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The final laps broadcast on Australian TV ‘as live’ for the first time, the women’s race will see a hungry field grasping every opportunity to put their best foot forward in an Olympic year. The strong contingent from Orica-AIS has many cards to play and will be fighting hard to bring the jersey back into the team after Peta Mullens removed it from their ranks in 2015, but there are plenty of fierce contenders from other teams that will not let the chance to wear green and gold go lightly.
Ballarat, about an hour-and-a-half from Melbourne, and its surrounds have been home to the national title races for the past 10 years and the road course has changed little over that time. The 102-kilometre race starts in Buninyong, near Ballarat, and the riders take on the 10.2 kilometre circuit 10 times. The first part of the circuit is all about the uphill, with the biggest hurdle being the step-like 2.9 kilometre climb with an average gradient of 5% on the Midland Highway and Mount Bunninyong Road. If you’re spectating, this is where you’re going to want to be! Then, after the KOM line, the riders turn left and begin an undulating section of the course. After turning left on to Fisken Road at 5.7km it’s more or less a downhill run to the finish in Buninyong.
The hilly course has delivered small group finishes in the women’s race over the past two years. In 2015 it was Peta Mullens (Wiggle High5) who came in for a sprint with Rachel Neylan (Orica-AIS), while Shara Gillow (Rababank-Liv) drew from her time trial strength to come in solo for third. The bunch only got to sprint for fourth place.
In 2014, Gracie Elvin (Orica-AIS) took the title for a second year, winning the sprint from a group of nine that got away from the rest of the field.
As the only Australian registered UCI women’s team, it is not surprising that the Orica-AIS team holds many of the podium contenders and the pressure will be on for them to take the jersey back after Mullens’victory in 2015 left them without it for the first time since the team’s inception. Their options include Lizzie Williams, who has shown great form as she took second in the criterium on Wednesday and won the final stage of the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic over the weekend. Then there is Amanda Spratt, who won the road race in 2012 and Neylan who came in second last year. The big card though is 2013 and 2014 winner Gracie Elvin. Elvin took the overall win in the Bay Crits at the start of this week, a show of form which is bound to draw even more attention her way during the race.
“I actually wanted to stay a bit under the radar this week and just be riding around for form,” the two-time national champion said after taking out the Bay Crits title. “But I think I’ve got a big target on my back again!”
Despite the strong list of contenders, no one is going to hand Orica-AIS an easy win.
Tiffany Cromwell (CANYON/SRAM ) showed good form with a third place in the time trial on Thursday behind two strong time-trial focused riders. A past silver medal winner, this will be her ninth time taking on the course.
“I’ve obviously matured a lot as a rider, learnt how to contain my energy a little bit,” said Cromwell after her time trial podium. “I think I’ve got stronger as a rider too. I’ve worked on my power a lot over the past two years and it’s an Olympic year so I’ve been working on bringing my climbing back up too because I know how difficult the course is. I think I’m a lot calmer rider now and I’ve got a bit more confidence too.”
Other contenders include Tessa Fabry and Kendelle Hodges (High5 Dream Team) who took fourth and fifth last year as well as Kate Perry (Specialized Women’s Racing) who comes in with the confidence boost of a Tour of Bright win this past December. Lauren Kitchen (Hitec Products) is also a name not to go past as she had a strong 2015 season and raced aggressively to hit the criterium podium. Then there is Shara Gillow (Rabo-Liv) who has won the national time trial title four times and came second on Thursday.
Finally, there is reigning champion Mullens. She is a bit of a wildcard as with her focus on the mountain bike we haven’t seen Mullens on the road much this past season, but she did have a strong showing at the Bay Crits.
The Under 23 women will take part in the same race and this year, for the first time, there will be a jersey for the Under 23 winner. Riders to watch in this competition are defending champion Shannon Malseed (Holden Women’s Cycling Team) and Jenelle Crooks (Specialized Women’s Racing Team) who has been racing in Europe in 2015 and took out the Under 23 time trial in 2014. There is also Ellen Skerritt, who has just signed with Ale Cipollini after spending a year with the High5 Dream Team and came second, just ahead of Crooks, in the Under 23 category of the time trial on Wednesday.
How to follow the race
The women’s race has traditionally been run on the Saturday, but this year the shift was made to Sunday, the same day as the elite men’s, with part of the benefit being increased television coverage. The Road Nationals coverage will be from 1pm to 5pm (AEDT) on Gem or Fox Sports 3 (Foxtel channel 503). It will start with highlights of the early laps of the women’s race and then the final hour will be broadcast ‘as-live’, with a two to three hour delay, before the coverage moves on to the elite men’s race.
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, which is one of the most lively spectator locations, so please don’t try to drive your car on to the course.
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 8 am.
Of course, please return to Ella CyclingTips after the race for coverage and the results.
Who are your picks to win on Sunday?
Additional reporting by Matt de Neef