• Cameron Meyer celebrates his win (Con Chronis/Zac Williams)Source: Con Chronis/Zac Williams
It's a different approach to the nationals this year, but one that should see a ferocious fight for the right to wear the green and gold jersey for 2021.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

6 Feb 2021 - 9:20 PM 

The Course

The Mt Buninyong course is well-known within the Australian cycling community, a three-kilometre climb that has ramps of up to 10 per cent, but is mostly difficult due to the repeated efforts round and round the course over the race. The rest of the 11.6-kilometre circuit is a mixture of descending and rolling sections, with about a kilometre of flat road into the finish which is very fast as it comes after a long descent from Federation University.

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 wind is set to be a south-westerly, switching to a southerly around the start of the race, it's either going to be a tailwind or cross-tailwind on the main parts of the climb of Mt Buninyong.

There should be mild to cool conditions, rain is possible, but is predicted for earlier in the day rather than the afternoon.

Watch all the action on SBS and SBS On Demand from 12.30pm AEDT, tune in for the women's race from 10.00am AEDT as well to catch the live racing from Buninyong free to air!

Gigante the one to beat: women's road race preview
The elite and U23 women will take to the roads of Buninyong with the question on everyone's lips 'is Sarah Gigante unbeatable'?

The Contenders

Defending champion Cameron Meyer (Team BikeExchange) loves this time of year, loves nationals, does well on this course and is apparently nursing some secret form. It's the sort of thing you hear lots of at nationals, rumours abound roadside, but this one appears better placed than most as it comes out of the track team. The whole squad has been flying during nationals and the Santos Festival of Cycling, Meyer has been conspicuously absent and could well benefit from his dual track/road preparations as he did last year to win again.

It could be any of the Team BikeExchange riders really, each has their own case why they could win.

Luke Durbridge is in some scary form at the moment, and loves being on the front foot at the nationals road race. If he's off the front, how much of the peloton would it take to bring him back? At the same time, he's spent a lot of energy in the last few weeks with his form maybe not quite as long lasting at this point of the season.

Kaden Groves won the criterium on Friday night, and some of the post-race chat centred around the road race and Team BikeExchange's plan. 

"Everyone's stoked for Sunday and to try and take the jersey back to Europe," said Groves after his criterium win. "It will be cold conditions and I think with the guys training down in the south here they'll be in for a shot. Any of the guys could take the win on Sunday. 

Groves was climbing well in Adelaide at the Festival of Cycling and agreed that he was going well uphill.

"Totally. Yeah, I was going pretty good," said Groves. "Maybe I'm a bit of a back-up plan if I'm still there with a few laps to go, but I'm probably one of the first guys to ride if need be."

"He's on some really good form," said Groves of Durbridge. "He's probably a bit angry about his TT on Wednesday, but he's super and I think on Sunday he'll be in with a shot."

Groves sprints to win from Durbridge assist
A very attacking edition of the men's national criterium championships came down to a late attack with Kaden Groves (Team BikeExchange) sprinting to the win ahead of Nick White (Team Bridgelane).
Durbridge escapes WA lockdown for TT silver
Luke Durbridge's participation in the elite men's nationals time trial was a close-run thing, on and off the bike, as he was nearly unable to compete with the coronavirus restrictions with Western Australia coming into effect.

Lucas Hamilton is eyeing a Tour de France start, and the thing that will get him a spot there is his performance in Europe, not in early February at nationals but he has admitted he has some 'unfinished business' in Ballarat in the past. He'll be better for a few weeks competition in Australia, but is definitely well short of peak form.

Damien Howson is in a similar boat, and the form that Alex Edmondson has displayed is not quite at the same level that saw him win the 2018 road race in that thrilling finish ahead of Chris Harper.

BikeExchange will shape the way the race is run and won, they always do, it's up to the other teams to upset the natural order or work within the script and then surprise their WorldTour rivals, ala Michael Freiberg in 2019.

Plapp dethrones Durbridge with massive ride for TT title
The 20-year-old came into the time trial with a lot of hype around his performance at the Santos Festival of Cycling, but few were expecting him to dominate his competition in such stellar fashion, finishing over a minute ahead of four-time champion Luke Durbridge (Team BikeExchange) and Kell O'Brien (Inform TMX MAKE).
Plapp courted by WorldTour teams after Festival of Cycling success
Lucas Plapp has got a wealth of options for a potential WorldTour spot after the Tokyo Olympic Games, with teams getting in touch with the Australia 20-year-old.

If you've been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you likely wouldn't have heard too much about Lucas Plapp. The 20-year-old has exploded onto the elite road scene with his stunning rides at the Santos Festival of Cycling, where he climbed as well as Richie Porte, to the time trial at national where he out-time trialled Durbridge. The longer nationals course certainly won't suit him as much, but given that he appeared to have energy to burn at the end of the Festival of Cycling stages he shouldn't be ruled out because of that. 

