Australia’s new cycling calendar works well for fans

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Australia's GreenEdge Cycling Teams' Luke Durbridge, Stuart O'Grady and Robbie McEwen (AAP Image/Benjamin Macmahon)

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This week’s Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic and Sun Tour were a sharp boot in the backside for those cycling fans still dozing through a haze of post-Christmas lethargy, heat-induced beach torpor and the gentle AM radio drone of the cricket.

True, these two national series events may have lacked some big name stars and top international teams, as my colleague Sean Lee has lamented, but the best of Australia’s young riders definitely stood up to the challenge presented by more familiar names like Stuart O’Grady, Simon Gerrans, Matt Goss, Simon Clarke, and Nathan Haas.

As an entrée to the road nationals and the Tour Down Under, January’s opening week of racing was a big success.

Being a Melburnian, I attended the third leg of the Mitchelton crits and the final stage of the race-formerly-known-as-the-Sun Tour, to get a feel for the re-organised opening week of top level cycling in Australia.

As a spectator, I had a great time and really enjoyed getting a glimpse of the next generation of Aussie talent from the national series, which doesn’t get a lot of press time.

At Williamstown I was pleased to see SASI young gun Harry Carpenter acquitting himself nicely in a breakaway with Orica-GreenEDGE’s (OGE) Mitch Docker.

Meanwhile, quietly-spoken ‘next big thing’ Caleb Ewan was winning the overall series with a mature and controlled ride to finish near the head of the bunch. Phil Liggett has already taken to comparing Ewan to Mark Cavendish, in his typically understated style (please activate your sarcasm modes).

I’m not sure that sort of wrap is helpful for a kid who is just out of high school, but there’s no doubt he’s got plenty of speed and is one to watch, as he develops.

OGE riders pretty much dominated the women’s race (raising murmurs of collusion), culminating in Melissa Hoskins’ stage three and overall victory. Hoskins was very impressive, controlling the race and winning the sprint easily.

It’s a tough gig for the big name team: they have the budget (and opportunities) to attract the best riders, and they’re a little bit ‘damned if they win, damned if they lose’.

The Jayco Herald-Sun Tour may have slipped down a few international status notches, but I still really enjoyed the racing, and starting it immediately after the crits was a great innovation, as it concentrated the spectators and put greater mainstream media attention on cycling for the afternoon.

The debate on the merits of this re-jigged race will rumble on, but it still provided a great opportunity for young amateurs to test themselves against famous pro’s, and didn’t the likes of Calvin Watson (Jayco-VIS-Apollo), Aaron Donnelly (Huon-Salmon Genesys), and Josh Atkins (Grays Online-New Zealand) grab it with both hands?

Their stage one breakaway, on a searingly hot and windy day in Victoria, riding into a hairdryer-hot northerly wind, and taking a couple of minutes out of the peloton, very quickly stamped out the overall hopes of some very good riders.

I really felt for Donnelly, who fought gallantly all the way but lost his leader’s jersey on the last climb of the race. Still, chapeau to him and to the winner, Watson. Both riders to keep an eye on.

The atmosphere on Sunday’s final climb to Arthur’s Seat was excellent, even if it requires a fair bit more dedication for most Melbourne-based spectators than a criterium on Lygon Street. There really is nothing like watching cycling on the side of a steep hill, so I’m glad I made the trip down to Arthur’s Seat for a couple of hours of sunshine, breathtaking views, and aggressive racing.

You can’t read too much into the professionals’ form this early in the season; most of them will be in heavy training blocks and targeting top form in the spring classics or Grand Tours. Matt Goss was one top rider who clearly looked flat.

Nathan Haas, who seemed to spend half of last season in disbelief that he’s living the dream in the World Tour, was active in winning the King of the Mountains jersey, but his flamboyant one-handed wheelie as he rode to the summit on Sunday was probably not indicative of a flat-out effort.

Gerrans worked hard but will clearly be keeping his powder dry for his national title defence and the Tour Down Under, and Simon Clarke was also active without revealing too much form.

Now that cycling is back, we’ve got plenty to look forward to in a season that won’t be disrupted by the Olympics.

Two tasty little appetisers down, the cycling degustation is ready for its next course, in Ballarat.

Tim Renowden has been following professional cycling closely since Indurain won his first Tour. An ex-runner, now a club grade bike racer, Tim tweets about sport at @megabicicleta.
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