If you enjoyed the racing from the criterium last year, where the riders slogged through a torrential downpour to contest the hotdog circuit around Sturt St in the centre of Ballarat, the 2021 edition is set to be more of the same!
As riders and spectators from that edition will know, the conditions were also bitterly cold, with thankfully a slightly warmer evening's competition in prospect this time.
The course is a called a hot-dog because it resembles a sausage shape, but it's a nice, plump German-style sausage in this case, with the wide boulevarde of Sturt street providing less of a hairpin at either end, so the constant attrition caused by braking and re-acceleration is less dramatic than other courses.
At 1.1 kilometres, the course does have a distinct uphill and downhill side, with the home straight on the uphill a false flat incline to catch any out that launches their sprint too soon.
Elite and Under 23 Women
Will it be a sprint, or will we see a move get clear and contest the victory?
Sarah Gigante (TIBCO-SVB) is on the startline, so we know that she'll be keen for a bunch sprint to be avoided, but surely it will be too hard for her to get away. She will be watched like a hawk, but that may allow some leeway for other riders to get clear, especially off the back of some Gigante aggression.
There are plenty of sprinters here that will want things to be brought back together, but the question is whether the teams with the firepower to chase moves down will really want to go for a sprint.
The group of sprinters appears very deep. Defending champion Chloe Hosking will debut her new Trek-Segafredo kit with teammate Lauretta Hanson, and she's obviously the sprinter with the best pedigree in the field, even if her current form is a bit of an unknown.
No other rider comes close to Hosking's tally of 37 UCI race wins, but the track endurance team showed at the Santos Festival of Cycling that they mean business, as they swept to victory with Georgia Baker after an impressive leadout delivered the Tasmanian sprinter through the final corners in perfect position. It could be any of Baker, Annette Edmondson or Ashlee Ankudinoff sprinting here however. They're probably the strongest team that will be really intent on a sprint, so a lot of the race will be dictated through the Australian Cycling Team.
Ruby Roseman-Gannon and her ARA Pro Racing Sunshine Coast team boast a good collection of track and road crossovers who also pack a sprint, but Roseman-Gannon has shown that she's the best on the road with her results in the last 13 months. A premier sprinter who mixed it with Hosking last year in sprints, she's only gotten stronger since, and will be very hard to beat here if she can get to the finish on equal terms.
Peta Mullens was on fine form with her Roxsolt Liv SRAM team at the Festival of Cycling, winning the opening stage, then attempting the Victoria Park divebomb down the inside of the last major corner on the final stage to good effect, ultimately tiring after the early effort as Baker sprinted clear. Mullens crit prowess is on par with anyone in the field, she used to go to the USA and towel up the criterium circuit over there, a formline shared by two-time Australian national criterium title winner Rebecca Hill (nee Wiasak).
Sarah Roy (Team BikeExchange) has to be considered a major threat as well, she prefers a harder race before the sprint, and tough conditions could result in a more attritional battle that would suit the Sydneysider. However, it will be a tough battle to pit Roy for the win against the more extensive sprint trains, so we might see Roy and Jessica Allen try their luck up the road. Allen won the criterium in that exact fashion in 2017.
Matilda Raynolds (Specialized Women's Racing) is another fast finisher, but if I had to guess, I would say her focus will be more on the road race this year as we've seen her climbing improve by leaps and bounds in recent years.
If you're a believer in the lack of chase theory or that a Gigante-less move is allowed a little bit of leeway, Alex Manly (Australian Cycling Team), Nicola Macdonald (both Roxsolt Liv SRAM) and Sam de Riter (ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast) will be ones to watch.
Also SBS Cycling Central contributor Kirsty Deacon is a very aggressive rider, you are bound to see her attempting to get clear at some point and she's got the quality to win a more attacking style race.
Under 23 women
The under 23 women's race is run at the same time as the elite women's event, with Ruby Roseman-Gannon winning the past two years. Now she's out of the Under 23 ranks, the race shapes as an open 'race within a race'. Normally, this race gets decided from within the bunch sprint, even if the race is decided by a breakaway up the road.
While Gigante's sprint isn't her primary attribute, it has improved markedly in the last year and she's to the point where she'll beat non-sprint specialists reliably. That will be enough to put her in the mix here, particularly if likes of Maeve Plouffe, Sophie Edwards (both ARA-Sunshine Coast) and Ashlee Jones (Specialized) are tasked with helping their teammates for the elite win.
Stephanie Corset (Veris Women's Racing), Chelsea Holmes (Giant Racing) and Catelyn Turner will be ones to watch as well, maybe more for the future, but they've all displayed flashes of top ability recently.
WorldTour-bound Neve Bradbury (Canyon-SRAM) isn't a sprinter of any sort, but is very strong and could find herself up there in a more selective race.
You can watch all the action on SBS Cycling Central's Facebook page, with the women's national criterium championship starting from 5.00pm AEDT, with the elite men's race starting at 6.00pm AEDT.