make an earlier move with an in-form Jesus Herrada who rode strongly on the Corkscrew. The easier gradients here suit him a lot better and with his fast sprint, he has more possibilities in his quest to win the stage.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Sergio Henao

Other winner candidates: Michael Woods, Simon Gerrans

Outsiders: Richie Porte, Rohan Dennis, Jay McCarthy, Diego Ulissi

Jokers: Julian Arredondo, Domenico Pozzovivo, Rafael Valls, Lieuwe Westra, George Bennett, Jesus Herrada

 

Betting tips

Simon Gerrans (7.00), Sergio Henao (3.50), Michael Woods (7.50) or Diego Ulissi (16.00) to win the stage – odds from Bet365

As claimed in our analysis of the favourites, we will be surprised if the winner is not one of these four riders so it could be profitable to bet on that quartet.

 

You can place your bet here.

 

Ruben Fernandez to beat Domenico Pozzovivo – 2.25 at Bet365

There is no doubt that Domenico Pozzovivo is a better climber than Ruben Fernandez, and the Italian was also the strongest at the Corkscrew climb. However, Willunga Hill is less steep, and especially the second half is more about punch than climbing skills. That suits Fernandez who is relatively explosive, far better than Pozzovivo. At the same time, there is a headwind which benefits Fernandez in this duel. The situation is very similar to last year when Pozzovivo also had been stronger than Fernandez on the steeper Mount Torrens Road on the third stage but was dropped by Fernandez on Willunga Hill.

 

You can place your bet here.

 

Rein Taaramäe to beat Tiago Machado - odds 2.25 at Bet365

Rein Taaramäe and Tiago Machado share the captaincy at Katusha and finished in the same group on the third stage. Howeverm Taaramäe seemed to be the strongest on the climb and was closer to the front when the selection was made. It is no great surprise since the Estonian was flying in the second half of 2015 and after a few illness-marred seasons he seems to finally be ready to show his full potential. As opposed to this, Machado had a poor 2015 season.

 

Neither Taaramäe nor Machado seems to be in top condition and they are unlikely to mix it up in the battle for the stage win. However, they still hope to finish in the top 10 and will close to the best on this stage. Taaramae is the strongest of the pair and is also better suited to this type of climb than the less explosive Machado. Hence, it is difficult to understand why the Portuguese is the overwhelming favourite in this duel.

 

You can place your bet here.

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