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The Australian Road Nationals are currently underway in Ballarat and everything is building towards “Super Sunday” — the day of the elite road races.
On Sunday morning, the combined U23 and elite women’s field will take to the slopes of Mt. Buninyong to decide who will wear green and gold for the next 12 months. Here’s what you need to know about the race, and who to keep an eye on.
Starting at 8:50am on Sunday morning, the women’s road race will comprise nine laps of the 11.6 km Mt. Buninyong circuit for a total of 104 tough kilometres.
The circuit will be familiar to anyone that’s watched an Aussie Nationals road race in the past 13 years. The course is largely the same as it has been since 2007, and identical to the course that has been used since 2018 when a short deviation through Federation University was added (Fed Uni is the Nationals’ title sponsor).
Starting and finishing in the centre of Buninyong the course is defined by a 2.9 km stepwise climb partway 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.
How it might play out
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:
– Four were won solo (2009, 2010, 2012, 2019)
– Four were won from a group of two (2008, 2015, 2016, 2017)
– All were won from a group of nine or smaller.
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 win. Expect a similar outcome on Sunday with the winner coming either from a small group or riding to the finish alone.
A small breakaway will likely get up the road early, but the most meaningful attacks will probably start in the final few laps once the field has been whittled right down. Expect Mitchelton-Scott to be in every move that matters, and to instigate many such attacks.
Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott): If you had to pick one stand-out favourite for Sunday’s race it would be ‘Spratty’. The 32-year-old has won here twice before (2012 and 2016) and has also been second (twice), third, fourth, fifth and sixth.
Spratt is one of the very best in the world on tough hilly courses — as second and third in the past two Road World Championships will attest — and she said at the Bay Crits that she’s focusing on Nationals more than she has in recent years. Her best shot is a late move, either solo or with a select few — something her rivals will be acutely aware of.
With both of Spratt’s wins coming in Olympic years, she must be due for another win, right?
Most of the Mitchelton-Scott team: Australia’s biggest team puts a lot of pressure on itself to take the green and gold jersey to Europe each year. Fair enough too: they always have the strongest team, and they have the best opportunity to show off the colours throughout the season.
Having missed out on the jersey the past two years, that pressure on Mitchelton-Scott has only intensified.
Spratt is the team’s best option, but it certainly has others. Lucy Kennedy has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, and will almost certainly attack on Mt. Buninyong at some point. If she gets clear she’ll be very hard to beat. Gracie Elvin is a two-time winner and arguably the strongest in the race from a reduced bunch sprint. Grace Brown is very dangerous if she can get away on her own or in a small group.
In short, Mitchelton-Scott has plenty of cards to play and play them they will.
Sarah Gigante (Tibco-SVB): A year on from her remarkable victory in this race, the defending champion is fitter and stronger than ever. Last year she was in the breakaway and made her move from there — she’ll probably need to do similar to win in 2020. That said, it’s hard to see her being given any latitude at all this time around, particularly after her stellar win in the elite and U23 time trial on Wednesday.
Note that, at 19 years old, Gigante is still part of the U23 ranks. It’s hard to see her not winning that classification for the second year in a row.
A strong trio of FDJ riders: Mitchelton-Scott aside, FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope has the strongest team on the startlist thanks to three very compelling options. Shara Gillow has been an impressively consistent performer in this race — in the last eight years she’s only finished outside the top 10 once. Expect to see her on the move in the closing laps.
Lauren Kitchen has also been in the mix on a number of occasions (second in 2014 and 2018; fifth in 2016) but has never entirely cracked the code. She’s the team’s best shot if it comes down to a small group. And then there’s new recruit Brodie Chapman who has climbed through the ranks at impressive pace in recent years. She should be able to climb with the best, and loves getting away late. She’s one to watch for sure.
The winner is likely to be among the riders mentioned above, but nothing’s certain in bike racing — particularly on a course as dynamic as Mt. Buninyong. Here are some riders that could be an outside chance of victory.
Emily Herfoss (Roxsolt-Attaquer): Herfoss (née Roper) was one of the stars of Wednesday’s time trial, finishing in third just 10 seconds away from gold. The reigning National Road Series champion has improved significantly in recent years and needs to be factored in on Sunday.
Rachel Neylan (Casa Dorada): The 37-year-old has been on the podium three times in this race (her best being second behind Peta Mullens in 2015) but her best days are probably behind her. That said, Neylan showed at the Women’s Tour Down Under last year (third overall) that she can still be very competitive at this time of year.
Ruby Roseman-Gannon: Roseman-Gannon was perhaps the revelation of the recent Bay Crits. She was strong enough to get in the winning move on both days that a breakaway decided the race, and on both occasions it took a world-class rider to beat her (Spratt and Chloe Hosking).
It mightn’t all come together for Roseman-Gannon this year, but she should still be there late in the race. At the very least she has a very good shot of ending up on the U23 podium.
Jaime Gunning (Specialized Women’s Racing): Gunning has had an impressive rise through the ranks in recent years and is both a strong climber and time-trialist. She’s unlikely to reach the overall podium, but she could well feature on the U23 podium.
How to watch
The women’s road race will be broadcast live via SBS TV, SBS On Demand and the SBS Cycling Central website from 10am (70 minutes after the start). 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?