Preview: elite men’s road race at the 2016 Australian Road Nationals

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The elite men’s road race is the final event in the 2016 Australian Road National Championships and the event that attracts the most attention. It’s a race that features some of the very best riders in the world, and the winner will have the honour of wearing the green and gold stripes for the entire year.

Ahead of Sunday’s race, CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef takes a look at the course, how the race might pan out and which riders you should keep an eye on.

The course

The men’s road race at the 2016 Australian Road Nationals will be contested on the now-familiar 10.2km circuit on and around Mt. Buninyong, some 80 minutes west-north-west of Melbourne.

From the centre of Buninyong the riders face a step-like, 2.9km uphill drag (average gradient 5%) on the Midland Highway and Mt. 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 men will tackle 18 laps of the course for a total of 183.6km.

On paper it’s not a brutally tough course but the 18 times up Mt. Buninyong are enough to fatigue all but the strongest riders in the race.

It might take a few laps but chances are we’ll see a large breakaway get clear in the early stages, with all the big teams (Orica-GreenEdge, Drapac, Avanti IsoWhey, State of Matter/MAAP) represented. The chances of that break surviving to the end are slim, particularly as the pace starts to increase on Mt. Buninyong in the closing laps.

The course tends to suit fast finishers that can climb well and in recent years we’ve seen the race come down to a sprint from a small, elite group of riders. Last year it was Heinrich Haussler that won it from a group of six (see video below) and the year before that it was Simon Gerrans that won from a group of four. A group of a similar size is probably the most likely scenario come the finish on Sunday.

That said, solo victories certainly aren’t unheard of on this course either. Luke Durbridge won with a solo move in 2013, as did Jack Bobridge in 2011 and Travis Meyer in 2010.

The favourites

There are a handful of riders that stand-out as key favourites for Sunday’s race:

Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge)

Any time Simon Gerrans lines up at the Australian Road Nationals he does so as one of the favourites. He’s won the title twice already and will be the one to beat come Sunday. The Mt. Buninyong climb suits Gerrans and his wins at Milan-San Remo and Liege-Bastogne-Liege show he’s got a terrific sprint at the end of long, hard races.

Gerrans winning in Buninyong in 2014, ahead of Cadel Evans and Richie Porte.

Gerrans didn’t race the Nationals last year (nor indeed any of the Aussie summer races) after breaking his collarbone pre-season and he’ll be keen to take back the green and gold bands this year. Gerrans’ 2015 season as a whole was very disappointing and he’ll be hoping that a win at the Nationals is the first step towards a successful and injury-free year.

Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge)

It isn’t just Simon Gerrans that has a shot of winning the road race for Orica-GreenEdge. Newly crowned Australian criterium champion Caleb Ewan was second in last year’s road race behind Heinrich Haussler and with the IAM rider absent this year, Ewan’s got every right to be confident on Sunday.

Ewan showed last year that he’s more than able to get over Mt. Buninyong with the leaders 18 times and he’s the best sprinter on the startlist. But perhaps his biggest challenge will come from within his own team.

Will Ewan be given the chance to contest the victory? Or will all of Orica-GreenEdge’s chips be on Gerrans? If Ewan and Gerrans both get to the finish together with a chance to sprint, who gets the nod? Ewan should, as the strongest sprinter, but it will be fascinating to see how the ever-strong Orica-GreenEdge line-up plays its cards out on the road.

Rohan Dennis (BMC)

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past year it’s that Rohan Dennis is far more than a pure time-trialist. He won the Tour Down Under off the back of strong performances in the hills, and he showed on stage 4 of the USA Pro Challenge (a race he won overall) that he’s able to attack in hilly races and ride away to the finish solo. He’ll be hoping to do something similar on Sunday.

Dennis was sublime in yesterday’s individual time trial, his victory showing he’s got terrific early-season form. In his post-win interview he made it very clear he would love to add a road race victory to his win in the time trial.

It will be a foolish rider that gives Rohan Dennis any latitude in the closing laps of Sunday’s race.

Richie Porte (BMC)

As far as Plan Bs go, Richie Porte is pretty handy. He’s told the media in recent weeks that he’s opted for a slower build-up in 2016 than he did last year, meaning he’s not quite as his peak yet. But even a not-quite-fully-fit Richie Porte is a force to be reckoned with.

