Tour Down Under stage 1: Viviani victorious in scorching sprint

Elia Viviani sprints through an impossibly narrow gap to win stage 1, catching Max Walscheid in the final meters.

After an afternoon of languid racing in the brutal Australian heat, Elia Viviani fired up the sprint that won him 18 races last season to claim the season opener Tuesday in Adelaide, Australia. Sunweb’s Max Walscheid came home second to Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Italian sprinter in stage 1 of the Santos Tour Down Under. Jakub Mareczko (CCC) was third in the sprint.

“We were not in super-good position, but I was feeling good and comfortable in that position,” Viviani said. “I found a little space on the left of the barriers when I passed that space I was really feeling that I could win.”

Four riders decided to brave the 110-degree heat at the start of the 129km stage, breaking away immediately.

Astana’s Artyom Zakharov was first to fade out of the breakaway after he was defeated to the day’s lone king of the mountains sprint by UniSA’s Jason Lea.

Lea remained off the front with fellow Aussie Patrick Bevin (CCC) and Michael Storer (Sunweb).

However, the sprinters’ teams were keen to set up a bunch gallop at the end, and they were perhaps aided by the brutal heat.

After the bunch caught the break with about 32 kilometers remaining, the riders seemed content to roll into the finale without any more fireworks.

Just before the final kilometer, a traffic island unexpectedly split the peloton. That, combined with a stiff headwind might have contributed to the disorganized sprint finish. Jumbo-Visma was the only team that appeared to have an organized lead-out.

The Dutch team in yellow was taken by surprise as Walscheid jumped early and momentarily looked to have the stage in the bag.

About 10 riders back in the sprint, Viviani had other ideas. He came off of Peter Sagan’s (Bora-Hansgrohe) wheel late and squeezed up the left barriers, fitting in an unbelievably small gap next to Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida).

“Today the plan was to wait a little bit and put me in the best position,” Viviani said, and it seems like that’s just what his Belgian team managed to do.

The Italian champion hopped on Walscheid’s wheel for a moment and then sped past, winning the opening stage and taking the race’s first leader’s jersey.

Stage 2 will be a bit hillier, taking the race from Norwood to Angaston on a 122.1km route, about 30km shorter than originally planned due to the heat.