A showdown of Australia’s best

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It’s become cliché to say that cycling has never seen a better time in Australia, but yesterday’s elite men’s National Road Championships showcased the depth and ferocity of the racing that we get to enjoy right in our own backyard.

Yesterday afternoon Simon Gerrans won his second national road race championship in three years, heading up an all-star podium that also included Cadel Evans and Richie Porte. Gerrans’ Orica-GreenEDGE has now won all three nationals road races since the team’s inception in 2012 and Gerrans will take the green and gold bands (not to mention some sparkling form) into the 2014 season.

The men’s road race at the 2014 Australian nationals was always going to be a numbers game — 10 Orica-GreenEDGE riders and 13 Drapac riders lined up at the start and most expected the winner to come from within those two teams.

The ever-aggressive Drapac put four riders in the day’s main break while GreenEDGE had three but just as important to that early escape were Steele von Hoff — one of just two Garmin-Sharp riders in the race — and Adam Hansen — who had joked at the startline about not having to worry about communication breakdowns within his team … of one.

With such riders in the breakaway, not to mention reigning champion Luke Durbridge and pre-race favourite among many, Simon Clarke, it seemed as if the 17-rider escape group might have stayed away throughout. But after a move from the break by Simon Clarke failed to gain any traction GreenEDGE went for plan B — chasing down their own breakaway.

“The plan was always to try and have it together for me in the last lap if the race was anyway under threat”, Simon Gerrans said after the race. “The guys committed to that and brought it back together for me.”

On the last time up the challenging Mt. Buninyong climb, with the break absorbed by the main field, Cameron Meyer marked a series of attacks from Drapac’s Darren Lapthorne and Avanti’s Mark O’Brien. And then it was Gerrans himself who attacked, gapping the field and dragging the biggest names with him.

And in that moment it seemed as if the numbers game was over. Cadel Evans (who had no teammates in the race) and Richie Porte (who had just one) chased down Gerrans over the top of the climb and it appeared that it was going to be a simple case of the strongest riders duking it out. But the wildcard was Cam Meyer.

The 2013 national criterium champion rode across to Gerrans with Porte, giving the former a valuable ally in the fast run-in to the finish. Meyer put in a strategically vain attack, forcing Evans and Porte to chase, tiring the pair ahead of the final sprint while Gerrans got a free ride. And when Porte kicked hard in the finishing straight Meyer chased him down, placing Gerrans perfectly for the finale.

Dropping the wheel slightly Gerrans powered through Porte’s slipstream and left the Team Sky rider and BMC’s Evans in his wake, sprinting to victory by a comfortable margin.

Having Meyer there in the closing stages had given Gerrans an extra card to play. But in reality, Gerrans would almost certainly have won the final kick ahead of Porte and Evans anyway, such is the versatility of the man who outsprinted Peter Sagan to win stage 3 of last year’s Tour de France.

Many people described this year’s field at the men’s nationals road race as the best we’ve ever seen. In the end we got a podium to match. On the top step a Milan-San Remo winner and the winner of a stage in all three grand tours. In second place, the only Australian rider to have won the Tour de France and the most famous cyclist ever to have come out of this country. And in the bronze medal position, the winner of last year’s Paris-Nice and one of the favourites for this year’s Giro d’Italia.

And with Gerrans, Evans and Porte set to take the start of the Tour Down Under in eight day’s time there’s no reason we won’t see the same three riders on the podium there.

And as for Simon Gerrans, the hip fracture he sustained in the Vuelta a Espana in September last year might have been a blessing in disguise. It forced him to bring his off-season and pre-season training forward and he’s hit January in amazing form. The last time he won the nationals (in 2012) he went on to win the Tour Down Under and Milan-San Remo. We look forward to seeing what 2014 brings for the man from Mansfield.

See full race results of the 2014 Men’s Australian National Road Championships and highlights video here.

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