Great Ocean Road Race preview

Lee Rodgers Columnist

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    Mark Cavendish is, as always, one to watch. (Image: Omega-Pharma Quick-Step).

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    Cadel Evans hoped when he set up the inaugural Great Ocean Road Race that it would become an integral part of an already impressive legacy. Judging by the hype surrounding the 2016 edition, it’s fair to say that the event is already on its way to achieving that aim.

    The race, craftily positioned just after the Santos Tour Down Under, has this year a line-up that profits from the fact that there’s a slew of big teams and riders still around to battle it out for the win.

    With no less than nine World Tour teams in attendance the lure of Evans’ name and the attention garnered as a result is already proving to be a winning formula. Two more added bonuses that should not be overlooked also are proving to be a lure to the riders. One is that it’s still summer in Australia, beating the freezing temperatures in Europe and the beauty of a race route that graced the 2010 World Championships and is described in glowing terms by the professionals.

    “The Great Ocean Road is one of the most beautiful roads to ride your bike on in the world,” said Mark Cavendish earlier this week, who went on to talk about his training rides around Geelong. “It could have been better weather, it’s been raining on me a bit, but the Australian roads, the coffee, and just the Australian way of life – it’s quite nice to have a couple of weeks here to begin the year.”

    The paradox of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race is that this event has a profile that does not suit the man it is named after at all, with very little elevation and no real make-or-break features. The fact that it was a rider like Thor Hushovd who claimed the rainbow jersey back in 2010 says it all, this being a course best suited for pure sprinters.

    The great Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen confirmed this view when he spoke to Cycling News recently, believing that the victory would be battled out by Cavendish and the sensationally in-form Caleb Ewan.

    “Caleb is in really good form but Cav’s got so much experience and a little bit more rider toughness. But if Caleb and Cav were sprinting against each other now, I’d go for Caleb. I’m talking about lining them up against and sprinting to the line, without lead outs and racing first.

    “It’ll be good when they come up against each other in Europe. Caleb was winning races by two or three bike lengths at the Tour Down Under but that isn’t the six lengths like the old Cav and it wasn’t against the very best sprinters in the world.

    “I haven’t seen Cav sprint for a bit, it was probably at the 2015 Tour de France when he won a stage. He hasn’t really done anything impressive since then. I’d have to watch Cav race this year to see how he’s moving to understand if he’s still at his best. It’ll also be interesting to see how Caleb goes racing against the other big sprinters. And I don’t mean a one to one fight with Cav, Greipel or Kittel, but when all of them are together. It’ll be fascinating to see but when it gets more difficult for him to win.”

    McEwen is one of many commentators attempting to pour a bit of cold water on the hopes surrounding Ewan and it’s a sensible thing to do. We have seen many a rider overburdened by hype. It has to be said that Ewen is one of the biggest talents to emerge in recent years, a rider of such power and maturity that lies his young age. Testament to that is the fact that he is the hot favourite for this race.

    Cavendish will though be looking to make a mark, having moved to a new team and looking to prove a point to his doubters. As McEwen said, the Manxman has been quiet recently and his ego will be demanding a victory. It will be interesting to see how his relationship with Tyler Farrar pans out on the road. If they gel it could be a lethal combination, though off the bike the pair are quite different personalities.

    If it all stays together until the end it’s hard to see beyond Cavendish and Ewan for the win, though an outside bet might be Sky’s Ben Swift, who was there or thereabouts in the sprints at the Tour Down Under.

    There is though a possibility that the wind will play a part on the course, and if so the strong teams will be looking to exploit any crosswinds to their advantage. The last 15km is slightly downhill too, which might encourage a small break or a lone rider to make an attack. One rider that might well make such an attempt is Jack Bobridge of Trek-Segafredo, who smoked the field at the recent Australian national road race championships to win by a country mile. If a break goes and he’s in it there will be a few concerned riders back in the peloton, no doubt.

    Simon Gerrans is also in great form and might prove to be a trump card for Orica-GreenEDGE if he gets in a break, as it’ll force the other teams to chase, leaving Ewan and his other teammates to take it easy and preserve energy for the finale. Rohan Dennis is another rider that might be dangerous early on, as he is in great condition and probably smarting from coming up short at the Tour Down Under, as race he stated publicly that he wanted to win.

    A very outside chance for the win is Damian Cunego, who is riding for Nippon Vini Fantini. The former Giro d’Italia winner curiously faded from view after a rather spectacular early career, but I won’t be surprised to see him trying to showcase himself early on by getting into a break.

    Finally, if you are on the route for the race spare a holler or two for the guys from the Kenyan Riders Down Under team. The story of this team is quite remarkable and will bring a tear to the eye of even the toughest Fred out there.

    The Kenyan guys on the team are there on merit, hard riders whose tenacity and dedication embody all that is still wonderful and true about this mad, crazy sport.

    Lee Rodgers
    Lee Rodgers

    Lee Rodgers is a former professional rider on the UCI Asia circuit. He is now a freelance journalist, cycling coach and runs the website www.crankpunk.com.