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

Can anyone beat Sarah Gigante?

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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 combined elite and U23 women’s road race, scheduled for this coming Sunday morning. Follow the link for our preview of the elite men’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 usually tends to come up trumps in Buninyong.

The women’s road race includes nine laps of the 11.6 km course, for a total of 104.4 lumpy kilometres.

How it might play out

To get a sense of how Sunday’s race might unfold, 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:

  • Four were won solo (2009, 2010, 2012, 2019)
  • Five were won from a group of two (2008, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2020)
  • All were won from a group of nine or smaller.

It’s clear from the above that the course facilitates a race of attrition – only the strongest riders are able to handle the repeated challenge of Mt. Buninyong and emerge at the front of the race. Expect a similar outcome on Sunday with the winner coming either from a small group or riding to the finish alone.

Profile for the road race.

The field

This won’t be a normal Nationals road race. The challenges associated with international travel at the moment meant a bunch of the top professionals stayed in Europe for the off-season, rather than coming home to Australia. As a result, the field for Sunday’s road race is a little thinner than normal.

Last year’s winner (and three-time Aussie road champ) Amanda Spratt (BikeExchange) won’t be in attendance, neither will Brodie Chapman (FDJ Nouvelle Acquitaine Futuroscope) or Tiff Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM). The field has been affected by a bunch of notable retirements too: two-time champion Gracie Elvin is gone, so too is 2018 winner Shannon Malseed, and likewise regular top-10 finisher Shara Marche (neé Gillow). Last year’s fourth-place finisher Emily Herfoss will be absent too – she’s just had a baby.

BikeExchange is the team perhaps most affected by the thinner field. This year the team will have just four riders at the start: Grace Brown, Lucy Kennedy, Sarah Roy and Jess Allen.

The favourite

On the basis of recent form, and particularly in the absence of Amanda Spratt, there’s one clear favourite for the women’s race: 20-year-old Sarah Gigante (Tibco-SVB).

At the recent Santos Festival of Cycling Gigante took two imposing solo stage wins – the second of them up Willunga Hill – to win the race overall by more than three minutes. Gigante was clearly the strongest rider in the bunch.

While the four BikeExchange riders are still coming back into form post off-season, Gigante has peaked for the Australian summer and it showed again on Wednesday when she defended her time trial title

Gigante will be hard to beat on Sunday. When she inevitably attacks it will likely be a case of who can go with her. She showed with her 50 km solo win on stage 2 in Adelaide that she is willing and able to go from a long way out. Something similar could happen again on Sunday. And let’s not forget that Gigante won solo two years ago, as an 18 year old, and she’s significantly fitter and stronger now. 

Gigante winning atop Willunga Hill at the recent Festival of Cycling in Adelaide.

The challengers

Gigante might be the favourite but BikeExchange still has a very good chance of taking the green and gold bands back to Europe. The Aussie WorldTour squad has two very strong contenders in Grace Brown (third in 2018 and 2020) and Lucy Kennedy (third in 2017). While both looked underdone in Adelaide (Brown said she’d done no specific training efforts before the race), Brown has clearly improved in the past fortnight. She was second in the time trial on Wednesday and will probably be the team’s best chance on Sunday.

What BikeExchange does have on its side is numbers. Even with just four riders, they’ll outnumber Gigante who will be the only Tibco-SVB rider in attendance. To win, BikeExchange will have to rely on their weight of numbers and a series of attacks that Gigante will be forced to respond to.

Jess Allen and Sarah Roy can get up the road if need be, or attack later in the race to sap Gigante’s strength. Don’t be surprised to see Grace Brown attack from a long way out like she did last year, and for Lucy Kennedy to wait until later. For Brown or Kennedy, going it alone is their most likely avenue to victory.

Brown had a breakout year in 2020, including a terrific solo win at Brabantse Pijl.

Brown suggested after the time trial that much of the peloton will be trying to ride against Gigante on Sunday. That’s a frustrating prospect for Gigante but the question is whether it will really matter. Based on her performance in Adelaide, Gigante could well be strong enough to mark all the important moves and still have something left in the closing laps to go it alone (likely on the hill).

Note that Gigante missed the early move last year when Brown, Spratt and Justine Barrow took off on lap 3. You have to imagine Gigante will be keeping a closer eye on early moves this time around.

Of course there are other riders in with a shot besides Gigante and the BikeExchange crew. 

Lauren Kitchen (FDJ) is a proven performer on this course, with two second places (2014 and 2018) and a fifth (2016). If she can be there in a small group at the end she’ll certainly be one to watch.

Kitchen (background) finishing second behind Malseed in 2018.

Sprinter Chloe Hosking (Trek-Segafredo) is no fan of the Mt. Buninyong course but she’s done quite well here in recent years. She was fifth last year and sixth in 2016, winning the bunch sprint both times. To win, she’ll likely need the race to stay together and for a decent group to come to the finish. If that happens and she’s there, it’s hard to see anyone beating her.

Peta Mullens (Roxsolt Liv SRAM) won this race back in 2015 and has another four top-10s to her name (including seventh last year). Talk to her and she’ll likely play down her chances but based on her comprehensive victory in the stage 1 sprint at the recent Festival of Cycling, it’s clear Mullens is in good shape.

If it comes down to a small group and Mullens is there, she’ll be a great chance of another green and gold jersey.

Mullens winning in 2015.

The outsiders

Recent history shows us that domestic and/or largely unheralded riders can have a significant impact on this race. Lucy Kennedy and Grace Brown were yet to enter the pro ranks when they reached the podium for the first time, likewise Barrow who finished second last year.

In this vein, perhaps the most exciting outsider for Sunday’s race is Nicole Frain (Sydney Uni Staminade). The 28-year-old has improved considerably since her 13th last year, finishing third in last year’s National Road Series, taking third place up Willunga Hill in the recent Festival of Cycling (behind Gigante and Kennedy), and claiming bronze in Wednesday’s individual time trial. Don’t be surprised at all to see the Tasmanian right in the mix, if not on the podium.

Frain (right) after finishing third in Wednesday’s ITT championships.

For other possible outsiders look to last year’s 10th-place finisher Matilda Raynolds (Specialized Women’s Racing) and emergency doctor Alana Forster (fifth in the ITT and impressive at the Festival of Cycling).

The U23s

As usual, Sunday’s race sees the elite and U23 women competing together, but separate prizes are handed out for the first three U23s across the line. Unfortunately for most of the U23 field, Sarah Gigante is still in the U23 ranks and she’ll be very difficult to beat in that competition, even if she doesn’t win the elite title.

Among the possible contenders is 18-year-old Neve Bradbury, who joins Women’s WorldTour outfit Canyon-SRAM this year after winning the Zwift Academy in December. This will be Bradbury’s first U23/Elite Nationals and given her trajectory over the past year or so, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her at the pointy end.

How to watch it

The last two hours of the women’s race will be broadcast live via a handful of platforms. From 10am AEDT you’ll be able to catch the action on SBS TV, SBS On Demand, FoxSports Australia, and via the GCN Racing app. The last of those options will be your best bet if you’re keen to tune in from outside Australia.

Follow the link for the full startlist for Sunday’s race.

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