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

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If ever there was a year where we were set for an aggressive battle for the national title this is it. There is, of course, enough prestige in the title alone, but Cycling Australia raised the stakes for the 2018 FedUni Road National Championships even higher. An automatic nomination to the nation’s Commonwealth Games team, and all the publicity that comes with it,  is up for grabs for the winning rider.

Plus Mitchelton-Scott – who took a clean sweep of the elite titles last year – will be determined to do whatever they can to use their superior numbers to make sure a rider on their team is wearing Australia’s national colours in 2018. The road race is the last chance for the nation’s only UCI registered women’s team to walk away with a set of elite green and gold stripes.

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

The Race

The 104.4 km road race for the Elite and Under 23 women will be run at 8:50am AEST on Sunday. Fortunately for the riders it looks like they will escape Saturday’s sweltering conditions, which have caused the cancellation of the Australian Gran Fondo National Championships. A mild day with a top of 25°C is forecast.

The Course

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

The circuit still starts and finishes in Buninyong and it still features the 2.8km climb partway up Mt. Buninyong — the only change to the course 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 11.6 kilometre 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 and Under 23 women will be racing nine laps of the 11.6 kilometre course, for a total of 104.4 kilometres compared with 10 laps and 102 kilometres last year.

The Contenders

Mitchelton-Scott may have dropped Orica from its title this year but its still coming into the Australian championships with a similar story; multiple strong cards to play and a powerful contingent in both skill and numbers to back up its key riders.

What is different is that while the team has a strong hand, it no longer looks quite as unbeatable. Last year the women’s team entered the road race with two elite titles already under its belt and then it took out the clean sweep.

This year solo rider Rebecca Wiasak snatched the criterium title, beating Mitchelton-Scott’s Sarah Roy to the line. In the time trial Katrin Garfoot (QAS) was streets ahead of her rivals, taking her third title in a row. But this year she isn’t wearing Mitchelton-Scott colours, having left the Aussie team this year to focus on the Commonwealth Games and family.

The loss of defending Australian champion Garfoot means that in one stroke they’ve lost a strong card and created a formidable rival. The World Championship road race silver medallist will be out there on her own but given her record still has to be in with a chance of doubling up and winning the title again.

Garfoot celebrating victory in 2017 with then teammate Spratt smiling in second.

Amanda Spratt has to be the biggest favourite to capture an elite jersey for Mitchelton-Scott in the road race. Spratt won in 2016 and came second in 2017 after breaking away with then teammate and eventual winner Garfoot. She has continued to show powerful form throughout 2017, even stealing victories during the holiday break.

Plus with Garfoot off the team Spratt is the obvious leader, however that doesn’t mean there aren’t others in the squad of seven who could pull off the win.

Newly signed to Mitchelton-Scott, Lucy Kennedy was third last year and the only rider on the podium not with Orica-Scott (Mitchelton-Scott’s former incarnation). She held onto a breaking away Spratt and Garfoot longer than anyone else, before time-trialling to the end to hold off a group of chasers. Kennedy was also a star of the High5 Australian Women’s Road Development Team in 2017, walking away the winner of the 2.2 classified Tour de l’Ardeche. To top that off she surprised even herself by coming second at the Road Nats time trial on Friday.

To be a chance for the win she will be looking for a small break out the front or a solo run to the line. Why? Because, as Kennedy told reporters after last year’s race, “I can’t sprint to save my life”.

However, there will be plenty of riders out there working hard to try and leave Mitchelton-Scott walking away from Road Nats empty handed. Firstly there are the Aussie professional riders that spend their year overseas racing for other teams and the up and coming domestic cyclists who are chasing their big break.

One rider never far from the pointy end is Shara Gillow (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope). She has finished in the top ten of the national road race five out of the last six years. Often she is flying solo, as while she raced for Orica-AIS earlier in the decade she has found a home at European-based teams in recent years. This year though, she will have a valuable teammate at the Australian championships in long-time friend Lauren Kitchen, a new signing to FDJ.

Gillow time trialling to the bottom step of the podium. Photo: Con Chronis

In fact looking ahead to Sunday seems to be Gillow’s tonic for slipping to third in the time trial on Friday after years of top two performances.

“After a bit of a disappointment today I think I’ll more than ever be geed up for Sunday,” Gillow told reporters. “It is a strong field but I’m pretty confident.”

Peta Mullens (Hagens Berman Supermint) is always one to watch. She doesn’t spend all her season on the road like much of her competition, working to a programme that includes plenty of mountain biking and – in recent years – a touch of cyclocross.

Riding on the road for an American team means Mullens is also without teammates to help her out, but that doesn’t mean her rivals can afford to rest easy. She fares well on the hills and can finish with a powerful sprint. The Bendigo based rider uses these skills to compensate for the lack of support, as she demonstrated in 2015 when she clinched the national road title.  Plus she has often been vocal about her desire to represent Australia on the road, so that automatic Commonwealth Games team nomination is bound to provide some extra incentive.

Peta Mullens (Hagens Berman – Supermint) at the 2017 Bay Crits. Photo: Kirsty Baxter

Rachel Neylan is another of last year’s Orica-Scott riders that is flying solo but has such a history of delivering that means she can’t be dismissed. The World Championship silver medallist, who has been on the Road Nat’s podium twice in the last three years, signed up for the new women’s Movistar team in 2018.

Shannon Malseed is one of the riders who shone on the domestic scene last year to watch. Malseed who took out Australia’s National Road Series in 2017, has moved on from Holden Women’s Cycling to join US-based team TIBCO. With growing confidence and form following an extremely successful season she’s bound to work hard to try and make the step up to the podium this year, after last year taking fourth.

How to follow

For the first time, this year the women’s road race will be broadcast live. Both SBS Viceland and Fox Sports will start broadcasting at 10am (AEST) with two hours of live coverage of the women’s road race. Of course to find out what’s happening before then you can always turn to social media, with Cycling Australia regularly posting updates on Twitter and then there’s #RoadNats.

The best place to follow the race, though, has to be cheering along on the roadside on the climb. That’s where the atmosphere adds a whole new level of excitement and you can often see the race winning breaks launched.  There are shuttles running all day to take you out onto the course, or you can simply ride your bike up the hill.

Of course Ella CyclingTips will also be on the ground covering the race so keep an eye on the Ella page, Ella CyclingTips Instagram and Facebook for the latest news.

You can find a preview of the men’s road race on CyclingTips.

Follow the link for the startlist for the elite  women’s road race at the 2018 Australian Road National Championships.

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