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by Matt de Neef
January 10, 2020
Photography by Con Chronis and Cor Vos
The 2020 Australian Road Nationals are currently underway in Ballarat. The final event of the meet will be held on Sunday afternoon when the elite men’s field takes to the slopes of Mt. Buninyong to decide who will wear green and gold for the next 12 months. Here’s our guide to the race and the riders you should keep an eye on.
Starting at 12:30pm on Sunday — straight after the women’s race — the elite men’s road race will comprise 16 laps of the 11.6 km Mt. Buninyong circuit for a total of 185 tough kilometres.
The course will be familiar to anyone that’s watched an Aussie Nationals road race in the past 13 years. It’s the exact same course that was used the past two years (since a short deviation was added through Federation University) and virtually the same course that’s been used since 2007.
Starting and finishing in the centre of Buninyong the course is defined by a 2.9 km stepwise climb that reaches part-way up Mt. Buninyong. From there the course undulates for much of its remainder, passing through Federation Uni, before descending back into Buninyong.
It’s a tough course — a course that tends to rule out the purest of sprinters, and also the purest of climbers. Instead it’s a strong all-rounder that usually tends to come up trumps in Buninyong.
To get a sense of how Sunday’s race might unfold, we can take a look at the past 13 editions — every edition since the Nationals returned to Buninyong in 2007. Of those 13 races:
– Eight were won solo
– Four were won from a group of three (let’s call last year a group of three)
– One was won from a group of six
It’s clear from these numbers that the course facilitates a race of attrition, with only the strongest riders able to make it over Mt. Buninyong each time and down to the finish to contest the victory. Expect a similar outcome on Sunday with the winner coming from either a small group or crossing the line alone.
It’s almost certain that we’ll see a breakaway of decent size get clear in the opening laps and that it will set the pace for much of the race. Mitchelton-Scott and BridgeLane will likely be heavily represented. If past editions are anything to go by, there’ll be many attacks in the back half of the race, with small groups forming and getting caught as the laps tick by. All the while, the main field will continue to thin out.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from recent editions, it’s that this race is an unpredictable affair that can produce surprising winners (e.g. Miles Scotson, Alex Edmondson and Michael Freiberg the past three years). That said, there are a handful of stand-out riders that are among those most likely to claim victory.
Mitchelton-Scott doesn’t have an out-and-out favourite to win the race, but they’re still the team to beat, given their depth (eight riders) and the calibre of their riders. Luke Durbridge, Cameron Meyer, Lucas Hamilton, Kaden Groves, Nick Schultz, Michael Hepburn, Damien Howson and Callum Scotson — that’s a very strong line-up with a lot of cards to play. Two among them stand out as the most likely to take victory.
Luke Durbridge: Durbridge is clearly in terrific form — he won his fourth Aussie time trial title on Wednesday beating world champion Rohan Dennis, and he was very strong at the Bay Crits as well. The West Australian has said he’ll be looking to get up the road as he often tries to do … and which he did in 2013 to set up a terrific solo victory.
Another solo move from the break is his best bet. If he can get away late, he’ll be very hard to stop.
Durbridge on his way to victory in 2013.
Cameron Meyer: Meyer was in tears after finishing third last year, partly because he had a great opportunity to win, and partly because he’s come so close on several occasions. All told he’s been second, third, fourth on two occasions, and sixth and he’s desperate to finally add a “first” to that list.
Meyer will almost certainly feature in late moves and he has a great knack for picking the winning move. Maybe this is the year he converts that opportunity into victory.
A shattered Meyer had to settle for third last year.
Michael Freiberg (Pro Racing Sunshine Coast): Freiberg surprised everyone — himself included — with his win last year. He fought back after being dropped on the final lap, caught leaders Meyer and Chris Harper, then rode past them to take a stirring victory. A year on, Freiberg seems even leaner and stronger than he was then.
The West Australian’s best chance probably comes from being in the early move again, and venturing out front there. Regardless of how it unfolds, if he’s still in contention in the final lap, watch out.
Chris Harper (Jumbo-Visma): With two podiums in two years, Harper has well and truly earned his place among the contenders. On both occasions he got in the winning move by being aggressive late. He’ll be looking to do similar this year, but with WorldTour colours now on his shoulders, he’ll be marked more closely than ever before.
Harper was third in Wednesday’s time trial.
