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 launch their sprint too soon.
Elite Men's Criterium
The 86 starters for the elite criterium might be reduced down to just the ones that don't have ambitions for the road race on Sunday, with the freezing conditions and torrential rain from last year no doubt playing on many minds, I've heard of some riders that opted not to enter after looking at the forecast!
Defending champion Sam Welsford will go in as the favourite, fresh off some impressive form at the Santos Festival of Cycling in the track and road racing. He's the absolute quickest out of those here and should get a decent look at the finish by his own positioning skills and also some work from Australian Cycling Team member Alex Porter. Luke Plapp also said that he'd be 'trying to get Sam up in the crit' in his post-TT interview so perhaps he and Kell O'Brien will be racing for the Australian Cycling Team rather than their road team, Inform TMX MAKE, in the criterium.
Speaking of Inform, they bring 2018 Commonwealth Games champion, Steele Von Hoff, to the startline off what has been a year of much reduced racing for the former WorldTour sprinter. Impossible to say how he'll stack up against the sprint stars that have progressed, but the hard conditions should play into the gritty Von Hoff's style of racing.
WorldTour squad Team BikeExchange have sent almost their full team present in Australia for the criterium, just missing defending road race champion Cameron Meyer. There's little question who they'll be riding for, Kaden Groves looks in very good form at the moment, coming off some good sprints at the Festival of Cycling. He's climbing just as well and will be a threat for the road race, but the criterium looks to be a good spot for the Aussie team to bag a win after being shown up in the time trial.
2019 national criterium champion Brenton Jones (Canyon dhb Sungod) is back to have a crack at the title again. These days it seems more time looking after other riders than he does for himself, hosting Ride Nation events, participating in charity rides and looking after individual riders, but he can't be discounted even amongst a quality field.
Nick White looks like he'll be the sprinter from Team Bridgelane, but I'd expect them to have a broader strategy than just looking for the sprint against the calibre of opposition they have here. White could well match with them, but he's less of a pure sprinter than the likes of Welsford, and would benefit from a hillier or harder race.
It looks likely to end in a bunch sprint, but if not, expect to see names like Brendan Johnston (CCS Cycling), Michael Rice (ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast), Rylee Field (Team Bridgelane), Liam White (Oliver's Real Food Racing) and Cyrus Monk (CycleHouse) mixing it up off the front in likely breakaways.
Under 23 Men's Criterium
The Under 23 men will race before the live stream begins, but I'll do a brief preview.
There a host of sprinters here with strong teams, and it looks like they'll be able to control the 62 rider field to see the race end in a bunch sprint.
Jensen Plowright (Team Bridgelane) will go in as the favourite, the 20-year-old is very quick, can handle himself in the battle for position and has a strong team to deliver him to the win.
WorldTour-bound Taj Jones has said that he's got a lot to learn before he goes to the upper echelons of the sport with Israel Start-Up Nation. It's evident that he's been taking a slower pace to the summer racing than most here, who have this as one of their top season goals. Nonetheless, it's impossible to count him out, the watts he puts out other sprinters can only dream of.
Giant Racing's Godfrey Slattery impressed mightily last season in limited outings at the Herald Sun Tour, but will need to pull out even better than that to win here.
Inform TMX MAKE have had a brilliant nationals so far, going 1-3 in the elite men's time trial and 1-2 in the Under 23 men's. They also have a massive squad of Under 23 options, and I'd expect to see them try to use their numbers up the road as much as possible to force an advantageous situation. If it does come down to a sprint, they have a very rapid pair of sprinters in Graeme Frislie and Blake Quick.
ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast have their normal array of sprinting talent, minus Cameron Scott. The good news is that after the nasty crash in the Tweed NRS event he's well on the mend now! In any case he's not an Under 23 anymore. Craig Wiggins and Matthew Rice are both sprinters with good pedigree, but it's been awhile since either have won a major race after both had very impressive starts to their careers.
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.