2020 Federation University Road National Championships Men’s Elite Road Race in Buninyong on January 12, 2020 in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. (Photo by Con Chronis)

Preview: The elite men’s road race at the 2021 Aussie Road Nationals

Will BikeExchange take the green and gold jersey back to Europe again?

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The Australian summer of racing has been decimated by COVID-induced cancellations but the Road Nationals in Ballarat is one event that has survived, albeit one month later than expected. As usual, the event concludes with ‘Super Sunday’, featuring the elite women’s and men’s road races.

Here’s what you can expect from the elite men’s road race, scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Follow the link for our preview of the women’s race.

The course

If you’ve watched the Aussie Road Nationals at any point over the past 14 years you’ll be familiar with the Mt. Buninyong circuit.

Starting and finishing in the town of Buninyong, the course starts with and is defined by a stepwise 2.9 km climb that reaches partway up Mt. Buninyong. From there the course undulates for much of its remainder, passing through Federation University and descending back to Buninyong.

While the course has changed a little over the years, this year’s circuit is the same as the one that’s been used for the past three editions, ever since Federation University came on board as the event’s title sponsor.

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 tends to come up trumps in Buninyong.

The men’s road race includes 16 laps of the 11.6 km course, for a total of 185.6 lumpy kilometres.

How it might play out

To get a sense of how Sunday’s race might be won, let’s take a look at the past 14 editions of the race – every edition since the Nationals returned to Ballarat in 2007. Of those 14 races:

  • Nine were won solo.
  • Four were won from a group of three.
  • One was won from a group of six.

Those numbers should make it clear that this is a hard race that tends to favour only the strongest riders that can make it up and over Mt. Buninyong each time.

Expect an early breakaway to get up the road. That break might well survive, with some subset of the group holding on to the finish, or it might be brought back. Either way, expect the field to thin down significantly as the laps tick by. Expect a flurry of activity on the mountain in the closing laps, particularly if the break is caught.

The field

As with the women’s race, the challenges associated with international travel mean there’s a considerably thinner field than normal this year. Many of the overseas pros haven’t come back from Europe for the Australian summer, including the likes of Nathan Haas (Cofidis), Jai Hindley (DSM) and Simon Clarke (Qhubeka-Assos). In fact, none of the top seven ranked Australian men (by ProCyclingStats points) will be in attendance on Sunday, and only six of the top 20 are racing. Notably, BikeExchange won’t have quite as big a team as normal.

In recent years the Aussie WorldTour team has fielded as many as 10 riders. This year they’ll have just six: Luke Durbridge, Alex Edmondson, Cameron Meyer, Kaden Groves, Lucas Hamilton and Damien Howson. As a result the team won’t have nearly as many cards to play – they’ll have to be a little more selective with how they deploy their resources. BikeExchange will actually be outnumbered by a number of domestic teams which could make things quite interesting from a spectator’s point of view.

The favourites

Despite having a somewhat depleted line-up, BikeExchange is still a great chance of taking the green and gold jersey back to Europe. Of the six riders taking the start, three (Durbridge, Edmondson and Meyer) have all won this race before. Hamilton was second last year as well. The team might have fewer cards to play, but they’re still damn good cards.

Durbridge on his way to victory in 2013.

Expect Durbridge to get up the road as he so often does. (“I haven’t missed the break in many years, so I’m sure I’ll be there,” he told me on Wednesday). The West Australian is an Aussie summer specialist and won this race solo back in 2013 after getting in the early break. Based on his 80 km solo victory on stage 1 of the Santos Festival of Cycling and his second in the time trial on Wednesday Durbridge is clearly in good form again. If he can infiltrate that early break as planned, he’ll be very dangerous indeed.

Groves will likely be the team’s go-to if the race comes back together for a reduced bunch sprint, and the rest will likely be given a free role to get in whatever moves they can, particularly late in the piece. Realistically, any of the six BikeExchange riders could win this race, depending on how it plays out. When the attacks start to fly in the closing kilometres, keep an eye on Hamilton and Meyer in particular.

The challengers

BikeExchange might be strong but the team is far from guaranteed the victory. Chris Harper (Jumbo-Visma) was third here in 2018 and second in 2019 and would dearly love to complete his medal collection. He showed some promising form at the Festival of Cycling in Adelaide and will almost certainly feature late when the dangerous moves start. Another podium is a very real possibility, if not the top step.

Harper (left) on his way to second in 2019.

One of the domestic teams with a bunch of strong riders is Inform TMX Make. Mark O’Brien, Kell O’Brien and Lucas Plapp can all have an impact on the race, the last two being of particular interest.

Plapp has been the revelation of the Australian summer so far, riding brilliantly at the Santos Festival of Cycling and taking a sensational win in the Nationals time trial on Wednesday (as a 20-year-old, let’s not forget). It’ll be fascinating to see how he goes on Sunday. He was fifth in the U23 race last year, but this is a longer race than he’s used to. Still, he’s clearly an incredible talent and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him in the mix late.

Kell O’Brien too has shown impressive development in the past 12 months or so. It will be exciting to see how he fares as well.

Plapp beat Durbridge and teammate Kell O’Brien to win the ITT on Wednesday.

Team BridgeLane is always worth keeping an eye on at Nationals. With plenty of riders on the startlist, expect the Continental team to get up the road and to feature in most of the major moves. Among the riders to watch: Nick White (winner of the U23 race two years ago), Sam Jenner (also a winner in the U23 ranks), and Drew Morey.

James Whelan (EF Education First Nippo) is one of the few WorldTour riders that came home for the off-season and he could well have an impact on Sunday. Whelan was second on this course in 2018 in the U23 ranks but the climbing all-rounder is yet to post a strong result in the elite field. Sunday could be his chance.

The outsiders

Take a look at the recent history of this race and you’ll see that an outsider is very much capable of taking a surprise victory on this course. Miles Scotson (2017), Alex Edmondson (2018), Michael Freiberg (2019) – all took their chances with great effect, upsetting the bigger names to take victory. Another similar result isn’t out of the question at all in 2021.

One rider to keep an eye on is Sebastian Berwick. The now-21-year-old was the revelation of last year’s Jayco Herald Sun Tour, finishing second overall, and since then he’s signed a three-year deal with WorldTour outfit Israel Start-Up Nation. Berwick was second in the U23 race last year and it would hardly be a surprise to see him inside the top 10 on Sunday.

Berwick (in white) on his way to second overall at the 2020 Sun Tour.

Marcus Culey (Ukyo) was truly brilliant in last year’s race en route to third and he’ll be one of the smaller-name riders to keep an eye on again. Brendan Johnston has impressed on the domestic scene in recent years, taking victory in the Melbourne to Warrnambool last year. He was ninth in this race last year and has improved since then.

Cyrus Monk was on a tear in Adelaide, winning the points classification courtesy of four breakaways in four days. He’s won on this course before, as an U23, and we can expect to see him on the move on Sunday (likely in the early breakaway).

And then there’s the enigmatic Ben Dyball (Ukyo). Dyball spent a challenging year on the WorldTour last year but is back to Continental level for 2021. He’s performed well here in the past and if he has come to the race in decent form he could well be in the mix again.

How to watch it

You’ll be able to catch the last 3.5 hours of the race live via a bevy of platforms: SBS, SBS On Demand, FoxSports Australia, and GCN Racing. The last of those is your best bet if you’re watching from overseas. Coverage starts at 2pm AEDT.

Follow the link for a startlist for the elite men’s road race.

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