Australian Sam Welsford has thwarted his compatriots at Jayco AlUla with a breakthrough Tour Down Under stage win at the start of the Olympic year.
The two-time Olympic medallist, who hopes to return to the team pursuit on the track and win an elusive gold medal in Paris, leads the Tour after his impressive performance in Tuesday’s opening stage.
It is the first time Welsford has won a stage at the Santos Tour, and is also his debut in the ochre race leader’s jersey.
The 27-year-old called it “a dream come true”.
Apart from making a perfect start at his new team BORA-Hansgrohe, Welsford has fired a shot across the bows of Jayco AlUla, Australia’s only WorldTour team, and their sprint ace Caleb Ewan.
Jayco AlUla rider Luke Plapp boldly declared on race eve that they wanted to win every stage and claim the overall title – an unprecedented clean sweep at their home Tour that Welsford swiftly thwarted.
Plapp helped set up Ewan well for the sprint, but he was no match for Welsford.
With at least a couple more sprint finishes before the hilltop climaxes on the weekend at Willunga and Mt Lofty that will decide the overall title, Welsford v Ewan is a fascinating sub-plot this week.
It comes with Welsford – who’s moved to BORA-Hansgrohe after two years at DSM – posing questions as to whether he’s in the early throes of challenging Ewan’s status at the top Australian road sprinter.
On Tuesday, he beat German sprinter Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Victorious), who won on the uphill sprint at Tanunda a year ago.
“Sprinters feed off confidence and the only time you can get that is if you get a good result,” Welsford said.
“For us to get the first win of the season here as a team, the first race together, is good signs of what we can do forever.”
Ewan, who pulled out of Saturday’s pre-Tour criterium will illness, lamented the effects of his interrupted preparation.
“In the end, my legs were just not as good as I would have hoped and I couldn’t really do a normal sprint,” he said.
There were unconfirmed reports the temperature on the road reached the mid-40s in the 144km stage that also started at Tanunda.
“It was a bloody hard day out there in the heat,” Welsford said.
Welsford will have a busy year and hopes to ride on the track in the team pursuit at the Paris Olympics.
He won silver in the event at the Rio Games and bronze three years ago in Tokyo.
Welsford also hopes to ride in May’s Giro d’Italia before preparing for the July-August Paris Games.
“I still have the passion for the track. I’ve gotten a silver and bronze at the Olympics, so I’m missing the hardest one to get. Fingers crossed I can go there this year,” he said.
Welsford’s teammate Alex Porter face-planted in their qualifying ride at the Tokyo Games when the handlebar snapped off his bike, ruining their gold medal chances.
They rallied to win bronze, the only medal on the velodrome for Australia – the worst Olympic result for the track squad since Moscow in 1980.
Several crashes punctuated the frenetic run to the finish on Tuesday, but none of the Tour’s big names were affected.