If Lucas Plapp is the talk of the town in the men's racing, the performance of his Inform TMX MAKE team is the second subject of conversation.While Plapp is rightly to be feared, the rest of the Inform squad isn't to be underestimated. 

Kell O'Brien could scarcely have been more impressive in his rides in the time trial and the road race without winning and he packs a sprint that will allow him to win from a group that doesn't contain Groves, and maybe even one that does after a hard race.

Mark O'Brien lives for this time of year, the stalwart of the domestic scene is rarely far away from the action in the road race and can then back it up with next week at another favourite race, the Melbourne to Warrnambool. 'Marko' has a child on the way, so this may be his last serious crack at the nationals, and he shouldn't be discounted if he can get free.

WorldTour professionals Chris Harper (Jumbo-Visma) and James Whelan (EF-Nippo) have shown that they at least have decent form for this time of year in their racing to date. Both are well suited to this course, they might prefer the climbs to be a bit longer but they are well used to being factors in the race here, particularly in Harper's case.

They'll both have just one shot to fire, so it's a case of the early break or a scramble to pick the right move in the final laps of the race.

Whelan the protagonist: neo-pro impresses at Tour Down Under
James Whelan (EF Education First) has impressed so far in his first ride in a WorldTour race, backing up a day in the Stage 3 breakaway with a blistering ride in support of teammate Alberto Bettiol and rallying after the peloton caught him.
Bittersweet Roadnats result for Harper and Bridgelane
Chris Harper (Team Bridgelane) showed that his performance for last year’s third-place finish in the national road race was far from a fluke, producing a powerhouse ride from the early breakaway to take second place.

Team Bridgelane haven't had the happiest of championships for a team of their calibre, but they come into the men's road race with a red-hot shot at taking a marquee victory. Nick White's second place at the criterium was a bit of a shock, even for him, as he thought that he was more gearing his preparation towards his climbing legs.

"Yeah, they're definitely better than my criterium legs, I thought," said White, "so hopefully that’s good signs ahead of Sunday. I’ve put a lot of faith into the road race this year, so yeah, it’s all about that and all eyes on Sunday."

White is a hybrid sprinter and climber, and he'll be hard to stop from a small group at the end of a tough race, as he's shown at the conclusion to the Aussie classics, the Melbourne to Warrnambool and the Grafton to Inverell. 

Bridgelane have other riders to look to. Drew Morey was impressive from the breakaway at the Festival of Cycling, Ayden Toovey is seemingly built for this course and has been up there in the past and Alastair Christie-Johnston showcased some fine form in the time trial on Wednesday. 

Marcus Culey (Team UKYO), third last year, has had less of a charmed run this time around with his preparation, as you can read below. The key is that he thinks that he's building towards peak form in the next two to three weeks, and Culey at near best form is stronger than most of the riders here, even the names already mentioned. He'll have a team in Nathan Earle and Ben Dyball, who would be outside contenders in their own right if their form wasn't such a mystery, so an upgrade on his podium position shouldn't be such a long shot.

Mission Nationals: following Marcus Culey's odyssey
The revelation of the 2020 edition of the men’s National Road Race Championships was Marcus Culey, fighting all day in the break, then surviving when caught by the best riders in the race to battle to the podium. Jamie Finch-Penninger conducted a series of interviews over the months leading into the 2021 Nationals to chart the journey of Culey towards nationals.
Persistent Culey reveals how he snared RoadNats podium finish
In an Australian national road race field littered with World Tour talent, an unlikely figure - Marcus Culey (Team Sapura) - emerged as the crowd favourite in Buninyong as he battled at the head of the race for 185 kilometres.

Brendan 'Trekky' Johnston (CCS Cycling) can't be left out of the discussion. The 2020 National Road Series champion has been more training than he normally would in the summer, and this is a rider who has finished consistently in the top-10 when he's targetted the race. His enduro mountain bike pedigree is perfect for this sort of length of race, and he's too good to count out, even if there hasn't been much chatter about his form pre-race and he didn't show too much at the Festival of Cycling or in the criterium outside a few attacks.

To avoid writing too much I'll bundle the final bunch of riders in together. They're all quality riders with an attacking mindset and it would be a surprise to not see them on the front foot at some stage of the race. Cyrus Monk, Matt Ross, Lionel Mawditt (all CycleHouse), Ryan Cavanagh (St George Continental), Tim Roe (Cervelo-Tonsley Village), Scott BowdenDylan McKenna (Nero Continental), Robbie Hucker and mountain-biker Dan McConnell could all do well, but it would be surprising if they actually won.

Watch all the action on SBS and SBS On Demand from 12.30pm AEDT, tune in for the women's race from 10.00am AEDT as well to catch the live racing from Buninyong free to air!