Sam Welsford’s 28th birthday and Luke Plapp’s No.13 race number were the key figures for stage four as the Tour Down Under heads to the hills.
Welsford’s third stage win of the Tour on Friday was one of his better presents.
The Australian put a hand to his head in disbelief and delight as he crossed the line at Port Elliot, south of Adelaide, to take out the 136.2km stage from Murray Bridge.
“It’s pretty special to get a win on my birthday,” said Welsford, a two-time Olympic medallist on the track who hopes to ride at the Paris Games.
“It’s up there (as a present) – I’ve had one where I spent the whole day on a plane, flying back from Colombia, so this one is a lot better.”
As Welsford and BORA-Hansgrohe enjoy a dream start at his new team, Plapp was enduring every cyclist’s nightmare – shredded skin sticking to his bed sheets as he recovers from Thursday’s crash.
Not surprisingly, Plapp’s Australian Jayco AlUla team withdrew him from the race on Friday morning as he recovers from severe road rash from the back of his left shoulder down to the hip.
Cyclists are a superstitious lot and they often pin No.13 upside down to offset its bad juju.
Plapp did not.
The poor vibes are permeating through the team in Adelaide.
Jayco AlUla started the year by dominating the national road championships.
But after Plapp boldly declared at Monday’s pre-race media conference that they aimed to win every stage and the overall title, Jayco AlUla have won nothing in either the men’s or women’s Santos Tours.
Australian sprint ace Caleb Ewan, along with Plapp the star recruits for Jayco AlUla this season, has played second fiddle to Welsford, who is fast emerging as his local rival.
Ewan, who was ill before the Tour, was badly out of position in the run in to Friday’s chaotic finish and could only manage 18th.
It was the sprinters’ last chance at the Tour, with the weekend’s two summit finishes to decide the overall winner.
Saturday will feature two circuits at Willunga, the Tour’s most iconic landmark, while Sunday will bring the climactic Mt Lofty finale.
The one bright spot for Jayco AlUla on Friday was that clever team riding denied overall rivals any bonus seconds in the intermediate sprints.
Team director Mat Hayman said Plapp’s withdrawal from the race was “a massive dent” ahead of the weekend’s decisive stages.
“It hasn’t been a Tour that’s gone our way so far, hopefully we can turn it around,” he said.
“We didn’t quite get it together in the final (of Friday’s stage).”
While the two hilltop finishes probably mean there will be decent time gaps, everyone is acutely aware that this Tour has been decided by one or two seconds.
Mexican 20-year-old new star Isaac del Toro (UAE Team Emirates) leads Eritrean Biniam Girmay (Intermarche-Wanty) overall by one second.
Jayco AlUla’s main overall hope, British star Simon Yates and other contenders such as Australians Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) and Michael Storer (national team) are in a big group of cyclists hovering at 11 seconds.
“Our new leader is a bit unknown, as a neo-pro,” Jayco AlUla director Mat Hayman said of del Toro.
“We already had a few guys on our radar …. He didn’t stay under the radar for very long.
“It’s a bit unknown to us, how he can climb.”