• Annemiek Van Vleuten powered to victory in a five rider dash to the finish in the 2017 edition. (Getty)Source: Getty
It’s hard to think of another World Tour race that is so varied, both in its composition and the type of rider that can win it. We’ve seen solo winners, small bunch sprints and attacking riding light up previous editions.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

27 Jan 2018 - 8:14 AM  UPDATED 27 Jan 2018 - 11:48 AM

The Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race is now a fixture in the Australian summer, offering fast-paced and varied one-day action in the early cycling season.

The race is slightly altered this time around, 164km for the men and 113km for the women. The extra distance for the men comes with three finishing circuits around a modified version of the 2010 World Championships course, which includes some nasty climbing tests.

Sweltering conditions are set to greet the riders in Geelong, 31 degrees for the women on Saturday and an eyeball-drying 39 degrees for the men predicted for Sunday. The other key part of the forecast is the wind, it’s set to be gusty in both races.

The wind can whip up significantly as the peloton takes in the coastal areas around Torquay and Barwon Heads in the first half of the race. Previous editions have seen the race split to pieces in the crosswinds here.

The women's race looks more likely to see action at this point, with a southerly forecast the main bunch will be exposed to crosswinds straight off the Southern Ocean, which will then turn into a tailwind as they turn back to Geelong, allowing little chance for riders to catch back on.

The men are unlikely to face the same problem, they have a lot further to go after the crosswind section, in addition, they’ll be riding back to Geelong in a headwind, which should allow the race to come back together even if it is split to this stage.

There’s been a slight course tweak to the finishing laps this time around, the Hyland Rd climb has been removed, slightly shortening the finishing circuit (from kilometre 20 to 17) but the riders will tackle the brutal Challambra Crescent climb four times rather than three, due to the peloton entering the circuit at a different point this year. The women will tackle Challambra for the first time in the race’s history.

It’s hard to pick a key point of the race, dangerous moves can go at any stage, one of the reasons it is such a good race to watch. Certainly, it will be worth catching the early stages of the women’s race, there will definitely be a lot of action on the coastal sections that will set up the finale.

The men's race comes alive on the final circuits, attacks are effective and there’s a gradual attrition process back in the peloton as the climbs and technical nature of the course whittle down the chasers. It’s thrilling racing for purists and casual fans alike.

The women’s race has seen two solo winners in Amanda Spratt (Michelton-Scott) and Rachel Neylan (now Movistar but then riding for Orica-AIS), and it nearly had a third in Emma Pooley last year, but a small group hauled her in within the final few kilometres. Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) saluted from the reduced bunch sprint to take the first victory of what turned out to be a stellar 2017.

Michelton-Scott will look to continue their clean sweep of wins in the race and they’re bringing a strong squad to attempt to go four in a row. Defending champion and arguably the best rider in the world, Annemiek van Vleuten, is in pre-season mode currently. That didn’t stop her taking the win last year and she looked good at the women's Tour Down Under without getting close to her top level. She’ll excel in any crosswind action with her Classics experience and she’s also one of the best climbers in the world.

She’ll be ably supported by her teammates and Amanda Spratt is another previous winner here who will fancy her chances. Slight of frame, she wouldn’t be a conventional candidate to do well on the flat in the crosswinds, but Spratt is an able time-triallist and proved with her powerhouse performance in a long breakaway to win the overall at the Tour Down Under that she can drive away from the peloton even on the flat.

The biggest threat to Michelton-Scott will come from the ‘other’ Aussie World Tour riders, banded together into the Kordamentha Real Estate national team. Six riders and six potential winners in the team, including possibly the strongest rider in the race in Katrin Garfoot.

They’ll be very keen to make amends for the Tour Down Under, where they were shown up by Michelton-Scott on Stage 3 and lost Garfoot’s leader’s jersey. They aren’t regular teammates, but they have a shared history of being bullied by the sheer numbers and talent of Michelton-Scott during the Australian summer and any payback would be sweet.

There are a few sprinters who will be keen to see this end with a larger group kick for the line. Giorgia Bronzini (Cylance Pro Cycling) is perhaps the sprinter with the best pedigree on the course, the two-time world champion having taken out the first of her titles at the 2010 worlds in Geelong on a much harder course than she’ll face on Saturday.

“I have a lot of feeling, a lot of memories,” said Bronzini when asked about going back to the scene of her world championship triumph. “I asked myself how I made it eight years ago because to do that climb (Challambra) seven times, I think I was really strong in that moment.”

Chloe Hosking (Ale-Cipollini) should be able to get over the climbs, not with the best, but not far behind and will be hoping that a group can bring it back together.

There will be a few other wildcards in there, like national champion Shannon Malseed (TIBCO-SVB), Anouska Koster (Waowdeals), Eva Buurman (Trek-Drops), Kate McIlroy (Specialized) and Grace Brown (Holden Team Gusto).

The men’s race has come down to two reduced bunch sprints with Gianni Meersman (Quick-Step Floors) and Nikias Arndt (Sunweb) and a solo winner in Peter Kennaugh (BORA-hansgrohe).

Arndt will be back to defend his title in the number one bib. He represents the sort of rider you need to be to excel on this course, strong enough to power over the climbs, tactically aware with a good sprint to finish it off. Pure sprinters will find it too tough to hang on to the front of the race while pure climbers aren’t going to get enough advantage on the climbs to hold it all the way into the finish.

In that strong sprinter category, Arndt joins others like Steele von Hoff (Kordamentha Real Estate/Bennelong-Swiss Wellness), Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal), Michael Morkov (Quick-Step Floors), Chris Lawless (Sky) and Sam Bennett (BORA-hansgrohe). They’ll be the ones to watch if it comes to a sprint and certainly, any puncheurs or climbers will have to make the race hard enough to drop the faster men.

Those puncheurs or attackers will be the in-form riders that we’ve been talking about in these sorts of races all summer. Daryl Impey (Michelton-Scott), Nathan Haas (Katusha), Jay McCarthy (BORA-hansgrohe), Dries Devenyns (Quick-Step Floors) and the evergreen Simon Gerrans (BMC) will be the men that, while they wouldn’t mind being part of a smaller bunch sprint, need to make the race hard to put a bit of lactic acid into the legs of the quicker men.

It’s hard to see a definitive favourite from the men’s field, it will be interesting to see which teams are prepared to take up the workload and assume control of the race when the inevitable attacks form.

To sum up, the races should offer an unpredictable smorgasbord of cycling entertainment. Predicting the winner will be similar to getting the winning raffle ticket.