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The battle for the green and gold stripes at the Australian National Road Championships for 2017 is on. The criterium and time trial have already been run and won and the competition for the road race is looking fierce.
Orica-Scott, the only Australian-listed UCI women’s team, is as always the team to beat with strength in numbers and quality. With multiple cards to play, they are sure to exercise a strong degree of control over the race. They have already won the criterium with Jessica Allen, the time trial with Katrin Garfoot and defending road race champion Amanda Spratt is eager to continue wearing the green and gold colours.
But there are a bevy of Australian riders from international teams that have come home to try and spoil Orica-Scott’s dominance. The challenge for them, however, will be fighting for the win with little or no team support. Of course, there are also the riders that race in Australia year round, many of whom have at least some of their National Road Series team mates racing to help them and try and deliver a potentially career changing win. Either way, it’s going to be an exciting day in Ballarat.
The Road Race
The elite races are held on the final day of competition of the Australian Road Nationals on Sunday, with the under 23 and elite women in the morning starting at 8 a.m. and the elite men in the afternoon.
Ballarat, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Melbourne, and its surroundings have been home to the national title races for the past 11 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 10.2km circuit 10 times. The first part of the circuit is all about the uphill, with the biggest hurdle being the step-like 2.9km climb featuring 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 three years. Spratt took the win in a sprint finish with Ruth Corset (Rush Women’s Team) in 2016. In 2015 it was Peta Mullens (Hagens Berman-Supermint) who came in for a two-way sprint with Rachel Neylan (Orica-Scott), and in 2014, Gracie Elvin (Orica-Scott) took the title for a second year after winning the sprint from a group of nine.
Orica-Scott have eight team members on the start list, most of who could be considered contenders to take the win, though defending champion Spratt is a clear favourite.
Anyone who watched her in action at the Michelton Bay Cycling Classic, where she won a tough stage solo, could see she is clearly well prepared and keen to keep that jersey on her back for another year.
“I’ve felt that the training has been going really well but you are never a 100% sure until you get to a race like this,” Spratt told Ella CyclingTips on the sidelines of the final day of the Bay Crits.
“I’ve started the year with the Bay Crits for the last 12 or 13 years, so for me it’s a really good indication of how legs are and how the form is, so I’m definitely happy with how I’m feeling.”
There is no sign of the pressure that defending champions at times feel for Spratt, who appears calm and collected.
“I’m happy to have won it twice and if I can win it a third time then I’ll be really happy with that. I’m definitely aiming to go there and win it, I know I have the form to do that … but it’s the nationals and anything can always happen,” said Spratt.
Anything, could include the defending champion sitting back and watching any one of a handful of team mates ride up off the road to fight for the title, as Spratt has said she is “definitely not” the sole team leader.
There are the talented up and comers like new criterium champion Jessica Allen and Jenelle Crooks.
Then there is dual national champion Gracie Elvin, who just two years ago was in the position of trying to defend two consecutive titles. The pressure is off this time, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t still like the opportunity to wear green and gold again.
“We haven’t made a clear plan yet but we do have a lot of cards to play, I think for me its just about looking after myself and looking after my team mates and just taking opportunities where we can see them,” Elvin told reporters on Friday.
Garfoot showed the speed she is capable of at the moment by putting nearly two minutes into her nearest rival on Thursday to take out her second consecutive national time trial title. She has also in the past taken silver in the road race and last year was in fourth place.
Garfoot left everything out on the road at the time trial, falling off the bike as she finished, but said there was ample time to recover by Sunday so she could have the form to go for the road race victory as well if the opportunity arises.
“I would like to win, so does everyone else in the team so we will see how it plays out,” Garfoot told Ella CyclingTips. “Its always a chance.”
The rest of the field may not have the same team strength but they won’t be standing back handing the title to Orica-Scott. Riders like past silver medallist Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM); Lauren Kitchen, who will this year be lining up for Marianne Vos’ new team WM3 Pro Cycling team; and Carlee Taylor (Ale Cipollini Galassia) are always threats. Then there is 2015 champion Peta Mullens who has refreshed her road cycling focus by signing up with U.S. team, Hagens Berman-Supermint for 2017.
A multi-discipline rider, Mullens told Ella CyclingTips that she’s trying to be realistic about her chances, and put a little more focus on getting results at the Santos Women’s Tour and women’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, given that the odds are stacked against her with the power of Orica-Scott’s numbers at Nationals.
“I’ve really got an opportunity to show what I’m made of there (Santos Women’s Tour and the women’s Cadel Evans Road Race) where the playing field is a little bit more level,” Mullens said.
“But I’m always excited for Nationals, I’d love to race for a gold medal but I think I’ll probably be racing for a podium spot and I’d be happy with that.”
Another rider who will be out there without a team to back her up is young Ellen Skerritt. She may not have had the best year of racing in her first year as a professional in Europe but has come back with a determination to show exactly what she is capable of and whole lot more experience and confidence in the bunch. Skerritt, who finished 12th last year, is setting her sights higher in 2017, hoping to snag a spot on the podium.
“It’s definitely hard when you have got one whole team and then lots of individuals, you have got less cards to play so you have got to be smarter and definitely not waste any energy,” Skerritt told Ella CyclingTips. “It’s a race of attrition where you have got to play to your strengths.”
The National Road Series (NRS) riders have also proved time and again that they shouldn’t be ruled out of contention, with the latest being Ruth Corset who took second spot last year in a sprint to the line with Spratt.
The name of one NRS rider that has been on everyone’s lips in the run up to this year’s championship is Lisen Hockings. The Holden Women’s Cycling Team rider took out the National series in her debut year and managed to secure 16th spot last year when she leapt into the fray despite being a relative newcomer to racing. Sadly though, a nasty crash on the last corner of the Shimano Super Crit in December has ruled her out, as she is currently in a neck brace after fracturing her C2 vertebrae.
Other NRS riders that could be considered outside contenders include Lucy Kennedy, time trial third place getter Kate Perry (Specialized Women’s Racing) and Oceania Champion Shannon Malseed (Holden Women’s Cycling).
How to follow the race
The women’s road race starts on Sunday at 8 a.m. (AEDT).
If you are following the race from afar, you can find all the action at #RoadNats on Twitter. In Australia, you’ll also be able to find television coverage of the road race.
The Road Nationals coverage will be from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. (AEDT) on SBS and Fox Sports. It will start at 1 p.m. with coverage of the women’s race, before moving on to the live coverage of the men’s race. There will also be live streaming coverage across digital platforms SBS Cycling Central, SBS On Demand and the FreeView app, in addition to the Foxtel GO Application.
If you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Buninyong, it’s well worth coming along to watch in person. There will be park-and-ride buses ferrying spectators into Buninyong and up the hill on Sunday, which is one of the most lively spectator locations.
Of course, please return to Ella CyclingTips after the race for coverage and the results.
Who are your picks to win?