Every second counts for Impey
Analysis, insight and data
Richie Porte’s annual attack on Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under is so much a part of the road season’s fabric now that you can set your swatch by it. Somewhere around 1,500 metres to go on the iconic South Australian hill, which usually appears on the penultimate day of the race, the Australian punches hard on the pedals, drops everybody and wins the stage. He’s done it five years in a row now, and in 2017 it gave him the overall title. It should have been enough this year as well. Porte was by far the strongest climber on the day, and he duly won his stage as he continues to revel in being back after his 2017 season ended at the Tour de France on stage 9. However, the MitcheltonScott rider Daryl Impey had been spending the previous four days putting together an insurance policy, bit by bit, and on Willunga Hill, he cashed it in. Impey had gained a handful of bonus seconds here and there in the sprints across the previous stages, which had given him a head start on Porte. As the BMC rider surged away on Willunga, Impey was steadily riding up in his wake, passing the overambitious riders who’d tried the impossible task of following Porte, and whose challenges were melting in the heat. The gap between Porte and Impey in the GC on the morning of the fifth stage had been 12 seconds, in Impey’s favour. Porte’s stage win would gain him 10. However Impey’s impending second place would give six back to the South African. Twelve minus 10 plus six equals eight seconds. Later, pundits would refer to the headwind on the climb having prevented Porte from winning by
more, but Impey faced the same wind. The difference had come in a dozen or more separate decisions and moves by Impey to cancel out Porte’s climbing advantage over a period of months and days, and the final one came right at the end of the stage. Porte showboated across the finish line, his arms aloft. Impey sprinted all the way in and the clock stopped exactly on eight seconds. Enough to give him the overall lead, and one day later, the overall race win.
Nobody had realised Mitchelton had come to the race to put Impey on the podium. The team’s management had originally intended Esteban Chaves, second overall in 2017, to come back and try to win. But injuries at the end of last season put Chaves’s training back and the management felt the TDU would be just too soon for him. They decided to back Impey, and in retrospect the signs were obvious. In 2013, Impey had spent a week at the Tour de France chipping away at moving up the general classification before landing himself the yellow jersey. High sprint placings, getting over the climbs in hillier stages, Orica winning the team time trial and finally a split on a draggy finish, gave him all the time gains he needed to take yellow for two days. Impey has form in accumulating marginal gains. Plus, not only is Impey a good sprinter, capable of top fives against the very best and of winning when hills have put heavier riders out, but he can climb – sharp-eyed observers might have noticed that in 2014, the first year Porte won on Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under, Impey had been fifth, only 14 seconds behind. The team also had the perfect smokescreen for Impey’s challenge in Caleb Ewan, who’d won four sprint stages in the TDU the year before and would be the public face of Mitchelton’s challenge, even if André Greipel, with first and last-day stage wins, would emerge as the most successful sprinter this year.
Ewan was such an effective smokescreen that he actually won a stage, making Mitchelton’s rivals think that he was the sole focus of their race. However, Impey was quietly chipping away. He was second to team-mate Ewan at Stirling, one of the stages that tend to put out the bigger sprinters. Two days later he was second at Uraidla, just getting overhauled by Peter Sagan on the line. And then came the Willunga Hill stage. It was as if Porte had come to a boxing fight aiming to win with one punch. Impey, on the other hand, had been planning to jab his way to a points verdict. The South African came second in a sprint to one of the two best flat sprinters in the race. He then came second on a rolling stage to the best Classics sprinter in the world. And he then came second on the hilliest day to the best climber in the race. In a race decided by time bonuses and fine margins, he’d accumulated enough seconds to give him first place.
In 2014, the irst year Porte won on Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under, Impey had been ifth, 14 seconds behind
Thomas De Gendt leads the breakaway on the irst ascent of Willunga Hill on stage 5 of the TDU