For Australia’s biggest race, the six-day Tour Down Under that opens the pro calendar, the make-or-break climb is a celebrated bump in the road whose name, while a bit prosaic compared with its legendary European counterparts, such as Ventoux or the Stelvio, sounds quintessentially Aussie.
Adelaide’s ‘Old Willunga Hill’ looms large, at least in terms of its significance, on Stage 5 of the race and can often prove decisive in a rider’s bid for the ochre jersey. At just over 150km, Stage 5 is the TDU’s queen stage. Departing from McLaren Vale, the stage takes place on the scenic Fleurieu Peninsula and is made up of two adjacent circuits, both of which the riders must complete twice.
There are two sprints, one along The Esplanade, the other at Snapper Point, and while the route looks relatively benign, appearances can be deceptive; there is invariably a strong south-westerly wind blowing in from the coast, temperatures often push 40C and the roads offer little.
The first realistic chance for a breakaway comes at Port Willunga, where an escape can use the flat track of The Esplanade to put some distance between themselves and the bunch, although that means battling the wind alone until they reach the vineyards of McLaren Vale, around 40km from Adelaide.
Willunga Hill appears on the second of the two circuits and is, on paper, relatively innocuous. It has a respectable average gradient of 7.4%, measures just under 3km and tops out at just 367 metres. And yet it’s often where the race is won: surrender a decent lead on Willunga Hill and your chances of making the GC podium with just the next day’s stage to go diminish rapidly.
Of the two occasions the riders tackle Willunga Hill, the first comes at 129km. The rattling descent that follows, down Range Road and Pennys Hill Road, is susceptible to crosswinds and with riders touching 100kph, it can make for a stiff test until the riders reach the relative calm of McMurtie Road. Here they swing hard left on to Main Road, usually into a headwind, and which will eventually bring them back to Willunga Hill for the finish, where the stage winner will be crowned King of the Mountain.
Team Sky’s contingent for the 2014 TDU includes one debutant, in Philip Deignan, who takes his place among more experienced riders, such as Bernie Eisel and Ian Stannard. The Aussie crowds love to get behind the home riders, which bodes well for Richie Porte and Chris Sutton, himself a TDU stage winner, and who will be keen to show his speed in the sprints.
Geraint Thomas is another who could make a strong showing and a rider who knows only too well the significance Stage 5 can have on the overall GC. The Welshman had a slim, five-second lead after Stage 4 at last year’s TDU but had dropped to fifth by the finish on Willunga Hill; a thrilling duel between Simon Gerrans and Tom-Jelte Slagter ended with victory for the Aussie, and on Australia Day no less. Thomas, for the record, fought back valiantly to claim third spot in the GC the following day.