• Ewan hasn't finished lower than second in this event for the past three years (AAP) (Cycling Australia)Source: Cycling Australia
Fast, frenetic and loud action kicks off the Australian national road championships on Wednesday evening with the national Criterium championships the first event.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

2 Jan 2018 - 1:16 PM  UPDATED 3 Jan 2018 - 1:51 PM

It's off to Sturt St in the centre of Ballarat for the first event of the 'Summer of Cycling', the month-long migration between the main events of the season in Victoria and South Australia.

A hotdog circuit awaits the riders, so-called because of it's top-down resemblance to the popular street meat. A simple 1.1km course with a slight downhill on the back straight that leads to a false flat raise to the finish line on the home straight. The slope isn't severe but it does mean the sprinters need to time their surge for the finish line a touch later.

The Cycling Australia FedUni Criterium National Championships will be streamed live on the Cycling Central Facebook page. The women start at 6.00 pm AEDT and men at 7:30 pm AEDT.

Landmark broadcast schedule for 2018 FedUni RoadNats
Cycling Australia, in partnership with SBS and FOX SPORTS, is excited to announce a landmark 2018 FedUni Road National Championships broadcast which will deliver live coverage of the elite women's road race for the first time in the event's history.

The men's race is traditionally a sprinters' affair, with the last solo winner Cameron Meyer back in 2013, when he stole off the front of the race and romped to victory. Caleb Ewan is the defending champion and will be looking to become the criterium champion for the third time at just 23-years-old.

For Ewan to win against what is a strong field, he'll have to rely on strong teamwork from his loyal lieutenants Luke Durbridge, Alex Edmondson, Cameron Meyer and neo-pro Lucas Hamilton. You would think the team would be keen to throw in their lot with a bunch sprint finish for Ewan. They could well commit Durbridge to sit on the front with Hamilton and try and drag the race back together for Meyer and Edmondson to take over in the final stages.

The other option would be to turn the 'domestiques' loose to play a role in the breakaways, Meyer is a previous winner, Hamilton was second in the under 23 criterium last year and packs a good sprint for a climber, while Durbridge and Edmondson are powerhouses in their own right. Michelton-Scott will hold a lot of the keys to how this race is run and won.

Bennelong SwissWellness are the strongest team on the domestic scene and bring a formidable squad to the criterium. Former two-time winner Steele Von Hoff joins 2012 victor Anthony Giacoppo, both are strong fast men but it's likely they won't even be the main sprinter with former track star Scott Sunderland likely to be the man on the back of the lead-out.

The local powerhouse does have a 12-rider roster, so while they could opt to employ the longest sprint train in recent memory, it's likely they'll try to be aggressive with their numbers and send guys up the road to put pressure on Michelton-Scott. That would offer opportunities for local stars like Melbourne to Warrnambool winner Nathan Elliot and 2017 NRS winner Michael Freiburg to have a chance at sneaking the win from the pure sprinters.

There are a number of other riders who could benefit from this sort of strategy. Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe), Mitch Docker (Education First-Drapac) and Neil van der Ploeg (Madison-Genesis) could all look to try their luck from a move and have the experience and power to deliver a win in that fashion.

Now to the sprinters who might try to upset the likes of Ewan and the Bennelong complement.

Brenton Jones looked resplendent in his new Delko-Marseille team colours as he took out the warm-up event, the Ballarat Carnival, on New Year's Day. He's been on the podium for the past two years and desperately wants to turn the tables on Ewan, who has had his measure in events like the Mitchelton Bay Criterium series.

The main disadvantage for Jones is that he'll be riding without team support, but the finish suits the fast man perfectly and he only needs a little luck to cross the line first.

There aren't many sprinters from the National Road Series (NRS) present, outside Bennelong SwissWellness, but one who has shown up is Sean Whitfield (Oliver's Real Food Racing). Whitfield finished second behind Jones in the Ballarat Carnival, with his Oliver's teammates with three in the top five. To expect a win would be too much, but the newly elevated continental squad would be thrilled with a podium finish.

The women's race has the potential to break up a bit more and be ridden more tactically. It hasn't finished in a bunch sprint for the past two seasons and it looks like that may again be the case this year.

The race lacks a dominant outfit that can control proceedings for a star sprinter. There are a number of good fast females within this bunch, but none that a team would know they are assured of winning.

Probably the closest to favouritism would be track and road star Ashlee Ankudinoff (Specialized Women's Racing) who will come in with a team fully dedicated to putting her on the podium. She'll have a good leadout with Kendelle Hodges likely to be the final one on the front for her and good team support. Her recent convincing win at the Shimano SuperCrit in December was a nice tune-up and she'll be in good form readying herself for the track nationals later in the month.

Kimberley Wells (Holden Team Gusto) is a former two-time winner, though she isn't the full-time athlete she was when she took those wins. Nonetheless, she's still one of the fastest women in a straight line on the Australian scene and confirmed that last year by winning the criterium-heavy NRS Tour of Gippsland. She got dropped off a bit early in the SuperCrit, where she was third behind Ankudinoff, so a bit of improvement could see her take a third victory.

For the sprinters to have a crack at the win, they'll have to beat the power and tactics of Mitchelton-Scott. They do have 2013 winner Sarah Roy and Gracie Elvin on the start line, who they'd ride for in the event of a sprint, but as they showed last season they won't be content to sit and wait for the lottery of a fast finish.

Jessica Allen (Michelton-Scott) lines up as the defending champion after counter-attacking an early move last year to take a solo win. Jenelle Crooks (Mitchelton-Scott) was her partner in crime in that attack, policing any attempt to catch Allen and soon the other riders resigned themselves to riding for second. Mitchelton-Scott will try and use their strength in a similar manner this year, it will be up to other teams to stop them.

There are plenty of other names that could contend for the win. Rebecca Wiasak has shown herself to be a very accomplished criterium racer on the local scene and over in the United States. She's won races in sprints, long attacks and with her 'wizard move', her famous last lap flying attack.

2011 winner Lauren Kitchen (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) is on a new team this year and will be looking to ride for herself after a season as a domestique in the WorldTour peloton. A very consistent rider who packs a good sprint.

Peta Mullens (Hagens Berman-Supermint) has been a perennial presence in the criterium nationals in recent years, taking second places in the 2014 and 2015 races. She maintains almost a perpetual level of form as she tackles a wide variety of cycling disciplines year round, so there's little reason to suspect she won't be far from her top level here.

The under 23 women title will be the 'race within a race'. Defending champion Nicola Macdonald (Holden Team Gusto) will come in as favourite after a strong but unlucky showing at the Tour of Gippsland but there's going to be strong competition from the likes of Madison champion Kristina Clonan, track star Maeve Plouffe (SASI) and last year's second place-getter Josie Talbot (Specialized Women's Racing).