The National Championships: it’s all in the timing
Simon Gerrans and Alejandro Valverde fight out the finish of Stage 5 of the Tour Down Under (Image: Felix Lowe)
The Australian cycling calendar is a far different beast when compared to its traditional European counterparts. In Europe, the season starts with smaller races and generally builds to a peak with the Tour de France in July and the World Championships in September.
Directly preceding the Tour in July are the national championships for each country.
The general idea being that each country’s strongest rider deserves the chance to wear their national champions jersey on the roads of France.
In Australia, however, we do it a little differently. In my last piece I explained how the season down under gets firing the moment we enter the New Year.
On New Year’s Day there’s no time to nurse hangovers as we get rolling straight away with the ‘Bay Crits’.
These races are usually anywhere from three to five days of short and intense one hour races on tight and technical closed circuits around the Port Phillip and Corio Bay areas.
These races serve as the only prologue to what is the peak of many a riders season; the National Road Championships.
It’s a bit like going straight from the first round of the NAB cup to the grand final of the season proper. Admittedly, it feels rather disjointed going from something akin to a warm up match to something as important as a national championship.
Nonetheless, come the second week in January every year we hold our open road, time-trial and criterium championships.
For most of the big shot riders, this is – to put it frankly – a major pain in the arse. Cadel Evans, for example, doesn’t even bother starting the race.
It’s the start of a long season for many of these riders and most of them realistically don’t want to be, or physically can’t be, in top form so early in the piece.
A rider generally chooses to ‘dose’ their fitness so that they peak only a few times during one year. Some riders choose to hit top form during the Spring Classics in March and April. These riders then face the difficulty of recovering and rebuilding in time for the Tour de France in July.
Adelaide tough man Stuart O’Grady did not even start the national championships in 2007. Come April, however, he became the only Australian to have won the coveted Paris-Roubaix one day race.
In stark contrast, Simon Gerrans burst onto the scene last year winning the National Road Championships and the Tour Down Under in January. All the while managing to hold his top form to take the highly prestigious Milan San Remo one day road race in March.
Another Aussie first. Unfortunately by the time July rolled round, Gerrans was out of form and did not feature much at all at the Tour de France.
This dilemma means that some of our top name riders will not race the national champs. It also means that those who do start may not be in their best form. But this is a good thing. It’s a great thing. It’s arguably the best thing about our Nationals. Why?
Because we love the little guy. And we hate predictability.
In 2012 Simon Gerrans won a true race of attrition.
In 2011 and 2010 Jack Bobridge and Travis Meyer respectively took daring solo wins after epic all days breakaways.
In 2007 and 2009 local team Drapac Pro Cycling fired warning shots to the big guns with local riders Darren Lapthorne and Pete McDonald snaring the green and gold bands ahead of more fancied rivals
In 2008 European based professional and then team mate of Cadel Evans, Matty Lloyd took a dominating solo victory and helped balance the books for the ‘Euro’ Pros.
In 2006 in the biggest coup of all occurred when the U23 Melbourne based Will Walker took yet another stunning victory for the locals.
Not only had a non-Euro Pro won the race, but he wasn’t even an Elite aged rider. Technically he didn’t even ‘win’ the Championships and that award went to the third rider across the line who was the ‘first’ elite rider (since that race the U23 and elite men’s races have been separated in order to avoid future embarrassments).
To anyone who has watched a routine sprint finish stage at the Tour, we all know how dull those six hours can be. This is why the erratic and exciting racing that typifies our national championships is the best thing about them.
A move to July would kill this. Not to mention the logistical impossibility of holding a championship in July when all of our European Pros are in Europe and unwilling to travel back down under. Or the unthinkable, holding an Australian Championships in July, in Europe! That would kill of any chance for the average domestic rider. It’s unthinkable. It’s untenable. It won’t happen.
If we revisit the records we see a strong history of underdog victories and very exciting racing at the Australian National Championships. Who on earth would want to change that?
Whether it’s from a ditch in China or from the roadside at the Tour de France, Jonathan Lovelock has seen a lot in his young semi-professional cycling career. From junior racing in Italy to a yearlong stretch with a European based team, he is now back in Australia and racing for Huon Salmon-Genesys Wealth Advisors p/b Praties he endeavours to bring the world of cycling into focus for you.