Nathan Haas (Cofidis): We’ve said for years that this course suits Haas. He climbs very well, he can be aggressive when he needs to be, and he has a strong sprint from a reduced bunch. So far he hasn’t put it all together, but he has been close — fourth in 2016, third in 2017, and fifth in 2018. If he’s still in the mix in the closing laps, he’s a very dangerous prospect.
Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe): Like Haas, McCarthy seems perfectly suited to the Mt. Buninyong course and like Haas he’s done well here in the past — sixth in 2013, fifth in 2016, and second in 2018. The Queenslander is coming off a lean season and it’s not clear where he’s at but we can only assume he’ll be keen to bounce back and start his season off with a bang. One to watch if it comes down to a small bunch.
McCarthy’s last win came at the 2018 Tour of the Basque Country.
Beyond the big contenders lie a smattering of other riders you should absolutely keep your eye on.
Marcus Culey (Sapura): The definition of a dark horse. Culey has been plying his trade in Asia in recent years with Malaysian team Sapura and doing so very nicely. He’s won a bunch of races since 2017, most recently the UCI 2.2 Tour of Selangor in Malaysia where he won four of the five stages and the overall. In April last year he won the opening stage of the UCI 2.HC Tour de Langkawi.
Culey put in a strong ride in Wednesday’s time trial (finishing seventh) and clearly brings some decent form to Sunday’s race. He’s one to watch if he can be there when the decisive moves start to fly. If the bigger teams underestimate him and he’s let go, he could be a real threat.
Culey soloed to victory on the opening stage of last year’s Tour de Langkawi.
Dylan Sunderland (NTT): Sunderland steps up to the WorldTour in 2020 with NTT (formerly Dimension Data) and needs to be respected on Sunday. He was fifth last year and fourth in the U23 ranks in 2018 and should finish top 10 this weekend.
Nick White (BridgeLane): Team BridgeLane brings 10 riders to the race — the most of any team — and White is perhaps chief among them. The 22-year-old Melbourne to Warrnambool winner won on this course in the U23 ranks last year and brings some solid form in, having won stage 2 of the recent Bay Crits.
He’s probably the team’s best option of being there if it comes down to a reduced bunch sprint. If that happens, he definitely shouldn’t be underestimated.
Nick White won last year’s Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic.
Ben Hill (BridgeLane): It’s hard to imagine Ben Hill not being in the early move on Sunday. He’s Australia’s answer to Thomas De Gendt, a consistently aggressive rider who loves nothing more than going on the attack. He’s won a handful of races doing just that, not least a stage of last year’s Tour of Japan. Just keep Hill in mind if he’s well placed towards the end.
The Sunweb trio: Rob Power, Chris Hamilton and Jai Hindley — that’s three quality bike racers, all of whom climb well. Hindley was 10th last year; Power was second in the U23 ranks on this course in 2014; Hamilton was sixth in 2018 and won the U23 race here in 2016. None of the three are likely to win on Sunday, but we should see at least one Sunweb jersey in the mix when the most meaningful attacks start to fly. (Update: Chris Hamilton isn’t racing after rupturing a testicle in a crash two weeks ago.)
The InForm trio: Steele von Hoff, Mark O’Brien and Nathan Elliott are all set to start for InForm TM Insight Make and all three are very good bike racers. Von Hoff has a bunch of top 10s (including third in 2013), O’Brien also has a handful of top 10s to his name, and two-time Melbourne to Warrnambool winner Nathan Elliott is also a class act. It would be a surprise were any of them to finish on the podium, but all are capable of the top 10 (or better) on their day.
Von Hoff won the 2018 Commonwealth Games road race after recovering from a broken back.
For other potential outsiders, keep an eye on Robbie Hucker and Sam Crome (UKYO), Alex Evans (Circus-Wanty Gobert) in his first year in the elite ranks (UPDATE: Evans broke three bones in his arm in a training crash in the lead-up), former U23 champ Cyrus Monk (CycleHouse) and Conor Murtagh (Oliver’s Real Food Racing).
The elite men’s road race will be broadcast live via SBS TV, SBS On Demand and the SBS Cycling Central website. The social media hashtag you’ll want is #RoadNats.
Of course, if you can, it’s well worth catching the race live in person, particularly from the slopes of Mt. Buninyong.
Who do you think will win on Sunday, and how? What would you like to see happen?