With five stages for the men and two for the women, the race looks set to be decided among the climbers in the men’s event, with the race a bit more open in the truncated women’s race.
Gone is the prologue along Southbank, but the race returns to the picturesque lookout from the top of Arthur’s Seat. This year’s journey around regional Victoria takes the race to the eastern regions just out of Melbourne, with the riders gradually drawing closer and closer to the capital before the final stage along the banks of the Yarra River.
Phillip Island Racing Circuit: 97.8km (22 x 4.45 km)
A kermesse stage, which doesn’t promise overly long or hard racing. The course - better known for motor racing events - recently featured as part of the Tour of East Gippsland, with Emily Roper taking the win from Jaime Gunning in a two-rider breakaway. Both riders will be present in the women’s race, but neither will be favourite in a race that looks destined for a bunch sprint. Wind can be a major issue along the exposed south coast of Victoria, but it’s hard to see it being a big factor on the wide, regularly turning roads of the race circuit. An ironed-on sprint finish.
Men: Wonthaggi to Churchill – 127km
Women: Churchill to Churchill – 92km
The course differs for the men and the women, with the men journeying from Wonthaggi while the women will do a local loop before returning to the same finish. The finish is where the action will be for both of the races, on the steep ascent for the Jeeralang climb, which rates at 2.3 km of ascending at a leg-sapping 10.6 per cent gradient. Add in the fact that the majority of the climb is on gravel roads and it promises to be an intriguing finish to the stage.
The climb summits with 11.6 km to go and there is a technical descent from there before a final four kilometre flat run to the finish. The rest of the stage isn’t hard, which should mean that the non-climbers will be able to keep a bit closer on what is a very nasty climb, but it could well be a solo rider or small group that comes to the finish to contest the win.
The women’s race will end at this point and it looks like it will likely be a climber that can get a gap over the gravel ascent that will take the overall win. Good climbers with solid technical skills tend to be able to take bigger advantages than normal over the gravel climbs and it will likely be one for the Mitchelton-Scott trio of Amanda Spratt, Lucy Kennedy and Grace Brown to show their wares against the international stars Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) and Ashleigh Moolman (CCC-Liv).
All, with the exception of Brown, were in the top ten of last year’s Strade Bianche, which is probably the nearest analog for the tough ascent.
There exists the possibility that a particularly tough sprinter might be able to snag time bonuses on the first stage and then hang close enough to finish within sight and take the overall win and then you can bring in names like Chloe Hosking (Ale-Cipollini), Lotta Lepisto (Trek-Segafredo), Gracie Elvin (Mitchelton-Scott) and Alison Jackson (TIBCO-SVB).
Emily Roper (KordaMentha Real Estate) will lead the charge for the domestically-based riders, both she and Jaime Gunning (Specialized Womens Racing) have been bright lights on the Australian racing scene so far this summer. There are a few outsiders worthy of mention, with 42-year-old former Giro Rosa stage winner and pink jersey wearer Vicki Whitelaw (Sydney Uni-Staminade) making a return to racing this year as well as sister to Men’s WorldTour rider Robert Stannard, Elizabeth Stannard (Gusto StepFWD KOM), showing good form in limited racing.
Sale to Warragul – 161.3km
The longest stage of the race is pancake flat in the first half, but it could lend itself to crosswinds on what is some very open terrain in the region. The course changes to a rolling stage in the back half of the race, but nothing that should challenge any rider in good form.
Teams will want to get themselves to the front well before the finale, with narrow roads and a technical last few kilometres leading into what appears to be a likely sprint finish.
Cape Schanck to Arthur’s Seat – 112.9km
The Queen stage of the race with the summit finish that will likely see the winner locked in for the Jayco Herald Sun Tour overall win. It really is hard to see the winner of this stage not being the overall winner of the race, the climb is hard enough for the top climbers like Woods and Porte to create significant gaps on a single ascent, and they’re tackling it four times this year.
Three kilometres long at 8.1 per cent, the climb is consistently hard enough for the top climbers to stamp their authority upon the race and you would expect that the climber’s teams will be keeping their mountain goats in contention so they can take the win here.
Melbourne – 89.1km (22 x 4.05km)
A loop around the parks and Royal Botanic Gardens in inner Melbourne. Not a hard four-kilometre course, but it contains a short climb on each lap. That will build up the lactic in the riders’ legs over the course of the race. It will be quite a pretty course, with the riders riding adjacent to the Yarra and the parklands along long, straight boulevards that will make it hard for a breakaway to escape the peloton.
It’s hard to conceive a situation where it’s going to be anything other than a world-class climber winning the race. There are quite a few that meet that criteria present at the race, with Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), Michael Woods (EF Education First), Lucas Hamilton (Mitchelton-Scott) and Ben Dyball (Team Sapura) topping the list of candidates for the overall win.
Porte showed his class to take his sixth consecutive win on Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under and will be looking to take his first ever win in a race that has seen his best finish being fifth in 2008 when he rode for domestic team Praties (now Bridgelane). It’s hard to imagine the Australian being bested if it’s all even coming into the final ascent of Arthur’s Seat, though he won’t be nearly at home on the earlier gravel climb into Churchill.
Michael Woods looked one of the strongest at the Tour Down Under before Willunga Hill and was also sprightly at the Cadel Evans Road Race. He’s been on a real path to stardom in the past season, with a stage win at the Vuelta, second at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and third at the world championships. That palmares more than qualifies him for a tilt at the win here.
Lucas Hamilton has received a reward for his sterling performance as a team helper in January with the leadership at the Herald Sun Tour. It’s no small gift, with former winner Damien Howson also lining up and a strong team assembled to support the Victorian. Hamilton has arguably shown himself to be as strong as anyone on the climbs, he spent the Tour Down Under shutting down critical moves in the finale and at the Cadel Evans Road Race, he was policing moves with ease in service of Daryl Impey.
He hasn’t displayed a great acceleration at this point in his career, and his skills over gravel are a bit of an unknown, but he is a diligent, supremely talented rider who will relish the chance to show he deserves to be up there with the best.
Ben Dyball (Team Sapura) heads up the list of riders that come into the race with some sort of question mark over their head. Dyball is coming off a career-best season where he finished as the number one rider in Asia while riding for St George Continental. He transferred to Malaysian team Sapura Cycling in the off-season and will again be hard to stop on the Asian scene. He is an elite climber, but he hasn’t raced in earnest this year and wasn't as good as his talent warrants in this race in the past.
Other riders will have to take some advantage into the final ascent of Arthur’s Seat to have a realistic shot at the overall victory. Nationals Road Race nearly-man Chris Harper, along with Dylan Sunderland, Lionel Mawditt (all Bridgelane), James Whelan (EF Education First), Kenny Elissonde, Pavel Sivakov (both Team Sky), Robert Stannard (Mitchelton-Scott), Jesse Featonby (Oliver’s Real Food Racing), Michael Potter, Freddy Ovett (both Pro Racing Sunshine Coast), Aaron Gate (EvoPro Racing), Matt Zenovich (St George), Marcus Culey and Jesse Ewart (both Sapura) all fit the bill as riders that the teams of the favourites will not want to give much leeway.