For those Australians with an eye on a prize they can gloat about and wear all season long, the season begins in earnest right here, right now, writes Anthony Tan in Ballarat.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:39 PM

Does the road season begin with the Bay Crits? The national championships? The Tour Down Under? Qatar? The first race back in Europe? Paris-Nice?

For those in Ballarat, it begins now.

One of a handful of times this season NRS-level and fully fledged professionals meld, for the Australian riders at least, the Cycling Australia
Road National Championships is serious biz.

The marquee events have been and always will be the road races, but should we just dismiss the national criterium and time trial championship?

Hell, no.

This morning from Melbourne, on the drive down to this once highly prosperous gold mining town, encyclopaedic cycling commentator Matt Keenan felt the women's Bay Series criteriums that preceded the start of the nationals, which saw four different winners in as many days, was raced superbly and entertainment-wise, surpassed that of the men's event; a consequence of the utter dominance of Caleb Ewan, who so far is displaying equal precocity as Robbie McEwen around the same age.

Wednesday's hat-trick of crits began with the Under-23 men, where Chris Hamilton, a 19-year-old mountain-biker - who later admitted "I haven't raced on the road that much" - launched an audacious escape with another underdog, David Edwards, and held off the field by the skin of their chinny-chin-chins. Hamilton, who punched his way to victory up Sturt St, happens to be another precocious spotting by Avanti team manager Andrew Christie-Johnston, and is determined to realise his dream on the dirt in Rio...

But after that, who knows where or how high he'll go?

A severe bout of pneumonia this time last year (sadistically, rather than avoid following the race she won in 2013, she 'watched' it unfold on Twitter) then tearing her piriformis muscle shortly after her return to Europe, sidelining her entire season over there and rendering her unable to exercise for four months, Kimberly Wells made her comeback complete.

Three bike-lengths ahead of the next best, Peta Mullens, "It was exactly what I needed to solidify my return to the peloton," she enthused - yet another from a mountain-biking pedigree, but now intending to make her mark as a track endurance athlete, the omnium in Rio a likely target for Wells.

"I wasn't thinking about that, but it's nice to be with a team that wants me."

So said newly crowned Australian criterium champion Steele von Hoff, asked by a journalist if his emphatic victory over Ewan today was some sort of "payback" for being let go by Garmin-Sharp (now Cannondale-Garmin), right at the back end of last year. "November came around and team camp was just on the horizon. I was still wondering if I was going or not," he told CyclingTips last December. "I put all my eggs in that basket this year by working for the team and not my own results."

I never thought the team he rode for previous, oriented towards the Classics and Tour de France, was the right home for von Hoff. But I also thought that like his former team-mate Tyler Farrar, perhaps he was just too bloody nice, because after his win today, he kept saying he "felt bad" for riding against Avanti and his former boss Christie-Johnston, who, like he's done with six others, groomed him from part-time cyclist, part-time something else, to full-time-WorldTour-ready-rider-in-demand.

Tomorrow (Thursday) is the time trial, a discipline that appears to polarise opinion (admittedly, a bit like yours truly...), where sentiment ranges from drop-dead boring to edge-of-your-seat enthralling.

As for the contingent of elite men, without a shadow of doubt, this is one of the best, if not the best, starting line-ups we've seen to contest the newly mapped out Mt Mercer Rd parcours; an undulating 40.9 kilometre 'out-and-back' almost completely exposed to the elements - "a real honest course", Jack Bobridge told the Ballarat Courier.

On paper, Rohan Dennis, Luke Durbridge and Richie Porte are all in with a chance of donning the green and gold maillot by day's end. In some ways, it will be a localised version of what we saw at last year's road world's in Ponferrada, Spain, which saw Bradley Wiggins dethrone three-time world champion Tony Martin after three years of success, and trump chrono man on the rise, Tom Dumoulin.

Twas not a complete surprise about Wiggo but somewhat of an upset - which for me is how it would be if someone other than Dennis won, the 24-year-old South Australian ominously honing in on Hour Record form, which he'll contest exactly one month from now, on February 8 at the velodrome in Grenchen, Switzerland.