Finishing just off the back of the first group, 26 seconds in arrears of stage-winner Peter Sagan (BORA-hansgrohe), Whelan showcased the talents he brings to his new squad.
With the mercury touching 36 degrees Celsius and an unrelenting course with over 3000 metres of climbing, it wasn’t a day for the faint-hearted in the Adelaide Hills. No one would fault a first-timer for rolling around quietly in the peloton, growing accustomed to WorldTour competition.
Instead, the 22-year-old was one of the main protagonists of the day’s racing.
Whelan was the strongest in the early breakaway of seven riders, before supporting teammate Alberto Bettiol when the veteran Italian bridged across from the peloton in the closing stages.
“It worked out pretty well,” Whelan said. "Obviously, the main aim was to get in the break in the first place - ticked that off. I managed to get to the circuit with a bit of time and the guys could sit back in the bunch and not do much.
“Alberto came across, I didn’t actually realise until he tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘hey buddy’.”
Whelan drove the pace for the Italian until 20 kilometres from the finish.
“There was one moment going up the climb on the second last lap, he was the only one who could hold the wheel so I just went and us two were going solo, well, a duo. I said I’d get him to the bottom of the climb and see if he could stay away for a lap and a bit.
“Obviously, he did a good job there and I just managed to stay on, I think I came through at 19 seconds, so it was important for me to get through and not lose massive amounts of time as a back-up option for Mike. Obviously, we’re all-in for Mike (Woods), but it’s good to make sure I’m somewhat up there.”
Woods himself paid tribute to the ride of Whelan, clearly not surprised at the young rider's display.
“Jimmy, he’s our neo-pro, our rookie, but he’s proving that he’s a bit more than that, he rode super strong today,” said Woods. “We wanted him in the break because he is such a danger man. He’s got a great punch.
“He got in the break, then was last man standing and I think he may have even finished on the same time today.”
After Whelan was ultimately caught, he was perfectly within his rights to drift back through the peloton and then get dropped - the next best-placed breakaway member was Michael Potter (UniSA) who finished over 11 minutes down on the stage.
But he was able to cling to the tail of the field for the final kilometres.
“When I came back to the peloton, there were a lot of guys really struggling,” said Whelan, “as much as I was. I was holding back in the wheels thinking that if they don’t go too hard, I could stay on here.
“In the final everyone was pretty boxed there, that was just because Mike (Woods) went up that last climb full gas. When Mike goes up a climb full gas, everyone hurts.”
The rise of James 'Half' Whelan
Whelan has experienced such a meteoric rise in the last few seasons, he comes into his first WorldTour race as one of the rawest recruits to the sport in recent memory.
Many riders of the same age are vastly more experienced than the former middle-distance runner, who has just 22 UCI-sanctioned race days, a handful of National Road Series events and some local races on his palmarès.
EF Education First Pro Cycling signed Whelan off the back of his under 23 Tour of Flanders victory last year, after which he suffered his first crash ever on a bike, breaking his wrist at the ZLM tour.
He didn’t even race the Tour Down Under last season, so rapid his rise, so this week in Adelaide shapes as an important learning experience for the Melburnian.
“I know my legs are good enough to go up a hill with everyone,” said Whelan, “but the biggest thing is getting used to the bunch and rolling in the peloton. I’m not used to that, with that kind of stress. I’m just trying to stay relaxed.”
His new team has quickly taken Whelan under its wing – already giving him the nickname James ‘Half’ Whelan - with its more experienced members keen to show the new rider the ropes.
“They’re always giving me little tips and tricks,” said Whelan, “they couldn’t stop talking to me about tips.
“I’ve got a lot to learn. Alberto has been really good for that, just giving me pointers, same with Mitch (Docker). I’ll be learning all week.”
Whelan is a rider who quickly rises to meet each new challenge, before surmounting it and moving even further up the ranks. Now he's made it to the top level, gains will be more incremental. But if past history is telling, it won’t be long before Whelan is a regular at the front of the race.