• Defending road champion Katrin Garfoot will be one of several riders to hoping to beat the Mitchelton-Scott collective. (Getty)Source: Getty
The dangerously warm weather has passed, but the action on the road will still be hot as the elite and under 23 women hit the Mt Buninyong course for theFedUni Road Nationals marquee events.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

6 Jan 2018 - 6:39 PM 

The elite women can expect mild conditions, with the race starting bright and early at 8.50am AEDT. It's a slight modification to the normal course around Buninyong, which still takes in the key ascent of Mt Buninyong, but there's a new deviation to the back half going via the grounds of new sponsors, Federation University.

It's going to be interesting to see how the changes effect the race, there's one less ascent of the key climb and non-climbers will have a bit more of a chance to recover after the three-kilometre ascent. The new section isn't without its difficulties, however. There are very technical corners and some sharp pinches of climbing.

The weather will milder than Saturday, with the mercury set to rise to 27 and a gusty tailwind predicted for the Mt Buninyong climb. A tailwind will significantly advantage the climbers in the race, so any change in the wind direction will have a crucial impact on the race.

For the women's event, it would be surprising to see too much of a departure from the recent trend of either a solo winner or a few riders fighting it out off the front of the race.

It's been a rare Australian road national championships so far with the women's arm of Michelton-Scott claiming only one jersey so far (Alex Manly in the Under 23 TT). The women's race is normally all about Michelton-Scott - they bring the strongest riders and support staff and their fifth rider would be as strong as most teams' leader.

They may not have it all their way this year however.

Their star power will likely be put to use supporting Amanda Spratt. The two-time champion and last year's runner-up is coming off her best season and her climbing style is perfectly suited to the Mt Buninyong climb. She loves having a good January to kick-start her year and with the announcement that she'll be targeting the Ardennes classics and not going to the Commonwealth Games, she can afford to be a bit better at this stage of the season.

The support crew comprises Jessica Allen, Jenelle Crooks, Gracie Elvin, Lucy Kennedy, Alex Manly and Sarah Roy.

Roy and Elvin will likely be kept in reserve if it comes down to a final sprint and Crooks is the sort of rider that could be used to mark dangerous moves before attacking herself. Kennedy is a superb climber and may form a 1-2 punch with Spratt at the end of the race.

The consistent problem for the other elite riders who ply their trade in Europe has been combating the Michelton-Scott numbers as they are normally without team support and co-operation is very limited. This year however, they have a secret weapon.

Katrin Garfoot is going to be the wildcard going into the race. By far the strongest rider in the race, there are few in the world who can produce the same power. Her ride last year to the win was incredible.

After riding the front up the climb for the first few laps to tire the field out, she took a few laps off then came back to reel the breakaway in and then attack over the top. Spratt then went away and was being chased down by Kennedy until Garfoot jumped across the gap and towed Spratt clear.

She did the job of three riders last year and still ended up winning, so it's hard to see a scenario where she's not at least in the fight for the victory. That's if she's not too fatigued from her powerful time trial performance, where she made a very sharp field look mediocre. 

Dennis, Garfoot win cycling three-peats
Rohan Dennis and Kat Garfoot have scored their third-straight time trial wins at the Australian road cycling championships.

There are numerous other riders who will see Garfoot's presence as their best chance for a victory in years. However you look at it, Michelton-Scott has to plan around Garfoot to some extent, either send some riders in the break and trust them to get the job done, or contrive a situation to get Spratt or Kennedy up the road in a more selective affair.

That will open the door for those other professionals, who for years have been marked out of the race but may find themselves slipping under the radar this time around.

One of the most excited about the shift in power will be Shara Gillow and Lauren Kitchen (both FDJ). Both have been among Australia's best riders overseas in the past few years and both are well-suited to the course. Gillow had a career best season last year, placing very consistently in the hillier classics against the best riders in the world. Replicating that form could be enough to win and she'll have a very able rider as a foil in Kitchen.

She spoke after her bronze medal ride in the TT and was optimistic about her chances going into the road race.

"I'm pretty geed up for that one (the road race). It's a strong field but I'll be going in with a teammate for the first time in a few years," she said.

"This year it's going to be really tough for Orica (Michelton-Scott), for the people who aren't on Orica, on other professional teams like myself, it's going to be a good race. It's going to be more of an even playing field."

Rachel Neylan (Movistar) will be an interesting dark horse for the race. She is one of the more tactically astute riders in the peloton and is coming off a season where she again found some top form. She appears enthusiastic about her move to Movistar and looks primed for a good performance. She's not the pure athlete that others in the field are, but is a smarter rider than most.

Chloe Hosking is looking to have a go at winning the race this year after the course amendments have made it just that little bit easier for the sprinters. That's what the rumour mill has to say in any case after she skipped the criterium, which normally suits her better. Gene Bates, Michelton-Scott sports director, offered up her name as one of the main threats for the title and she'll be motivated to take a win and secure a position on the Commonwealth Games squad.

Hosking has been arguably Australia's best rider over the past few years and if it does come down to a sprint, she'll be nigh on impossible to beat. She was sixth in 2016, only 35 seconds behind the leading pair. It's hard to see a scenario where the other riders will be happy with her coming to the finish line with them and she doesn't have a team to chase escaped groups down for her.

Ballarat local Shannon Malseed will be an intriguing rider to follow. She's making the step-up to TIBCO-SVB this season, after a consistent progression and sequence of improving results in the National Road Series (NRS) and higher level events. A fourth-placed finish last year didn't fully do her justice and now she's got an extra year under her belt, some more fine form and a realistic shot at the win.

The best of the local NRS teams is likely to be Holden Team Gusto, with Carlee Taylor and Grace Brown their top shots at sneaking a result. Taylor and Brown are on opposite career trajectories, the ever-popular Taylor is taking another path in life but isn't fully committed to racking the bike quite yet. Brown is nearly ready for that step up to riding in World Tour races against the best, she just needs a result or two to prove it. Her fourth in the time-trial will have set warning bells throughout the field and she probably won't be allowed too much room.

Grace Brown: Watch this space
The little-known running convert Grace Brown (Holden Team Gusto) is making a splash in the early years of her cycling career, the latest of which saw her ride to a superb fourth in the Elite Women's Time Trial.

Both are very good climbers, good time-triallists and poor sprinters, so they'll be looking to make some aggressive moves from a long way out.

 If you're looking for a dark horse then Kate Perry (Specialized Women's Racing) may be just that. Of the NRS riders, she's one of the most likely to catch a peloton by surprise. She's not explosive, can't really sprint and prefers to hang at the back of the bunch, but if she gets given any amount of free leash to go off the front in an attack, her NRS victories have shown that she's very hard to bring back.

The women's national road races of the past have rightly been criticised for predictability and the dominance of the competition by Michelton-Scott. That should be evened out a lot more this time around and it should make for a brilliant race.