The last stage of the race. Echelons did happen today but none of the biggest contenders lost any time. Tomorrow, they start the stage of with a climb. The bonus seconds right after will likely make it difficult for any riders to get in the breakaway. Then they the start the circuit with Mount Lofty as the main challenge. Another set of bonus seconds will likely be fought for. Then the finale.
They start off with a climb. Something fantastic for a spectator. The riders have a few km of flat before the they are let off right at the foot of this climb. The last part, when they turn north, is where the finish line is. On paper, it is not difficult, but it is January and people can get into trouble here.
Following, they start the circuit. It is 26 km long and they do it four times in total. It is pretty much either up or down making it really difficult to catch your breath.
The descend is more than half the circuit. There are two jump pads. It is the first part that looks difficult. Every team will fight for the front on the climb to make sure they are at the front at the bottom of the next ascent.
The climb, as mentioned, is not too difficult but it is a drag. It is the last part of it that is the toughest. We will focus on that.
2.5 km at 4.7%, though it is highly irregular. The first 1.4 km you see are 6.9%. It is not Nettle Hill or Corkscrew Road, but the fifth time going up here will make it feel like it. Then, after the short plateau, we have 300 meters of 8.3 % with 100m at 12% before it flattens out towards the line.
No rain tomorrow which will make the amount of descending more safe. Wind is down to 3 m/s with the wind from the SW and that means a tailwind on the climb despite the calm wind. It will be a bit warmer too with degrees almost at 25 Celcius.
So how will the stage unfold?
This is the best part. As mentioned, I think the pace will be fast from the start. Bahrain-Victorious or Jayco-AlUla will pace on the first climb in the hope of getting 3 bonus seconds. It is absolutely vital to be at the front when they pace the finish line for the first time, as the sprint for bonus seconds is right at the foot of the first jumper. It should be something Bilbao does fancy.
When that has settled, I think the teams may slow down for a bit. I could see a few teams wanting satellite riders. UAE has Covi/Hirschi/Bennett. Jayco-AlUla have Matthews (sadly Hamilton fell out of the near-GC today). Bahrain-Victorious do not have a fantastic team for this stage, I think they will sit back and protect Bilbao. So the question is, can UAE sneak a rider up the morning break? If they do – it is up to the other teams to work, something they should be pleased with.
INEOS have not looked as strong as I expected. It should be a good stage for Sheffield, Plapp and Hayter but their current level is just not threatening. As for Mauro Schmid, I think this stage is near-perfect for him. Devenyns and Cattaneo should be excellent helpers, but it is not their task to control the day. Lastly, EF-Education have Bettiol and Honoré. I think one of the two will play a big role.
If UAE has a helper in the break, the break will not go. The cohesion of it will seize to stop and other teams will work behind in the peloton. Therefore, I think it will be between the favorites. The big question is, how early will we see the selection? I think fairly early. My hope is from the start as Yates and Bilbao should be keen on bonus seconds. This stage will feel a lot like a one-day classic.
Vine – in the lead with a comfortable margin. If UAE can prevent bonus seconds from going over to Bilbao or Yates, he just has to finish in the same group as them to win. That is the objective. As I’ve said, they got a strong team for this stage. They can either set up a train or they can have their riders mark moves. Nonetheless, I think the jersey stays with him.
Bilbao – he has the best chance of taking the jersey, simply because his sprint is very good. His team however is on the lower end. He will need to follow wheels and moves tomorrow and I think he will play it relatively safe. He is one of the riders who could attack on the descent and see what kind of group is willing to work with him.
Yates – the gradients are just not there. I have a feeling he is either not 100% or he is playing games with us. He know he does not have the sprint to win the stage and I do not think the stage is hard enough for him to go solo.
Schmid – Corkscrew Road was the limit. Tomorrow, the gradients are better for him. In a scenario where the three biggest GC-contenders look at each other, he may find his window of opportunity. He should wish for an early selection, in that case, he is forced to do nothing.
INEOS – on paper, three candidates. I have a feeling they should want to ride this for Sheffield or Hayter. Sheffield tend to do better as the gradients go below double digits. He has the classics-skillset for this type of stage, that will not solely come down to one single climb. Hayter will follow and be a good sprint option.
EF – Bettiol and Honoré. Both riders should perform well tomorrow. They are great one-day classic riders. Honoré will go for the KOM points and that means getting up the road. The breakaway could end up strong tomorrow with satellite riders and strong puncheurs. It makes it difficult to win the stage, if he has to sprint for KOM points too. Bettiol has not climbed very well but tomorrow the gradients get easier.
Hindley – he has a bit of freedom, which could be beneficial. Nettle Hill showed that he is not completely off form with the main goal being in the summer. He has proved a few times that his sprint is not bad when they sprint uphill, and therefore I think the run-in to the line is a good thing going for him.
Coquard – first WT win? Expect the Coq to just step up a level. He is one of the few fast men that could end up winning, in case of a reduced bunch sprint.
Matthews – GC duty, sprint or satellite rider? It is difficult to know his role tomorrow, but on paper, this is the best looking stage for him.
Corbin Strong – I think the gradients suit him better tomorrow. He could be challenging for the win in the scenario of a reduced bunch sprint.
Who will win?
I think the race will be very fast tomorrow from the start. That means fewer riders should have the chance of winning. I can’t see the riders in the top-3 dropping one another either. I hope we see a race where the peloton is heavily reduced on the last lap. From there, I will take a win for Mauro Schmid. He can win it in a reduced sprint and he sits just outside the danger zone for Vine. If Bilbao and Yates hesitates and INEOS are not present, he can get just a small enough gap to win.