Blazin' Saddles: Five talking points from the Tour Down Under
With Daryl Impey once again crowned winner of the Tour Down Under after a Richie Porte masterclass on Willunga Hill, it's time to look back at the main talking points from the first WorldTour race of the season – including Caleb Ewan's head start at Lotto Soudal and Paddy Bevin's true grit.
A race in need of a shake-up
Mitchelton Scott's South African champion Daryl Impey won the ochre jersey for the second successive year; Richie Porte triumphed on Willunga Hill for a sixth time in as many years; stages were shortened owing to the searing heat; no breakaway went the distance; riders pulled one-handed wheelies on Corkscrew Hill rather than race up it…
Dare we say that things are getting a little repetitive in the opening WorldTour race of the season, for which a stage win still bafflingly gifts riders more WorldTour points than a runner-up spot in Paris-Roubaix.
If the geography and meteorology of South Australia doesn't offer much variety, then surely, it's time for the Tour Down Under to spread its wings a little? Either into a neighbouring state or through innovation, such as a dirt-track stage on nearby Kangaroo Island.
Forgoing the final-day crit in Adelaide in favour of the Willunga Hill showdown was a positive move – although the result ultimately changed nothing. Back to the drawing board, folks, even if it did rain for a few minutes this year.
Impey a worthy winner but spare a thought for Bevin
The crash which almost ended his race in the closing moments of stage 5 was a cruel blow for New Zealand's Patrick Bevin. Until that point, the CCC rider had ridden a flawless race from the moment he pipped home favourite Caleb Ewan for an unlikely win in stage 2.
But let's make no bones about it: bruised ribs or not, Willunga Hill would have been a bridge too far for Bevin, who in the event came home over five minutes down on stage 6 winner Richie Porte.
Instead, the overall crown went to a rider who seems to have mastered the Tour Down Under to a tee. Impey knows exactly what it takes to win the opening stage race of the season and seems capable of doing it on autopilot – whether it's picking up bonus seconds at the right moment, zipping clear to win sprint finishes (as he did in beating Bevin to stage 4 in Campbelltown), or holding his own on the Corkscrew and Willunga climbs.
Having become the first rider in history to win back-to-back editions of the Tour Down Under, Impey, it seems, has the requisite armoury to go on stretch out that record even further. Were it not for his age (34), we could be looking at the Indurain of Adelaide.
Viviani can be even better this year
It may have been the first day of a long season, but if you think you'll witness a better finish than Viviani's surge at the end of stage 1 in Port Adelaide then you have another think coming.
The bravery and bike-handling of the Italian champion as he nipped through the tightest of gaps between Heinrich Haussler and the barriers was breath-taking. Viviani then had the speed and timing to open up and zip past Max Walscheid with the finish line gaping.
That this came two days after Viviani crashed out in the finale of the Down Under Classic in Adelaide made it all the more impressive. Last year, the Italian notched 18 wins a superb opening season for Quick-Step. Continue at this rate and he'll build on that – particularly given Fernando Gaviria's departure.
It's going to be fascinating watching 29-year-old Viviani battle against the best in July's Tour as Deceuninck's undisputed number one.
Ewan left frustrated in first bow for new team
With his predecessor's record Tour Down Under haul standing at an imperious 18 wins, Caleb Ewan always had gorilla-sized boots to fill at Lotto Soudal. But his emphatic victory on the streets of Adelaide in the Down Under Classic ahead of the race suggested that Ewan could well be a worthy successor to Andre Greipel.
But, as the old saying goes, you're only as good as your last result – and once the Tour Down Under got going proper, Ewan was often nowhere to be seen: either off the pace, caught out by crashes, or being relegated for headbutting opponents.
Sure, the hilly run-ins are not tailor made for a sprinter of Ewan's purity. But even so, the 24-year-old pocket rocket would have envisaged a better return than one miserly top 10 finish all week.
Edged out by Bevin in stage 2 after being caught behind the crash on the opening day, Ewan looked to have bounced back with a win in stage 5 – only to be (quite harshly) relegated to 83rd after nudging eventual winner Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates) twice with his head while jostling for the ever-consistent Peter Sagan's back wheel before the home straight.
So, all in all it was a frustrating week for Ewan as he made his Lotto debut Down Under. But, certainly, one from which he would have learnt a lot. The Milan-Sanremo dream is still possible.
Adieu, Mat Hayman
After a career spanning back the best part of two decades, Mathew Hayman called it a day atop Willunga Hill safe in the knowledge that, while he didn't set the world alight during his final WorldTour jolly, he did what he did best throughout his time in the sport, riding as a solid domestique in support of team-mate Impey, who took the overall win.
It was a fitting end for Hayman, whose career was (re)defined by that barnstorming Paris-Roubaix victory in 2016, and who left the sport surrounded by team-mates and raising a can of Coke to the cheering home crowds.
A successful stint in the commentary box as a consultant for Eurosport during a handful of races last year suggests that Hayman would fit in well doing the kind of job in which compatriot Robbie Ewan clearly excels. But you also get the impression that the 40-year-old – with his experience, selfless work ethic and success – would make a hell of a directeur sportif, too.
Farewell Mat, thanks for the memories, and good luck with the next chapter of your career.
Sorry, this video is no longer available