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The Australian Road National Championships are currently underway in Ballarat, Victoria. The “Road Nats” look a little different this time around, with the time trials set to close out the carnival early next week, but the road races still fall on the weekend.
The final of those road races will be held on Sunday afternoon and will see the elite men’s field take to the slopes of Mt. Buninyong to decide who will wear the green and gold for the next 12 months. Here’s our guide to the race and the riders you should keep an eye on.
[ct_highlight_box_start]Follow the link to read our preview of the elite & U23 women’s road race.[ct_highlight_box_end]
Starting at 12:30pm on Sunday, straight after the women’s race, the elite men’s road race will comprise 16 laps of the 11.6km Mt. Buninyong circuit for a total of 185 tough kilometres.
The course will be familiar to anyone that’s watched an Aussie Nationals road race in the past 12 years. It’s the exact same course that was used last year when a short deviation through Federation University (the Nationals’ title sponsor) was added to proceedings.
Starting and finishing in the centre of Buninyong the course is defined by a 2.9km stepwise climb that reaches part-way up Mt. Buninyong. From there the course undulates for much of its remainder, passing through Federation Uni, before descending back into Buninyong.
It’s a tough course — a course that tends to rule out the purest of sprinters, and also the purest of climbers. Instead it’s a strong all-rounder that usually tends to come up trumps in Buninyong.
How it might play out
To get a sense of how Sunday’s race might unfold, we can take a look at the past 12 editions — every edition since the Nationals returned to Buninyong in 2007. Of those dozen races:
– Eight were won solo
– Three were won from a group of three
– One was won from a group of six
It’s clear from these numbers that the course facilitates a race of attrition, with only the strongest riders able to make it over Mt. Buninyong each time and down to the finish to contest the victory. Expect a similar outcome on Sunday with the winner coming from either a small group or a solo rider.
It’s almost certain that we’ll see a breakaway of decent size get clear in the opening laps and that it will set the pace for much of the race. If past editions are anything to go by, there’ll be many attacks in the back half of the race, with small groups forming and getting caught as the laps tick by. All the while, the main field will continue to thin out.
As usual, it will be in the final few laps that the most dangerous attacks start to fly.
The riders to watch
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from recent editions, it’s that this race is an unpredictable affair that can produce somewhat surprising winners (e.g. Miles Scotson and Alex Edmondson the past two years). That said, there are a handful of stand-out riders that are among those most likely to claim victory.
Mitchelton-Scott doesn’t have an out-and-out favourite to win the race, but they’re still probably the team to beat, given their depth (10 riders — the most of any team) and the calibre of their riders. Here are a select few:
Cameron Meyer — On paper, Meyer is perhaps Mitchelton-Scott’s best option. A wily veteran, the 30-year-old has been second (2016), fourth (2014 and 2009) and sixth (2011) here in the past. Hhe can read a bike race as well as anyone, and he’s exceptionally dangerous with a late attack.
Alex Edmondson (Mitchelton-Scott) — ‘Edmo’ was far from the favourite last year but a well-timed breakaway and a powerful last-ditch effort netted him a stellar victory. Just one of many cards for Mitchelton-Scott to play and probably the team’s best chance if it comes to a small-group sprint at the end.
Luke Durbridge (Mitchelton-Scott) — The West Australian crashed out of last year’s race while in a threatening position and will be looking to bounce back in 2019. His strength is beyond question – he won in 2013 with a long-range solo move and has only grown stronger since then. It would be a surprise for ‘Durbo’ not to feature in some capacity on Sunday.
Mitchelton-Scott might be Australia’s biggest team, but they certainly don’t have all the contenders. Indeed, there are many riders on smaller teams — or riding solo — that could challenge for the win.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) — Perhaps the biggest favourite for Sunday’s race. Now at Lotto-Soudal, Ewan has made it clear that the road race title is a big goal — so much so that he sat out the Nationals criterium (which he’s won the past three years) to be properly rested for Sunday.
He’s performed well on the Buninyong circuit before — he was second in 2015 and won the U23 title in 2014 — and he showed impressive form at the Bay Crits this week with two commanding wins. As ever, Ewan’s chances will likely depend on how the race unfolds on the climb (particularly with only one teammate in Adam Hansen). But if he’s there in the lead group at the end, he’ll be very hard to beat.
Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida) — Haussler won this race in 2015, beating Ewan in the sprint, and he’s looking in great shape for a repeat performance. He was strong at the recent Bay Crits and admitted afterwards that he showed more good form to his rivals than he meant to.
‘Heino’ will be keen to get rid of Ewan as the latter showed this past week that he’s got the better sprint of the pair. Then again, the same was probably true in 2015. Strange things can happen after 185km hard and hilly kilometres.
Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe) — McCarthy has long been around the mark at Mt. Buninyong with a second place last year, fifth in 2016, sixth in 2013 and fourth in 2012. It seems likely that he’ll win a National road title at some point, and this could well be his year. McCarthy showed good form in the Nationals crit, finishing third, and is perfectly suited to the road race course — he climbs well, and packs a ferocious sprint (as seen in his win at Cadel’s Race last year). He would not be a surprise winner.
Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) — McCarthy and Haas often get mentioned in the same sentence and the same will be true throughout this summer. Like McCarthy, Haas climbs very well, he’s got a formidable sprint, and he’s performed well on this course — his last three finishes were fifth, third and fourth. A win here would mean a lot to the Canberran, and as with McCarthy, it would be far from a surprise were Haas to land on the top step.
Miles Scotson (Groupama-FDJ) — The 2017 champion was flying at the Bay Crits. All decked out in the colours of his new team, Scotson did a ton of work in the race-winning break on stage 1, and was on the move later in the week too. Like many others he’ll be without teammates on Sunday, but that shouldn’t matter. Keep an eye on him, particularly late.
Chris Harper (Bridgelane) — Chris Harper put in the ride of his life in last year’s race, creating the winning move with Edmondson before being caught just before the line. A victory is perhaps unlikely, but another podium finish is within Harper’s range.
Of note, Harper is part of the new Bridgelane team, formed from a merger between Bennelong-SwissWellness and mobius-Bridgelane. That team looks set to start nine riders — the second largest team behind Mitchelton-Scott — and it would be a great surprise if the team didn’t have some sort of impact on the race. Other riders to watch include Lionel Mawditt, Dylan Sunderland, Tristan Ward and 2015 podium finisher Neil van der Ploeg.
Ben O’Connor (Dimension Data) — In just a few short years, O’Connor has become one of the most exciting talents in Australian cycling. He was in an impressive 12th overall when he crashed out of the Giro last year and has taken some stellar solo wins in recent years. If he’s in form and motivated, watch for him to attack late. A very dangerous rider.
James Whelan (EF Education First) — It’s been a rapid rise through the ranks for Whelan who only started cycling a few years ago. He was second in the U23 road race last year and has since joined the WorldTour with EF Education First. A win is perhaps unlikely, but the former runner is a super talent and is worth keeping an eye on.
Cyrus Monk (EvoPro Racing) — The man who won last year’s U23 title, Monk also steps up to the senior ranks this year and will be desperate for another strong showing. Like Whelan he’s unlikely to win the race, but it will be interesting to see how he gets on.
Freddy Ovett (Pro Racing Sunshine Coast) — A phenomenal climber who hasn’t yet translated that ability to success on the road. It would be a surprise were he to win the race, but this could be his chance to score a good result and show the world he’s got more than just a massive engine.
Troy Herfoss — The superbike champion was a fan favourite last year thanks to a swashbuckling ride in the breakaway. Always worth watching, not because he’s likely to contest the win at the end, but because he always puts on a show in what is his biggest bicycle race of the year.
For other aggressive riders worth watching, consider Robbie Hucker (UKYO), Sam Crome (UKYO), Ben Hill (Ljubljana Gusto Santic) and the evergreen 1994 national champion, Allan Iacuone.
How to watch
The elite men’s road race will be broadcast live via SBS TV, SBS On Demand, SBS Cycling Central website, and Fox Sports TV between 1pm (30 minutes after the start) and 5:30pm AEST on Sunday. The social media hashtag you’ll want is #RoadNats.
Of course, if you can, it’s well worth catching the race live in person, particularly from the slopes of Mt. Buninyong!
Who do you think will win on Sunday, and how? What would you like to see happen?