Preview: The elite men’s road race at the 2018 Australian Road Nationals

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The elite men’s road race is the final event in the 2018 Australian Road National Championships. Scheduled for this Sunday around the familiar Mt. Buninyong circuit near Ballarat, this race will determine which rider will have the honour of wearing green and gold stripes throughout the 2018 season.

Here’s what you need to know about Sunday’s race.

For a preview of the elite women’s road race, head over to our sister site, Ella CyclingTips.

The course is more or less the same as in previous years, albeit with one minor variation.

For 14 of the past 16 editions of the Australian Road Nationals, riders have tackled a challenging circuit of roughly 10km up and around Mt. Buninyong. In 2018 that circuit has changed … but only marginally.

The circuit still starts and finishes in Buninyong and still features the 2.8km climb partway up Mt. Buninyong — the only change is the descent back into Buninyong. Rather than taking the usual route down Fisken Road, the riders will now weave their way around Federation University — the Road Nationals’ new title sponsor — before joining the main road back into Buninyong.

The result is a circuit that’s 11.6km long. This longer lap means the riders will actually do fewer laps of the course — and therefore fewer ascents of Mt. Buninyong — than in previous years. In 2018 the elite men will cover 16 laps for a total of 185.6km, compared with 18 laps for 183.6km last year.

The new section adds an element of intrigue to the contest.

Of the 14 editions of the race that have been held around Mt. Buninyong, eight have been won by a solo rider. In the other six editions, the biggest group that reached the finish was just six riders strong (in 2015, when Heinrich Haussler won). On four occasions it was a group of three, and on the one other occasion just two riders reached the finish together.

Given the course is largely the same as in previous years, the winner on Sunday is still most likely to come from a solo attack or small group. But the new section of the course could certainly have an impact.

Rather than it being mostly downhill from Fisken Road to the finish, the backside of this year’s course, through Fed Uni, is quite a bit more undulating (and flatter in some spots). This might work to the advantage of riders that are dropped on the Mt. Buninyong climb — they’ll have more time and more opportunity to chase back on each lap. As a result, it might be that we see a bigger group than normal contest a sprint finish.

Similarly, a solo rider (or small group) that’s away before the Federation Uni section might find it tougher to stay away than in previous years, thanks to the slightly flatter run-in suiting a bigger chase group.

Former winner Luke Durbridge believes the twists and turns of the new Fed Uni section give a breakaway a bigger chance on Sunday than in previous years.

“Once you’re out of sight, you’re out of sight,” Durbridge said after Friday’s time trial. “There’s less recovery [this year] but there’s more time to actually get away. Because before it was once you’re over the climb you’re pretty much descending all the way to finish, and there’s not much time to get away.

“Now I think there’s a few more areas where the breakaway can actually go away. So I think it will take a very long time for the break to go on Sunday.”

Another factor to consider: fewer climbs could make it slightly easier for the non-climbers to get through the race and have a chance of contesting the finish. Of course, it could just be that the 16 ascents are raced harder than they might have been …

Regardless of how the race finishes, the start is likely to be reasonably predictable. We’ll almost certainly see a large group battle to get off the front at which point the race will settle down somewhat. Then the race of attrition will begin with riders in both groups getting dropped as the laps tick away.

Whether the winner will come from the initial break, a later move, or from the remnants of the peloton is the big question.

For the first time in their existence, Mitchelton-Scott won’t have the weight of expectation.

Ever since GreenEdge debuted back in 2012, the Gerry Ryan-backed team has had to deal with significant pressure when coming into the Nationals road race. And that’s fair enough — they’re Australia’s only WorldTour team and they almost always have the strongest team on the startlist. In 2018 though, the outfit now known as Mitchelton-Scott won’t be expected to win as they have been in the past.

This is largely due to the departure of Simon Gerrans to BMC. Gerrans is a two-time national champion, he was second last year (winning the sprint behind solo winner Miles Scotson) and he goes into any Nationals at Buninyong as one of the favourites, if not the man to beat.

