• Gracie Elvin and Amanda Spratt will ride for Australia at the UCI Road Cycling World Championships. (Getty)Source: Getty
Looking past recent selection controversy for a moment it has been a solid season for Australian women's road cycling, with riders more competitive than ever in the hilly races and the classics.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

7 Sep 2017 - 9:22 AM  UPDATED 12 Sep 2017 - 7:29 AM

Add to that the performance of Australian team Orica-Scott, being aggressive and taking out more top results than in the past, and you can see why there should be cause for optimism coming into the UCI Road World Championships in Norway. 

A hilly 152.8km course around the small city of Bergen awaits the best female riders in the world and Australia will go in with a plan to spoil the party of some of the bigger nations in the sport.

The five-woman squad out of a potential selection of eight (seven plus Oceania Champion Lisen Hockings) was a surprise, forgoing the likes of experienced elite riders like Lauren Kitchen (WM3 Energie), Carlee Taylor (Ale Cippolini) and Rachel Neylan (Orica-Scott) who would all be able to offer something on the course, even if their results this year haven't necessarily demanded that they be picked. 

The 2017 UCI Road World Championships will be held in Bergen, Norway from 17-24 September and will be broadcast on SBS Viceland and streamed online.

Martin Barras, the Senior coach of the Australian women's road squad, gave his thoughts on the team who were chosen to fly the Australian colours. He highlighted the more streamlined approach to selection, with Amanda Spratt, Katrin Garfoot (both Orica-Scott) and Shara Gillow (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine) named as the likely contenders that would be going for the win.

"They all rode well during the Ardennes classics," said Barras, "and in particular Spratt in the second half of the year has been excellent. It's the best set of races that she's put together in her career and we're very encouraged from what we've seen."

Spratt is riding high at the top of her game after a career-best season, with strong results in the biggest races for climbers on the World Tour calendar, the Giro Rosa, where she was fifth overall and La Course atop the Col d'Izoard, where she finished sixth.

Similarly impressive has been Gillow, stepping into a leadership role at FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine and consistently taking top finishes throughout the season.

"Shara's been great but that's true going back three to four seasons," said Barras. "Because of the team she rode for she never got the chance to race for herself was expected to do teamwork for others all the time. The change of team has been really smart on her part and on their part as well. It's given her a chance to show her wares in the big races and it's been a real win-win situation."

Katrin Garfoot will likely be the best chance of a medal for the women's team, with the hilly time-trial course likely to suit her abilities as a specialist against the clock. Whether that focus will allow her to be as competitive in the road race only time will tell.

"We'll have to see with Garfoot," said Barras, "obviously she's going all-in for the time-trial and she's just coming off some ill-health, but I expect her to be quite good."

For the course itself, a windy start is expected as the race starts way out on the tip of one of the craggy peninsulas surrounded by fjords that typifies much of the Norwegian coastline before the race goes into the familiar circuit format favoured in world championships courses. The main feature of the 19.1 kilometre circuit is the Salmon Hill climb, an ascent in two parts that will be hardest for its repetition than its overall difficulty.

"When we went over it and looked at the climb (of Salmon Hill), the direct comparison was the Mt. Buninyong climb at the national championships," said Barras. "It's not quite as steep as Mt. Buninyong at the top, but in terms of length and with the shallower first half and the steeper second half, it is comparable to that. There's no doubt it's a solid climb but at the end of the day racers and riders decide how hard a climb or a race is."

The similarities between the Buninyong course and the route in Bergen can't hurt the Australian cause, with all the riders on the startline well-practised over the Australian championships route, with Garfoot taking out this year's edition of the race. Spratt and Gracie Elvin are both two-time winners over the course as well. The worlds in Bergen is a longer race than the Australian championships, but also with a longer distance between each climb and more technical descending on offer.

"It's a good course, it's going to be quite selective. It's not a pure climber's course, more of a power climber-type course, it will definitely come down to a selective break. We do a lot of planning around that, looking at the data to predict the sort of race we are going to get and the outcome. I like it, typically the more selective courses aren't suited for Australians, but this one is nicely balanced."

While coming in with a number of contenders, Australia will be placed in the same predicament as all the other major nations at the event - how to combat the overwhelming power of the Dutch team. Any list of the best female riders in the world at the moment would have to include five or six Dutch riders at the top and the title of best rider in the world comes down to a fight between Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-Scott).

"So much of the race will be determined by how the Dutch use their numbers," said the Australian coach. "With the form that van Vleuten and van der Breggen are holding at the moment, it's a daunting prospect, not just for us, but for everyone. We're an outside chance for the win, an outside chance for a medal but for us it comes down to racing well as a team and using our depth."

Supporting the trio of top riders will be Gracie Elvin and Sarah Roy (both Orica-Scott). Generally considered as stronger riders in classics-style races and flatter courses, they may even become leaders on the road if the weather turns nasty or the first part of the race along the coast is particularly selective.

"We've brought Elvin and Roy, not so much for their ability for winning the bike race," said Barras, "but they are bike riders who have a track record of working for the team. At the same time, you look at the record of those two this year and they do have the ability to pick the right breakaway and making it stick.

"For us, it could be a good opportunity to get something up the road before the finale and get the Dutch to use their numbers so we come down to the end a bit more even on power with the Dutch."