Two surprise winners last year from comparatively low-profile teams reinforced the beauty of the Australian nationals.
The road races are wide open. Gone are the days when we could pick from just a handful of names to win the race each year.
Let's dive into the prospects and tactics that will go into deciding the winners.
Those who don't like the fact the Buninyong course has become the home of the RoadNats will once again be displeased the course remains unchanged.
The route encompasses the well-worn ascent of Mt Buninyong, the largely non-technical descent and flat terrain along Yankee Flat Road and Gear Avenue before a tricky little section through the grounds of event sponsors Federation University and the final straightforward descent into the Buninyong township. Repeat the 11.6 kilometre course for a total of nine laps for the women and 104.4 kilometres total, 16 laps for 185.6 kilometres for the men.
The wind up Mt Buninyong is normally a decisive factor. A tailwind on the steep, second section of the climb puts the race in favour of the climbers and breakaway artists. A headwind plays into the hands of sprinters and heavier riders who gain that extra benefit from hiding in the group behind the slowed-down climbers.
The Elite Women
The tactics of the race normally revolves around Mitchelton-Scott, both how they approach it and how the other elite riders and domestic teams react to their moves.
While they no longer dominate the top step and at some past editions they've muddled their own tactics, the fact remains the women's WorldTour squad shapes the race.
Amanda Spratt, Lucy Kennedy, Grace Brown and Gracie Elvin have all either won here in the past or finished on the podium and loyal team mate Jessica Allen could be a leader in any other squad present here.
Spratt remains the favourite, one of the best riders in the world who consistently shows up to the Australian summer in good form. She appeared to demonstrate that level of form with a stage win at the Bay Crits but her usual summer preparation was interrupted when smokey conditions from the Australian bushfires forced the Sydneysider to relocate.
She wasn’t on her best day in the individual time trial on Wednesday, finishing fourth, but a windswept TT is different from her preferred stomping ground up Mt Buninyong.
Brown and Kennedy are talented climbers and time triallists but seem to have come in with slightly less condition than usual. Kennedy’s preferred terrain is harder than this, but she has been one of the best on this course in the past. A win will go a long way to booking a plane ticket to Japan for the Olympics Games.
Sarah Gigante enters the defending champion, and while the circumstances of last year’s victory played right into her hands, there is no questioning the quality of the athlete she has become.
The 19-year-old's season with Roxsolt-Attaquer was put to good use, culminating in a Tour of Tasmania overall win in addition to the Under 23 National Road Series title. Small wonder international team TIBCO-SVB scooped her up for 2020, already bringing them a victory in Wednesday's time trial.
Any latent fear associated with bike handling following her horrific crash as a junior is gone and she’ll be tightly marked on Sunday. She’ll have to create some distance on the climb however, as her sprint won’t beat many of her likely rivals.
Gigante’s former team mate and reigning National Road Series champion Emily Herfoss was perhaps the hardest done by in the time-trial, clearly flying and only 11 seconds off victory. The Gold Coast local will look to channel her disappointment into the road race where her Roxsolt-Attaquer team will be a formidable force.
Herfoss, former road race champion Peta Mullens and Justine Barrow will headline their seven-rider strong squad with a lot of flexibility in their race plan. Herfoss and Mullens won’t be afraid of a sprint, so it would make sense for mountain goat Barrow to put the other teams under pressure on the climb.
Specialized Women’s Racing are the other strong team present, fielding eight riders at the start line. Kate Perry and Taryn Heather offer experience and climbing ability within their line-up, but all eyes are on Jaime Gunning.
The 21-year-old has steadily made her way through the ranks and after a top Australian summer in 2019, she’s now at the stage where a victory at the elite level as well as the Under 23s is on the cards. A win over Gigante and Barrow in a stage at the recent Tour of Tasmania should give confidence she can mix it with the best.
The FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope trio of professionals in Lauren Kitchen, Shara Gillow and new recruit Brodie Chapman are intriguing prospects for the race. Chapman is an exciting climber/attacker, Gillow a powerhouse and Kitchen, a classics/hard sprinting type for a reduced bunch finish. Their form is a bit of an unknown, but Chapman is rarely unfit, Gillow showed good legs in the TT and Kitchen has been a top-tier professional for years now.
If you want to look further afield, Chloe Hosking (Rally) is in the final stages of her plan to bid for Tokyo Olympics selection on a course normally considered too hard for a sprinter of her abilities. A win at nationals on a course she has been vocal in her opposition to over the past years would go a long way to convincing selectors of her merits. The sprinting star looked in very good touch at the Bay Crits.
Rachel Neylan (Casa Dorada) with her climbing and fighting ability is impossible to place too far away from the podium.