It seems likely that Porte will ride in support of Rohan Dennis and if that’s the case, we can probably expect to see Porte on or near the front on the final ascents of Mt. Buninyong, thinning out the bunch at the business end of the race. If Dennis doesn’t have the legs, Porte’s best option will probably be to try and get away in the closing laps. But as with Dennis, few in the bunch will be willing to let a rider of Porte’s calibre ride away if they can help it.

Simon Clarke (Cannondale)

In the last few years Simon Clarke has come to the Nationals road race in a supporting role for his more-fancied Orica-GreenEdge teammates but a move to Cannondale in 2016 should give him a good chance to ride for himself. He’ll have no teammates to support him, but you can still expect Clarke to be there at the pointy end of the race.

Clarke after winning a stage of the 2012 Vuelta.

His form is a bit of an unknown at this point of the year and whether he can best Gerrans and Ewan in a sprint remains to seen. But expect the Victorian to be right in the mix in the all-important final laps and to feature in the winning move if a small group gets away.

Nathan Haas, Mark Renshaw and Cameron Meyer (Dimension Data)

Haas, Renshaw and Meyer are all new to Dimension Data in 2016 and it will be interesting to see how they approach the race. Meyer was fourth two years ago (when his teammate Simon Gerrans won) and tends to be in great form at this time of year (he won the Jayco Herald Sun Tour last year and is a past winner of the Tour Down Under).

Renshaw is obviously a fast finisher (he joins Dimension Data as Mark Cavendish’s lead-out man) but it might be Haas that gets the nod in the final. The former Cannondale-Garmin rider has a great sprint, he can climb very well, and he’s made it clear he’s keen for a positive start to the year.

If it comes to a sprint from a small group, overlook Nathan Haas at your peril.

Others to watch

In addition to the favourites mentioned above, here are a few riders we reckon you should keep an eye on:

Neil van der Ploeg (Avanti IsoWhey)

Neil van der Ploeg is one of many options for the Avanti IsoWhey squad and shouldn’t be discounted in a small bunch kick. He’s got an impressive sprint and climbs well, as he showed by sprinting to third place in last year’s race.

Sam Spokes (Drapac)

There are a whole host of riders on the Drapac squad that don’t mind getting up the road, not least Sam Spokes. The 23-year-old rode well at the Bay Crits last week (taking third on stage 3) and was super aggressive in Wednesday’s Road Nationals criterium, showing good form in the process. In last year’s road race he got in the winning group of six after a typically aggressive ride. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Spokes feature again this year.

Adam Hansen (Lotto Soudal)

Grand Tour record-holder Adam Hansen won’t have any teammates on Sunday but that shouldn’t stop him doing what he does best: attacking. He’s proven at the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España that he can win when he attacks on his own, and it will be interesting to see if he tries his luck at such a move on Sunday.

Robbie Hucker (Avanti IsoWhey)

After a 2015 season with Drapac that was plagued by illness, Robbie Hucker is back with a vengeance in 2016. He’s had an impressive start to the year, winning the sprinter’s jersey at the Bay Crits with some aggressive riding, and he’s looking super-lean and hungry for success. He might not win the race but we’d expect him to feature at some point. An exciting rider.

How to watch the race

As was the case last year, the last three hours or so of the men’s road race will be shown live on TV. The big difference in 2016 is that this broadcast will be proceeded by “as-live” coverage of the women’s race, which moves from the Saturday to Sunday morning.

You can tune in to coverage from 1pm AEST on Gem or Fox Sports 3 (Foxtel channel 503) with coverage of the men’s race starting about 2pm.

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

For those that are planning on riding up the hill to watch, bear in mind that the roads will be closed early in the morning ahead of the women’s race (which starts at 8am).

If you’re following the race from afar, your best bet is to stay posted to the #RoadNats hashtag on Twitter. The race itself starts at noon.

Mt. Buninyong is the place to watch!

Of course, please be sure to return to CyclingTips after the race for a blow-by-blow and the results. And if you haven’t already, be sure to check out our preview of the women’s race over at our sister site, Ella CyclingTips.

Who’s your pick for the elite men’s road race? Let us know in the comments below.

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