Sun Tour stand-off: Why Porte and Woods surrendered on stage 4

It caught everyone off guard when the peloton sat up. With 11km to go in stage 4 of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, with one ascent of Arthurs Seat still to come, the long chase was over. The white flag was up. The break would again win the day.

It was surprising for several reasons. It wasn’t just that the overall leader, Michael Woods, was in the group that surrendered — so too was Richie Porte. Both had been pre-stage favourites and with 11km to go, both still appeared to be in with a shot at victory. Porte even had a teammate there — Peter Stetina — who could have kept chasing.

But the whole group sat up, riders spread across the road, looking at one another. Looking for someone to drive the pace. And then Stetina even got off the front, leaving Porte behind.

None of it made sense. Both Woods and Porte appeared to be throwing away their shot at a stage win and, in all likelihood, the overall victory as well.

But as with most things confusing, there was a perfectly good explanation.

***

Just two days ago Michael Woods was singing the praises of Richie Porte. “What a champion”, he’d said, reflecting on Porte’s domination of Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under. Woods was in a jovial mood — he’d just beaten Porte in a two-up sprint to win stage 2 of the Sun Tour and take the overall lead.

Fast-forward 48 hours and Woods was feeling considerably less complimentary towards his Australian rival. The two had clashed on the roads of Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, Porte unwilling to help Woods in the chase; unwilling to set up a head-to-head battle on the fourth and final ascent Arthurs Seat.

“I had no guys to ride,” Woods said. “And I talked to Richie and just said ‘Man, can you just convince Pete [Stetina] and we’ll duke it on the final climb?’ And he wasn’t willing to do that. So that’s why we all sat up.

“I think he was just scared of me after [Thursday] so he didn’t want to invest in helping out,” Woods said. “I guess it showed why he didn’t want to invest in helping out because he didn’t have the legs in the last climb. I think also he’s pretty happy with how he did at Down Under and so he could be a bit complacent.”

Standing outside the EF Education First campervan, Woods is clearly frustrated. And not without reason — he’d started the day in the overall lead and was confident of defending that lead. In the end he’d cross the finish line in sixth place, 2:14 behind stage winner Nick Schultz (Mitchelton-Scott) and Dylan van Baarle (Sky), both of whom survived from the early break.

It was enough to see Woods lose the overall lead to Van Baarle and slip to third overall. Porte, meanwhile, came across the line in eighth, 13 seconds behind Woods. In doing so he dropped from second overall to fourth.

Sitting in a camping chair outside the Trek-Segafredo campervan, Porte seems less frustrated than Woods. Despite the stage suiting him perfectly, he’s philosophical about how things played out. Ultimately, his disappointment is tempered by the fact he wouldn’t have beaten Woods on the climb if the break had been caught.

“I knew from the first time up it that I didn’t have the legs and it was going to be a battle … and it was,” Porte said. “I really just didn’t have it there in the final.”

Perhaps things would have turned out differently had Porte had his climbing legs on; had he not come into the Sun Tour with a bout of illness. But as it was, when push came to shove, Porte wasn’t willing to help Woods chase back the break.

“Obviously EF were under big pressure there to ride,” Porte said. “It’s not up to us to defend the race for Woods. But I do feel bad for the [Trek-Segafredo] guys today because they did an absolutely incredible job — they were the ones that really controlled the race once Pete [Stetina] and [Jarlinson] Pantano took it up … We were never going to get Van Baarle back and those guys. That’s just one of those things.”

It wasn’t just bad legs or a perceived lack of responsibility that made Porte unwilling to help Woods chase. He’s still frustrated about how stage 2 ended up.

He and Woods had been clear of the rest of the field that day, descending to the finish in Churchill. Both agreed that they’d work together in the final kilometre, rather than playing cat-and-mouse to the finish. Porte feels that Woods reneged on that deal, letting Porte do all the pacemaking before jumping him at the finish.

“Woods didn’t have to sit on me for the last kilometre the other day as well,” Porte said. “He took the gamble there and I don’t feel that we should have to pull for him to win the race.

“He can see it however he wants [but] why do that the other day? That wasn’t nice and there’s a lesson in that for him.”

Woods beat Porte to win stage 2.

Woods is frustrated at Porte, but also at how fate conspired against him on today’s stage. His team “rode amazing”, Woods says twice, but he’s quick to note that he was under-resourced on the day — that he had two fewer teammates than normal to help control the race.

“Lachlan [Morton] sliced his knee open really bad yesterday in the crash, had to get stitches and just couldn’t pedal,” Woods says. “And then with Alberto Bettiol getting sick at the start of the race we were down two riders and it was really difficult to control with everyone on the offence.”

Everyone did seem to be on the offence. Mitchelton-Scott and Sky were very aggressive early, throwing everything at Woods and EF Education First. Ultimately Woods didn’t have the teammates to be able to stop Sky getting three riders in an eight-rider move. Most dangerous among them was Van Baarle who came into the day in fifth overall, just 31 seconds down on Woods.

“When you’re down two riders and you have the quality of riders that Sky has and that Mitchelton has, it’s impossible to control,” Woods says. “You need a full team for that and being down two’s just really really difficult. And then not having Trek help out also adds to that.”

***

For Sky, it’s been a week of impressive, aggressive racing; a far cry from the clinical, race-to-power Grand Tour riding they’ve frustrated so many with in recent years. On stage 2 they split the race in the crosswinds, helping to form the final selection. On stage 3 they got two in the daylong break and ended up going 1-2.

They went into stage 4 with the same aggressive mindset — be well-represented in the break, ride hard, and disrupt the plans of the GC teams. Van Baarle wasn’t supposed to be there though.

“It was actually not really the plan that I was in the break,” Van Baarle said after donning the yellow jersey. “The plan was that Christian [Knees] and Luke [Rowe] were there but then I saw that EF was really suffering to close the gap on the big group [an earlier, bigger breakaway].

“I saw Christian and Luke going and then I thought ‘Yeah this is the right moment.’”

It was the “right moment” for Nick Schultz too. He puts a lot of his stage win down to “right time, right place”.

“The whole team was really strong and we put the GC teams under the pump right from kilometre zero as a whole team and I was the lucky one to sneak into the right move that was given a bit of leeway,” Schultz said. “It was the perfect scenario — Sky had numbers, they also had Van Baarle who was ahead of me on GC so they just drilled it until Dylan and I went with two laps to go.

“From there it was all out and I just had to go as deep as I could to the line to get the stage win.”

It was a result that worked perfectly for the leading duo. For Schultz, it was his professional win in his first tour in his first year as a WorldTour rider. For Van Baarle, it’s a second place that puts him well clear at the top of the GC with just one stage of the Sun Tour to go.

He’s saying all the right things — that there’s still one day to go, that the race is not yet over — but barring a major mishap, the Dutchman won’t be dethroned tomorrow. But then again, before today’s stage, we wouldn’t have expected anyone but Woods or Porte to be in yellow by the end of stage 4.

While Van Baarle and Schultz are the big winners from today’s stage, Woods is clearly the biggest loser. His plight on stage 4 is a demonstration of just how important teammates are; how important it is to have numbers on your side when you’re trying to control a bike race.

It also goes to show that, sometimes, it pays to keep your rivals on side.

Follow the link to full results from stage 4 of the 2019 Jayco Herald Sun Tour.

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