Rebecca McConnell (Primaflor Mondraker X-Sauce) is an Olympic athlete on the mountain bike scene and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her in the mix. Herself and husband Dan McConnell occasionally moonlight on the road scene locally and give a good account of themselves.
Macey Stewart (Australian Cycling Team) is as strong as they come, but likely won’t find the course to her liking. If she fights her way over Mt Buninyong nine times however, a sprint win wouldn’t be out of the question.
Watch the women's race LIVE and FREE from 10.00am AEDT on SBS HD and streaming on our site or via SBS On Demand.
The Elite Men
With the exception of one strange year in 2016 where Jack Bobridge flew the coop, the various iterations of Mitchelton-Scott have been ever-present in the winning moves at the nationals, taking out four of the eight road races in that time. The Australian WorldTour team will again have their say in 2020, though they are increasingly being challenged by domestic teams and individual riders.
Luke Durbridge (Mitchelton-Scott) will likely go in as leader after his stellar time trial victory on Wednesday, he’s clearly motoring at the moment and Perth-based professional riders seem to come out fitter after the off-season than when they started their holiday period.
The same logic applies to Cameron Meyer (Mitchelton-Scott) who is a perennial contender and seems perfectly suited to the course. He was in tears last year as he came agonisingly close to the win he has coveted for so long, but said he’d be back next year to do it all again.
Lucas Hamilton (Mitchelton-Scott) is a relative local, from just up the road in Ararat and is suited to the Mt Buninyong loop with his punch on the climbs, technical ability and decent sprint. His ride last year was one of the best of the championships as he fought his way back from a poorly-timed mechanical, then continually picked off riders to finish eighth overall.
While Hamilton is relatively nippy in a sprint, Mitchelton-Scott will be holding Kaden Groves in reserve if there’s any possibility of a bunch gallop. While the presence of other sprinters like Brenton Jones (Canyon DHB), Steele von Hoff (Inform TM Insight MAKE), Sam Welsford and Tristan Ward (Team Bridgelane) would normally make it a roll of the dice for Mitchelton to rely on a neo-pro in a bunch kick, Groves is also an extremely talented climber and may well last until a reduced group has formed.
National Road Series victors for the ninth time in a row, Team Bridgelane go into the race with 10 quality riders and the expectation of backing up the now-departed Chris Harper’s podium performances of the past two years. They have a number of good riders, and the likes of the Hill brothers (Ben and Sam), Scott Bowden, Ayden Toovey, Sam Jenner, Nick White and Rylee Field will be trying to establish themselves as the team with the largest numbers in any move that goes away from the peloton.
Mitchelton-Scott and Team Bridgelane are the two teams certain to impact the race, from here we’ll have to delve into the rumour mill and form speculation that surrounds Ballarat at this time of year.
Defending champion Michael Freiberg (Pro Racing Sunshine Coast) is ready to defend his green and gold jersey by all reports. Part of the Perth bunch-ride culture, the former individual pursuit world champion is ready to reproduce the sort of ride that saw him net the title in dramatic fashion last year. He’s also shown form at the Bay Crits and in the time trial.
Chris Harper (Jumbo-Visma) got a deserved call-up to the WorldTour with the powerhouse Dutch squad and has immediately begun repaying that faith with a third-place finish in the time trial. He has collected podium appearances of second and third in the past two seasons after he was part of dramatic finishes. A factor hampering Harper in those finales is his lack of a strong sprint finish and he’ll be looking to go solo, a tactic he nearly managed last year.
A name that maybe none, other than local cycling aficionados, will know is Marcus Culey (Team Sapura Cycling), who after coming a bit later to the sport is making up for lost time by working his way up the ranks in Asian cycling.
After Caleb Ewan, Culey has the most victories by an Australian in UCI racing during 2019 and he is flying at the moment. The Sydneysider took four wins from five stages in a late December race in Indonesia and finished seventh in the time trial, ahead of Freiberg.
In a similar vein to Cameron Meyer, Nathan Haas (Cofidis) has unfinished business with the course, though he might need the conditions to stay a bit cooler as the heat has affected him severely in the last few Australian summers.
Other contenders include Jay McCarthy (BORA-hansgrohe), Dylan Sunderland (NTT Pro Cycling), Jay Vine (Nero Continental), Jai Hindley (Sunweb), Angus Lyons (Oliver’s Real Food Racing), Alex Evans (Circus-Wanty Gobert), Daniel McConnell and Troy Herfoss.
Watch the elite men's race LIVE and FREE from 1pm AEDT on SBS HD and streaming on Cycling Central or via SBS On Demand.