It’s a well-known course for the riders and fans by now. 11.6km of the now famous Mt Buninyong course with the deviation through the FedUni campus. The climb of Mt Buninyong looms large at the start of each lap, with the 2.7km ascent more a difficulty when tackled repeatedly over the running of the race.
The elongated loop with the detour through FedUni offers a bit more chance for the non-climbers to catch back on and recover, with the more technical nature of the roads playing into the hands of the all-rounders. It’s a course where we’ve seen the likes of Richie Porte and Caleb Ewan going into the race as equal favourites in the past, and one where any type of rider will have a chance if good enough.
Conditions play a big part, with the wind on the climb often the deciding factor in whether it’s a race that favours the climbers or the ones with the ability to win from a small group sprint. At the moment the wind is expected to be only a minor influence in the women’s race, with a stiffening tailwind set for the men’s race in the afternoon.
Shannon Malseed (TIBCO-SVB) and Alexander Edmondson (Mitchelton-Scott) come in as the defending champions, but neither are favourites in high-class fields.
Mitchelton-Scott will again be the main determining factor in the men’s race. They don’t have Caleb Ewan to win a sprint finish, so we should see a change in tactics for the 10-man team for the World Tour squad. They’ll likely be a lot more aggressive, either stacking an early breakaway with riders or being aggressive on the final few circuits. Luke Durbridge, Edmondson, Robert Stannard, Lucas Hamilton, Cameron Meyer and Damien Howson shape as the big threats for the rest of the field.
Caleb Ewan sits as the main obstacle for his former team. Opting out of the criterium to concentrate on the road race, the diminutive sprinter has shown in the past that he has the climbing ability to get around the course and was only robbed of a silver medal last year after getting boxed in by Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin).
He’ll have to rely on the cooperation of other teams as he’ll only have Adam Hansen to help him throughout the race. But it’s not inconceivable that he’ll be close enough to profit it there’s a coming together of the race after the final climb of Mt Buninyong.
Team Bridgelane will again be the strongest of the locally-based teams, with a strong squad stacked with climbing talent. Chris Harper was agonisingly close to a breakthrough win in the race last year and they have enough numbers to make things very difficult for the rest of the field.
Team Sunweb bring their trio of young climbers, they will be a factor in the race when it comes down to the final laps, with Jai Hindley, in particular, looking lively during the criterium.
There are a few riders that will have to take their chances and hope for a race run to suit. World Tour neo-pro James Whelan (EF Education First) is looking lean at the moment, and given the trajectory of his career to date, while a win would be a surprise, it’s the sort of surprise that Whelan has shown he’s very capable of producing.
Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain Merida) has been outspoken about his chances in the race, with the former winner looking in the best form he’s seen for years.
Sam Crome (Team UKYO), Ben Hill (Ljubljana Gusto Santic), Troy Herfoss, Mathew Ross, Jesse Featonby (Oliver’s Real Food Racing) and Ryan Cavanagh (St George Continental) are a few of the lesser known names that could create a surprise if they are allowed much leeway to go up the road by the rest of the field.
Verdict: There are always a lot of rumours and conjecture flying with summer form under question. Some of the strongest chat has been centred around James Whelan, who was reportedly putting out ridiculous numbers in pre-season camp.
The FedUni Road National Championships are LIVE Sunday 6 January on SBS, the Cycling Central Website and available on the SBS OnDemand app. The Women’s Road Race starts at 10am AEDT and the men from 1pm AEDT.
The women’s race looks like it will be run through the Mitchelton-Scott team. They have a really strong team filled to the brim with favourites for the top step of the podium in Amanda Spratt, Gracie Elvin, Grace Brown, Lucy Kennedy, Jessica Allen and Sarah Roy. Any of them can win the race potentially, with world championship silver medalist Spratt the assumed leader.
Past editions of the Nationals have seen the race entirely controlled by the Mitchelton-Scott team with numbers in the early breakaways and then the best attackers to go on the climbs.
Last year, a strategy was devised to counter the influence of Mitchelton-Scott, with a number of other professionals assigning a member to shadow of the all-conquering World Tour squad. The plan ensured that no matter which rider from Mitchelton-Scott went on the attack, someone would follow them.
Defending champion Malseed was the beneficiary of the strategy last year and will again be a player in the race, this time with Brodie Chapman (TIBCO-SVB) also on the team. Arguably the course suits Chapman better, with her attacking instincts and climbing ability suited to the route.
Lauren Kitchen and Shara Gillow are two of the most accomplished World Tour professionals on the start list, and if in form are more than capable of taking the victory.
Jaime Gunning and Kate Perry (both Specialized Women's Racing), Emily Roper, Rachel Neylan (Team Virtu), Chloe Hosking (Ale Cipollini), Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon/SRAM Racing) and former champion Peta Mullens (Roxsolt-Attaquer) head up a list of outside chances for the race. At best it would be a minor surprise to see riders of their quality take the victory.
Verdict: It’s hard to look beyond a Mitchelton-Scott victory in this race. Lucy Kennedy will no doubt be itching to get back to racing after an injury-interrupted season in 2018. She’s super strong, and if riders decide that Spratt is the main rider to follow, then Kennedy might be able to exploit the situation to attack and go for the win.