• Defending champion Miles Scotson is a year better and stronger and one of four BMC stars. (Getty)Source: Getty
BMC Racing, Michelton-Scott and dominant local National Road Series team Bennelong SwissWellness are being touted as the 'big teams' to watch in the fight for the national road race championship.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

6 Jan 2018 - 7:04 PM 

Warm conditions are expected for the Elite men's road race, with the race starting in the post midday sun at 12.15pm AEDT. It's a slight modification to the normal course around Buninyong, it still takes in the key ascent of Mt Buninyong, but there's a new deviation to the back half going via 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 as a result 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's very technical, verging on dangerous corners, and some sharp pinches of climbing. It was on this section that Cyrus Monk made his race-winning move in the under 23 race, so it shouldn't be underestimated for its potential to be decisive.

The weather will be 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.

There are many ways to win in Ballarat. You can win in small group sprints like previous winners Simon Gerrans and Heinrich Haussler, go solo like Like Durbridge or Jack Bobridge or surprise everyone with a late move like Miles Scotson last year.

The battle of words during the lead-up to the race has primarily been between BMC and Mitchelton-Scott with each team seeking to shift the onus of controlling the race onto the other team ahead of the race on Sunday. 

"To be honest, the pressure is really on BMC, I think," said Mitchelton Scott's Durbridge. "We've got nine riders, but half of them are neo-pros anyway. They've got five seasoned pros, plus Miles won last year, so the pressure's on them. It's refreshing, we still reminisce about the day we had 17 riders in 2012, there was pressure.

"I think it's changing - which is good for Australian cycling - there are really three big teams. Bennelong is going to have like 15 guys, all ready for the nationals, BMC has five guys in great shape and a nine-man Michelton-Scott. It's probably the best field we've ever had, team-wise, in the nationals."

It will certainly be a shift in power from previous years and it means there will be some interesting tactical implications from the start of the race. The early break, in particular, will be fiercely contested, that's almost a must-watch as the top teams scrap it out to decide who's in the front move and, more importantly, who gets stuck with chasing.

The big team which will have the hardest time with this is BMC. Simply put, they have fewer numbers and any of their riders that do go with the move will be considered too strong and the move will probably fail from lack of co-operation. 

Mitchelton-Scott and Bennelong SwissWellness won't have quite the same problem, they've got a number of riders who will do well in a breakaway situation and they can spare riders to go on the attack and save a few in reserve.

The other teams and individual WorldTour riders probably aren't strong enough to really force the issue, with the exception of Education First Drapac, who'll have a bit of assistance with their feeder team Drapac EF in the race, looking to set things up for Brendan Canty (provided their holistic education involves arithmetic) or Simon Clarke. 

With the complicated team dynamics, it's hard to pick a favourite, and it's unlikely that race will be won by the strongest rider. It will all come down to who gets the tactics right.

In terms of pure strength, it's hard to go past the four BMC riders. Richie Porte, Rohan Dennis and Miles Scotson all looked in superb form during the time-trial and Simon Gerrans is a veteran at winning this race. Any of them could win, interestingly last year's winner Scotson is the least credentialled and we could see the odd circumstance of a defending champ doing the domestique work for his teammates.

It's likely BMC will be reactive to what happens on the road. They can't afford to be passive, given that many have picked them out as the favourites here.

Mitchelton-Scott is a more cosmopolitan squad than they used to be, which means fewer Australians and less chance of taking away the green and gold jersey. While their aims have diversified, they would still love a big win in Buninyong. 

They have riders for the climbs in Damien Howson, Lucas Hamilton and Robert Power. Riders for the sprint, in the unlikely event it comes to that, with Caleb Ewan and Alex Edmondson. Plus, they've got monstrous powerhouses in Luke Durbridge and Cameron Meyer who will be very useful regardless of the situation. It will be fascinating to see who ends up getting the nod to go for the win with so many factors at play.

Bennelong SwissWellness are going to be major players in the race. They have 12 starters, almost all of whom are good enough climbers to get around the course and play a role well into the race. You could pick any number of their line-up to be effective here, but their best chance is certainly going to be playing the numbers in the break and using that strength in depth to get a headstart on the WorldTour riders.

Cam Bayly, Scott Bowden, Chris Harper, Nathan Elliot and Michael Freiberg are going to be danger men if they are given any sort of leeway. Team boss Andrew Christie-Johnson really wants this win, against the biggest riders in Australia on the most prestigious stage and he has one of the best opportunities to pull it off this year.

Out of the solo riders, Nathan Haas (Katusha) has to be the pick at the moment. He normally uses the Bay Criteriums to tune up for the road race, but in their absence, took a start in the time trial and performed pretty well in an unfamiliar discipline to take fifth. 

Haas is really well suited to the hilly nature of the course. A sprint finish from a reduced bunch would work as well and he'd probably even put himself up against the best climbers in the field on a shorter, power climb like Mt Buninyong. The problem for Haas is that he has one bullet to fire and he has to pick his spot carefully.

Jay McCarthy (BORA-hansgrohe) is in a similar predicament. He looks in good shape, displayed an impressive sprint at the criterium and has the classics pedigree to not be troubled by the course. It hasn't quite come together for McCarthy at nationals yet, but with much of the focus directed away from him, perhaps he can find himself at the pointy end of the race.

Nathan Earle (Israel Cycling Academy), Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data), Robbie Hucker (Team UKYO) and Jai Crawford  (Kinan) are individual riders who could go well but if you have to go for a smokie, the youngest rider in the field, Micheal Storer (Team Sunweb) could be set for a good ride.

There have rarely been this many unknowns heading into a national championships road race. That should make for some dynamic racing and a superb spectacle.