Gerrans has won the Nationals twice, most recently in 2014 when he beat Cadel Evans and Richie Porte in a three-up sprint.

It’s hard to know exactly what sort of form Gerrans is in, but if past years are anything to go by, the Victorian will have given it everything to be ready for Sunday. After all, it’s an event that suits him perfectly — a tough, selective race that often ends in a small-group sprint.

While he won’t have the same sort of team support he enjoyed at Orica-Scott last year, Gerrans certainly won’t be without help on Sunday. Richie Porte, Rohan Dennis and defending champion Miles Scotson are all formidable allies and all will likely be riding in support of Gerrans.

If the Victorian veteran can get to the line in a small group, he’ll be tough to beat. But if the race doesn’t go that way, Dennis, Porte and Scotson are all genuine contenders in their own right. Dennis showed he’s in terrific form with a storming time trial win on Friday, likewise with Porte and Scotson who were third and fourth respectively.

In short, BMC go into the race with a red-hot chance of leaving Ballarat with the green and gold jersey.

Mitchelton-Scott certainly shouldn’t be ruled out.

They might have lost their trump card but Mitchelton-Scott will be no less motivated to fight for the green and gold in 2018. At the time of writing the team is expected to start eight riders with a handful of stand-out prospects among them.

Three-time criterium champion (and runner-up in the 2015 road race) Caleb Ewan will likely be the team’s Plan A but his chances will hinge on how the race unfolds and the weather conditions. A tailwind on the climb (or indeed no wind at all) will likely work against the pint-sized sprinter, but if it’s more of a headwind up Mt. Buninyong, Ewan could be in the mix. If he gets to the finish in the front group, regardless of how many riders are with him, Ewan should win.

The team is also likely to support Cameron Meyer, a rider who returns to the GreenEdge setup after two years away (including a stint with Dimension Data, some time away from cycling, and a year spent combining track and road ambitions). Meyer has been second, fourth and sixth on the Mt. Buninyong circuit and is a strong option for the team if Ewan gets dropped.

Look to Meyer to get in a dangerous move late in the race, or to attack on his own if he senses an opportunity.

Cameron Meyer is back at Mitchelton-Scott after a couple years away.

Mitchelton-Scott has another strong contender in Luke Durbridge. Back in 2013 the West Australian won the race solo by more than a minute after attacking from the breakaway. Durbridge is in great form again, as evidenced by his second in Friday’s individual time trial. It would be little surprise to see Durbridge get up the road like he did last year, in an attempt to replicate his late move of five years ago.

Bennelong-SwissWellness will be worth keeping an eye on.

Bennelong-SwissWellness have been known by many names in recent years (most recently IsoWhey-SwissWellness), but every year the Tasmania outfit sends a big squad to the Nationals road race. They’re the biggest team on the startlist again in 2018 with no fewer than 12 riders set to start the race.

They don’t have an out-and-out favourite, but what they do have is the depth and strength to be present in every move throughout the day. Cameron Bayly, Sam Crome and two-time Melbourne to Warrnambool winner Nathan Elliott are among the team’s best options for getting up the road and trying to upstage their bigger-name rivals.

Steele Von Hoff returns to the team after six years plying his trade in Europe and has already shown some good form this year, finishing second in the criterium championships on Wednesday. He was third back in 2013 and has a total of four top-10s on the Buninyong circuit. If the race comes down to a small group and he’s there, he’s a great chance of another podium. If he is going to win he’ll just have to hope Caleb Ewan isn’t there as well.

Steele von Hoff was second behind Caleb Ewan at the criterium championships on Wednesday.

Team support isn’t everything in this race.

In road racing it’s always good to have teammates around you, but as we’ve seen in the past three years, you don’t always need a lot of support to win at Buninyong. Miles Scotson won last year as the only BMC rider, Jack Bobridge was the only Trek-Segafredo rider when he won solo in 2016, and Heinrich Haussler was one of just two IAM riders when he won in 2015. Some of the contenders for Sunday’s race will have little or no support.

