Willunga who? Why stage two of the women’s Tour Down Under could be more crucial than iconic climb

While there has been plenty of hype around the famed Willunga Hill on the final day of the race, the penultimate stage could be even harder, according to the peloton

“Tomorrow is actually probably the hardest stage of the tour. I know there’s Willunga, but that’s just a 3km climb. Tomorrow is a very, very difficult stage around Stirling. Those circuit laps just string out and it’s very difficult if you’re not in the right position there. It’s just hard all day.” These were the words of experienced Australian professional, Matilda Reynolds, after a long, hot day in the breakaway during stage one of the women’s Tour Down Under.

All the talk ahead of this race has been about the women’s peloton tackling the famous Willunga Hill for the first time in their race’s history. It’s a climb that has been made iconic in the men’s race by Richie Porte winning a record-breaking seven times on the steep slopes – fans camp out along the three kilometre climb for hours to get a good spot ahead of the peloton passing. But while it has been touted as the race deciding climb in the women’s event, those in the know are warning not to underestimate the stage that precedes it.

Georgie Howe, a rider for the home favourite team, Liv AlUla Jayco, agreed with Reynolds that it will be imperative to stay alert on stage two, which finishes with two-and-a-half laps of a circuit through Stirling.

“Tomorrow has got many layers to it, it’s unrelenting, it’s up and down. The Adelaide Hills are punishing in that regard, I think it’s going to be very hot as well,” Howe explained. “Depending on the wind, that could also be a factor. Never underestimate a stage like tomorrow, it could catch a lot of people off guard, particularly if they don’t recover from the first stage.”

Looking solely at the stage profile, it’s easy to doubt the difficulty of stage two, as Reynolds and Howe point out. It takes a closer look at the climbs to really understand where the challenges come. The men's peloton racing up Willunga Hill in 2020

Cherry Gardens Hill climb greets the riders after just 12 kilometres of racing – a 12km climb with an average gradient of 5.9%. This is enough to test the legs and cause fatigue that will hit later on in the stage. It’s then rolling roads until the riders reach the circuit for the first time where they will tackle the Stirling Climb three times with the third being the finale. At 3.9% average for just 2km, the climb isn’t enough to split the peloton on its own, but the constant repetition and the 5km drag before it will do plenty of damage. The total climbing in the stage amounts to a whopping 2,079 metres of elevation gain.

Whether it will be harder than Willunga on the final day is yet to be determined, and not all teams are in agreement that stage two will be decisive, however. AG Insurance-Soudal – the squad of race leader and stage one winner, Ally Wollaston –are expecting (and hoping for) another reduced bunch sprint which gives the fast finishing Kiwi a second chance to shine.

“Our prediction is a select group going to the line. Ally has proved she can climb well over the short punchy stuff so we’ll be backing her again tomorrow,” Wollaston’s team-mate, Anya Louw, commented.

AG Insurance-Soudal’s sporting and technical manager, Servais Knaven, sang the same tune as his riders: “Tomorrow is a tough stage with 2,000 metres of climbing and it’s a tough circuit at the end, but I think Willunga is harder,” he said. “It’s where you can really make the difference. Tomorrow there will still be a large group in the final.”

While women’s racing is far from directly comparable to men’s, history also tells us that the climb on the circuit in Stirling hasn’t always been difficult enough to split the peloton. Caleb Ewan took victory when the men’s Tour Down Under when they took on a very similar course to the one the women will do tomorrow in both 2020 and 2018 – a rider who is usually regarded as a bunch sprinter.

Another crucial element to how stage two plays out will be how the riders cope with the hot weather that is currently blazing down on Adelaide. The temperatures on stage two are expected to reach highs of 36 degrees Celsius, something that some will cope with better than others. Those from the Southern hemisphere will be far more used to these conditions, while riders who have spent winters in Europe could struggle. Stage one of the Tour Down Under consisted of ice buckets, cold water and riders complaining of high heart rates and dehydration, and there’s plenty more of that to come this week. This will inevitably have an impact on performance.

Whatever happens in stage two, all signs point to local knowledge being an asset here, which should play in the favour of Australian team, Liv AlUla Jayco. Whether it’s battling the heat or expecting the unexpected when it comes to the climbs they're facing, this is certainly a team with the upper hand tomorrow on their closest competitors. And, after finishing in second place on stage one, the hunger for victory will be greater than ever for the home favourites.

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