Early January signals the start of the Australian cycling season, with the Bay Crit Series quickly making way for the Australian National Championships to commence.
The main showpiece of the Nationals week of racing is the men’s road race.
The town of Ballarat and the difficult Mt Bunniyong course is the location of both the road races, and always offers up some interesting racing, with the challenging climb up and the fast-flowing descent back into town for the finish.
In 2016, the race became a one-man parade, with the now-retired Jack Bobridge jumping in the 20-man early race break and attacking during the middle of the race to eventually solo to victory by three minutes over second-placed Cameron Meyer and third-placed Patrick Lane.
While Bobridge rode to victory, Orica got their strategy completely wrong, letting a strong 20-rider move go up the road, which they had no hope of controlling.
This year’s course is the same as the previous years, and should be extremely familiar to the riders. The 10.1-kilometre loop is most notable for the climb of Mt Bunninyong, which is a 2.8-kilometre climb at an average gradient of 5.3 per cent, with sections towards the top of the climb at over nine per cent. The loop is completed 18 times for a total race distance of 183.6 kilometres.
A total of 126 riders are listed to start the race on Sunday, which is slightly down on the 132 participants that started last year’s event. Only 15 riders finished last year, though.
Orica bring to the table two-time winner Simon Gerrans, alongside sprint sensation Caleb Ewan, who during the first week of 2017 took out the Australian title in the criterium on Wednesday while taking the final stage glory on Tuesday in Bay Crits.
There is always the potential for early attacks to stay away, either from the early break or mid-stage attack, which worked well for Luke Durbridge in 2013 when he rode away from the original break to finish the race ahead of Michael Matthews.
Matthews, who has joined team Team Sunweb for 2017, will not be riding, which will make Orica’s chances in a bunch sprint much better. Also not riding are the BMC pair of Richie Porte and Rohan Dennis.
Dimension Data have three riders taking part, including the punchy climbing exploits of both Lachlan Morton and Nathan Haas.
Morton would love to start the season with a win, with him returning to the World Tour ranks for the first time in two years after riding for Jelly Belly in America. While over in the States, he has done extremely well in week-long stage races, including winning the GC at the Tour of Utah last year. Morton will have to attack up Mt Bunninyong and get a gap to win, as he won’t have the sprint to win.
However, Nathan Haas is more of a puncher than a climber and does have a good sprint. Haas finished fourth at this race last year, winning the bunch sprint ahead of Gerrans, who was sixth.
Two encouraging results at the both the GP Quebec and GP Montreal, where he finished inside the top ten against World Tour opposition over difficult parcours, shows Hass’ ability over this type of terrain.
Cannondale-Drapac have three solid cards to play, with strongmen Cameron Wurf and Will Clarke teaming up with climbing talent Brendan Canty, who makes the jump from feeder team Drapac. Canty had a great season last year, taking a stage and finishing inside the top ten at the tough Tour of Austria while finishing seventh at the Tour of Oman, beating top climbers including Domencio Pozzovivo.
Tactics again will be the key, with Orica needing to regulate the members of the breakaway so that they do not have a repeat of last year’s events.
Other riders to look out for include Adam Hansen (Lotto-Soudal), Travis Meyer, Tim Roe (IsoWhey), Steele von Hoff, Scott Sunderland (IsoWhey), Samuel Spokes, Robert Power (Orica-Scott), Patrick Lane (IsoWhey, Neil van der Ploeg (IsoWhey), Nathan Earle, Lachlan Norris, Jesse Kerrison (IsoWhey), Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe), Cameron Meyer and Calvin Watson.