Nathan Haas is a new recruit for Katusha-Alpecin and will be the only one in the team’s blue and red kit on Sunday. That’s unlikely to faze the Canberran — he’s got the climbing ability to be able to follow the big hitters all day long and if it comes to a sprint from a small group, he’ll be one of the best there.

Haas was fourth in 2016, third last year (second in the small-group sprint behind Gerrans) and is improving as a rider each year (see his rides last year on Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under and his fourth at Amstel Gold Race). He’s also in great form, finishing fifth in Friday’s individual time trial — a discipline he’s not known for. Definitely one to watch.

Nathan Haas has joined Katusha-Alpecin in 2018 and will be among the favourites on Sunday.

With four riders, EF Education First-Drapac (formerly Cannondale-Drapac) aren’t the biggest team on the startlist but they do have a couple of very strong options.

Simon Clarke was 10th in this race in 2015 in a year that he was supporting Caleb Ewan. This time around he might get the chance to ride for himself. The 31-year-old is a strong climber and also has a strong finish from a small group.

Clarke’s fellow Victorian Brendan Canty lit up last year’s Nationals road race with a late solo attack on Mt Buninyong. You can be sure he won’t miscount the laps remaining this time around, and if he attacks late, the former runner needs to be marked.

Brendan Canty was away on his own late in last year’s race.

Jay McCarthy is the only Bora-Hansgrohe rider in the race but he too will need to be factored in. He was fifth in 2016 and sixth in 2013 and packs a handy punch (he was fifth in the sprint that decided Wednesday’s criterium title).

Dimension Data have two strong options in Lachlan Morton and Ben O’Connor, both of whom are capable of getting into a dangerous group late in proceedings. Brenton Jones (Delko Marseille Provence), meanwhile, could factor if he’s able to battle his way over the hill 16 times and it comes to a sprint from a decent-sized group.

Beyond the main contenders there are a handful of others riders worth considering.

Pat Lane (Inform Racing) is one of the most aggressive riders on the startlist and is certainly capable of repeating his podium performance from 2016. He was aggressive throughout Wednesday’s criterium and can be more or less guaranteed to go on the attack on Sunday.

Lane’s former teammate Neil van der Ploeg (Madison Genesis) also showed some strong form in the criterium and has also reached the podium in the Nationals road race (2015). Depending on how the race unfolds, the Grafton to Inverell winner could also be in the mix again.

For other dark horses, consider Nathan Earle (Israel Cycling Academy), Robbie Hucker (UKYO), and Adam Hansen (Lotto Soudal).

The weather conditions are looking terrific.

While the forecast for Saturday shows a scorching 38ºC — prompting the shortening of that day’s races — the weather is likely to be much friendlier on Sunday. A top of 25ºC provides perfect conditions for bike racing and the light winds that are forecast are unlikely to have too much of an impact on the race (winds from the south mean a cross-tailwind up the steepest section of the climb).

You can catch the race live on TV, online, or in person.

If you want to watch the race remotely, you can do so in a number of ways: via SBS Viceland (formerly SBS 2), Fox Sports, SBS Cycling Central’s website, SBS On Demand, the FreeView app, or via the Foxtel Go app.

The last two hours of the elite women’s race will be broadcast live from 10am (for the first time ever), there’ll be a recap of the Road Nationals week after that, and then the final three hours of the elite men’s race will be broadcast from 2pm.

But perhaps the best way to watch the race is to get out to Mt. Buninyong yourself and watch the race in person. There are shuttles running all day to take you out onto the course, or you can simply ride your bike up the hill. The elite women’s race starts at 8:50am and the elite men’s race kicks off at 12:15pm.

If you want to follow coverage of the race (and the rest of the Nationals) on Twitter, be sure to check out the #RoadNats hashtag.

Who’s your pick for the elite men’s road race at the 2018 Australian Road Nationals? And how will they win it?

Note: This preview has been updated following the elite men’s individual time trial, which fell a day later in 2018 than in previous years.
Follow the link for the startlist for the elite men’s road race at the 2018 Australian Road National Championships. And head to Ella CyclingTips for a preview of the elite women’s race.

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