Ally Wollaston
New Zealand's Ally Wollaston celebrates her win in the Tour Down Under opening stage. Image by HANDOUT/SANTOS TOUR DOWN UNDER
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Tour leader Wollaston warns of ‘Popcorn Pocket Rocket’

Roger Vaughan January 12, 2024

The ‘Popcorn Pocket Rocket’ is ready to launch at the Tour Down Under, despite an early scare in the Adelaide Hills’ searing heat.

After winning stage one and taking the overall lead on Friday, New Zealand national champion Ally Wollaston spoke glowingly of her Australian teammate Sarah Gigante ahead of Sunday’s decisive summit finish.

Gigante, a three-time Australian champion, is the key rider for the AG Insurance-Soudal team at the Tour.

She looms as one of the big names to watch on the iconic Willunga Hill climb at the end of Sunday’s final stage south of Adelaide, where the overall winner will be confirmed.

Australian rider Sarah Gigante (right).
 Australia’s Sarah Gigante is tipped as a major threat for the Tour Down Under’s Willunga finish. Image by Con Chronis/AAP PHOTOS 

“I’m really overwhelmed, it’s my first WorldTour win, so I’m just really proud,” Wollaston told Channel Seven after she won the bunch sprint at suburban Campbelltown.

“The girls rode amazing today and I can’t thank them enough for the work they did.

“We have a big powerhouse of a team … Sarah is our ‘popcorn pocket rocket’, so we’ll be targeting Sunday with her.”

There was a big scare for Gigante when she was caught in a three-rider crash inside the last 10km, but the Australian was not hurt.

Just as importantly, she still finished in the main bunch and so remains in overall contention.

Three years ago, when the Tour was a domestic-only race because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gigante won on top of Willunga.

But this is the first time the international women’s Tour has featured Willunga and the heavy hitters such as Gigante, Grace Brown and Amanda Spratt know they must shine there.

Wollaston’s win and overall lead is perfect for the team as well, taking all the pressure off them ahead of Sunday.

Ally Wollastonm after winning the Tour Down Under stage one.
 New Zealand’s Ally Wollaston celebrates after winning stage one at the Tour Down Under. Image by HANDOUT/SANTOS TOUR DOWN UNDER 

But powerful Australian rivals Jayco-AlUla were left frustrated after the stage, having slightly mistimed their sprint finish.

Newly crowned Australian champion Ruby Roseman-Gannon led out Commonwealth Games gold medallist Georgia Baker.

But Wollaston tore past in the last few metres, leaving Baker having to settle for second.

“We probably just burned a little bit too early and couldn’t give Georgia the leadout that she needed,” Roseman-Gannon said

“But it was a great team ride and we’re pretty excited for the rest of the Tour.”

The blistering heat that is the hallmark of the January Tour arrived for the start of the race, with the temperature nudging 40C in the 93.9km stage from the Hills town of Hahndorf.

Roseman-Gannon, who announced herself as a new star by winning the national road title on Sunday, fired the opening shot of the race by taking out the first intermediate sprint ahead of Baker.

Australian Matilda Raynolds (Bridgelane WE), Italian Katia Ragusa (Human Powered Health), India Grangier of France (Coop-Repsol) and British rider Kate Richardson (Lifeplus Wahoo) then broke away and dominated the stage.

Raynolds went clear after the second Queen Of The Mountain checkpoint at 58.1km and led the peloton by about a minute.

Her heroics were in vain, though, as she was caught inside the last 10km.

The Tour continues on Saturday with a 104.2km stage from coastal Glenelg that features the testing Stirling finishing circuit in the Adelaide Hills.