Sarah Gigante
Sarah Gigante shows her elation at clinching the Tour Down Under title at the top of Willunga Hill. Image by HANDOUT/SANTOS TOUR DOWN UNDER
  • cycling

Gigante wins women’s Tour with storming Willunga ride

Roger Vaughan January 14, 2024

Sarah Gigante, alias the Popcorn Pocket Rocket, has rare intellect, a sunny personality and the diesel engine of a physiology for cycling.

But no-one is perfect and for the last few years, the young Australian star has been dealt a run of brutally bad luck.

Crash injuries and a heart scare culminated in her racing just once last year overseas.

The 23-year-old showed she is back on Sunday by winning the Tour Down Under for the first time with a storming solo attack on iconic Willunga Hill.

Willunga Hill
 The famed Willunga Hill climb again proved decisive as Sarah Gigante triumphed. Image by HANDOUT/SANTOS TOUR DOWN UNDER 

Just as Richie Porte became the King of Willunga for his exploits on the 3km climb, Gigante is now its Queen. 

The three-time Australian champion was a joyous, tearful mess at the finish after winning the stage and the overall title, hugging her mother and brother.

“It’s pretty tough when you’re 23 and lots of people think you’re washed up,” she told Channel Seven.

“It was so hard to keep believing in myself, but I did.”

The Tokyo Olympian calls it coming full circle after winning at Willunga three years ago – but that was when the Santos Tour became a domestic-only event because of COVID-19.

Gigante was asked if this was her most important cycling achievement and she immediately replied “no.

“I’ve been proud of all my achievements and maybe even just sometimes believing in myself was the best part.

“That’s what I’m most proud of and this is just the result of that.”

It was a thoughtful answer from a person who achieved a perfect score in her final year at school.

Gigante knew she was well on her way back last September and significantly, in the off-season the Australian joined new WorldTour team AG Insurance-Soudal.

That is already an inspired decision, with teammate Ally Wollaston winning stage one and Gigante capitalising on faultless team riding to be positioned perfectly for the foot of the Willunga climb.

Everyone knows that positioning in the bunch is not Gigante’s strength and rivals tried in vain to put her into difficulty in the crosswinds along the coast during the 93.4km final stage from Adelaide to Willunga.

Wollaston, who called Gigante the Popcorn Pocket Rocket after her stage win, made sure she was in the right spot for the start of the climb.

“It was not just a straightforward climb up Willunga, which almost makes it more special – my whole team was incredible,” Gigante said.

“Of course, that’s my weakness … I just need to race more.”

Sarah Gigante
 An exhausted Sarah Gigante salutes her tour-clinching victory on Willunga Hill. Image by HANDOUT/SANTOS TOUR DOWN UNDER 

Gigante doubts she will go to the Paris Olympics – her main hope was a strong performance earlier this month in the time trial at the road nationals, but her bad luck persisted with a disastrous mechanical problem.

Instead, she will plan a season of much more racing.

More immediately, Gigante will test herself against Porte in an informal time trial up Willunga next weekend, organised by the Tour so punters can see how they rate against the best.

“He (Porte) is retired and I’m not, so look out,” Gigante said.

Danish overnight leader Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig cracked on Willunga as Gigante won the stage and the Tour by 20 seconds, from 19-year-old Dutch rider Neinke Vinke (DSM-Firmenich).