Preview: Australian National Road Championships – women’s road race

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The Mars Cycling Australia Road National Championships continue on Saturday. The criterium and time trials titles have been decided, and the weekend is all about the road race in Buninyong. The women’s contest is the second of three weekend races, sandwiched between the U23 men on Saturday morning and the elite men on Sunday.
CyclingTips women’s cycling editor Jessi Braverman previews the race, reviews the course, names the contenders and provides tips for following the race.

The course

The women’s road race (like all the national road races) will be contested over a 10.2km circuit that starts and finishes in the small town of Buninyong, roughly 80 minutes north-west of Melbourne.

From the main roundabout in Buninyong the riders face a step-like, 2.9km uphill drag (average gradient 5%) on the Midland Highway and Mount Buninyong Road. From the KOM line the riders turn left and begin an undulating section of the course, before turning left on to Fisken Road at 5.7km. From here it’s more or less downhill all the way to the finish in Buninyong.

The elite women will tackle 10 laps of the course for a total of 102km.

Although the course isn’t overly heavy the repeated ascents up Mt. Buninyong will do damage to the field. Gracie Elvin emerged victorious in what turned into a race of attrition last year, outsprinting a group of ten riders that included two of her teammates. The previous year, Elvin won a four-up sprint to take her first national road title. A small group finish is the most likely outcome, but a solo move isn’t outside the realm of possibilities as Amanda Spratt demonstrated with her win in Buninyong in 2012.

The contenders

A strong field without one team that can dominate will make for an exciting race on Saturday. Here are the riders we expect to be amongst the late race action.

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Gracie Elvin and Amanda Spratt (Orica-AIS)

Since the team’s inception, Orica-AIS has yet to lose an Australian national road title. Amanda Spratt soloed to victory in the team’s maiden season while Gracie Elvin claimed back-to-back victories these last two years.

Although Elvin is highly motivated to take a record-equaling third title, her depleted squad will face a bigger challenge this year in defence of the green and gold jersey. The Australian UCI team will start with only three riders in Elvin, Spratt and Lizzie Williams. Sarah Roy and Chloe McConnell are out with illness, Katrin Garfoot is sidelined with a knee injury and Melissa Hoskins is focused on track obligations.

If Elvin’s recent results are any indication, she’s up for the challenge. A solo win in Geelong’s Eastern Park last weekend on the second day of the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic proved a just reward for her near-constant attacks over the four day series. Elvin’s aggressive style of racing carried over into Wednesday’s national criterium championships where she featured in multiple late race moves. The weather forecast could very well play into Elvin’s hands. She’s excels in wet conditions.

Should Elvin falter, ‘Spratty’ will be ready to pounce. The former Australian national champion showcased her fine form throughout the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic and knows how to win on the course in Buninyong.

Lauren Kitchen (Hitec Products)

The silver medallist to Elvin last year, Kitchen has enjoyed a spat of strong results in the Australian summer. She won the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic sprint jersey and finished second in the series to Chloe Hosking (Wiggle Down Under). Unsurprisingly, Kitchen was one of the animators in the national criterium championships on Wednesday, where she finished in third place.

In December, Kitchen guest rode with the Roxolt composite team at the Shimano Super Crit and Launceston Criterium in support of winner Kimberley Wells. It’s an impressive show of form by Kitchen who underwent surgery on her left leg just over three months ago and has only been training for six weeks.

Although she is without teammates, Kitchen has proven successful at Nationals in the past having taken silver in the road race and bronze in the criterium last year. Kitchen also won the criterium title in 2011.

While her obvious strength lies in the sprints, Kitchen has proven more than capable of surviving the repeated ascent of Mount Buninyong. Should she come to the finish as part of a small group, Kitchen will be competitive in the final dash to the line.

Tiffany Cromwell (Velocio-SRAM)

The South Australian had her most consistent season to date last year with fifth place in the World Championships road race in Spain and fourth place in the Commonwealth Games road race in Scotland and top ten finishes in the national championships, spring classics and the Lotto Belisol Tour. In form, Cromwell is an obvious choice for a podium place and a top pick for the top step.

Although she claims the form isn’t there following her whirlwind off-season travels and that she’s focused on later season goals, Cromwell should not be discounted. Her versatility makes her a threat on nearly any terrain. She finished in the lead group in Buninyong these last two years and finished in second place to (then teammate) Amanda Spratt the year previous.

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Peta Mullens (Seight)

Mullens may not have been a favourite one week ago, but thanks to her solo win in Portarlington at the Mitchenlton Bay Cycling Classic last weekend and her hard-earned silver medal in Thursday’s national criterium championships, Mullens must be considered. Her five national titles span all three disciplines of cycling – road, mountain bike and track – and she has shown she has hungry to add to her tally.

While Mullens raced with Wiggle Honda on the road last year, she will represent Seight solo on Saturday. She has stepped back from racing a full road season in the interest of focusing on mountain biking.

Shara Gillow (Rabo-Liv)

After she claimed her fourth national individual time trial title on Thursday, Gillow emphatically said she would love to add a road national championship to her collection. Having won the race against the clock by more than a minute, the Queenslander clearly has legs to make the objective a reality.

Gillow raced as part of the Orica-AIS squad the last three years, and Saturday will mark the first time this season in which Gillow will line up against her former teammates. While Elvin enjoys support from two teammates, Gillow starts alone, but her riding style suggests this shouldn’t dampen her opportunities.

Gillow lacks a fast finish and will look to get clear solo in the final kilometres of the race. The biggest win of her career came on the second stage of the Giro Donne in 2011 when she edged out Sharon Laws to the line. Two years later, Gillow soloed away from a four rider break to win a stage of the Giro Trentino Donne. In both instances, she described “being in time trial mode” until she reached the finish.

Carlee Taylor (Lotto-Soudal)

Frequently cast into a support role for her more accomplished teammates, Taylor could make the most of the opportunity to back herself on Saturday. The South Australian lacks teammates but has renewed confidence in spades. Far better suited to climbing than sprinting, Taylor has shown a faster turn of speed as of late.

She took an early season win in round three of the USG Women’s Criterium and rode aggressively at the Mitchelton Bay Cycling in a guest spot with Roxsolt. Her last lap flyer in the criterium national championships on Wednesday kept fans on the edge of their seats ahead of the bunch sprint. Taylor won the U23 women’s race in Buninyong in 2011 and knows what it takes to win on the unforgiving circuit.

The weather

Rain has been forecast by the Bureau of Meteorology for both Saturday and Sunday, but Saturday looks slightly nastier. The temperature isn’t expected to get above 19°C, and rain looks likely from early morning through mid-afternoon. The course isn’t particularly technical, so rain shouldn’t impact the outcome too much. Should heavy rain fall, expect riders like Cromwell and Elvin, who love the Spring Classics, to shine.

How to watch the race

As part of Cycling Australia’s new broadcast deal with Channel Nine and Fox Sports, the race will be broadcast in Australia on Gem and Fox Sports late Saturday night. Look for race highlights on Fox from 11pm-12am and on Gem from 12:12am-1:30am. The live broadcast of the elite men’s road race begins at 2pm on Sunday, and there’s a one-hour highlights package being shown on both networks beforehand, wrapping up the Road Nationals carnival thus far.

If you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Buninyong, it’s well worth coming along to watch the race. There will be park-and-ride buses ferrying spectators from Buninyong up the hill on the day — don’t drive your car on to the course.

And if you’re following from afar, your best bet is to stay posted to #RoadNats on Twitter. The race begins at 1:30pm and will likely finish shortly after 4pm.

Of course, please be sure to return to CyclingTips after the race for our race report.

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