Preview: The elite/U23 women’s road race at the 2022 Aussie Road Nationals

Grace Brown will start as the big favourite.

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While most races on the Australian summer calendar have been cancelled due to COVID, the Road National Championships have gone ahead as planned.

The five-day event concludes on Sunday with the elite road races in Buninyong, Victoria. Here’s what you should know about the elite and U23 women’s road race. (Follow the link for a preview of the elite men’s race).

The course

If you’ve seen even one edition of the Aussie Road Nationals in the past 15 years, you’ll be familiar with the circuit being used this weekend.

Each 11.6 km lap starts in the town of Buninyong, tackles the 2.9 km stepwise climb up Mt. Buninyong, then undulates and descends its way back into Buninyong via a couple of twists and turns through Federation University.

While the Mt. Buninyong circuit has changed a little in the 15 years since Road Nats came back to Ballarat, the course used this weekend is exactly the same as it has been since 2018, when Federation Uni came on board as the event’s title sponsor.

It’s a tough course; one that tends to rule out the purest of sprinters, but also the purest of climbers. Instead it’s a strong, pro-active all-rounder that tends to come up trumps in Buninyong.

The elite and U23 women will tackle nine laps of the circuit for a total of 104.4 km.

How it might unfold

Here’s how the 15 editions of this race have played out around Mt. Buninyong since 2007:

  • Five were won by a solo rider (2009, 2010, 2012, 2019, 2021).
  • Five were won from a group of two (2008, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2020).
  • All 15 were won from a group of nine or fewer.

What we’ve got here is your classic race of attrition. The repeated ascents of Mt. Buninyong serve to thin out the field considerably as the race drags on, leaving only the strongest in contention by race’s end.

On Sunday, we might expect a breakaway to get up the road in the early laps. Depending on the composition of that group, the winner could well come from that move (like it did last year with Sarah Roy). Alternatively, we might see the most decisive moves come from the peloton later on.

It’s hard to say. Either way, if previous editions are anything to go by, the Mt. Buninyong circuit is likely to offer up some unpredictable and exciting racing.

The field

In a normal season we’d see a bunch of Aussie pros come back from Europe for their off-season before racing the Aussie Road Nationals. In 2022, thanks to COVID and the associated challenges with travel, the pointy end of the startlist is looking a little thinner.

In all, just four WorldTour riders will start Sunday’s race. Local team BikeExchange-Jayco, which normally boasts a deep roster at this race, will have just two riders in attendance: new recruit Ruby Roseman-Gannon and returning rider Alex Manly. Canyon-SRAM has just one in Neve Bradbury, while FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope has just Grace Brown.

These WorldTour pros will be well and truly outnumbered come Sunday. There are five domestic teams who will start with seven or more riders, and a bunch of other, smaller teams besides.

Riders to watch

Before we discuss the contenders, it’s worth noting who isn’t racing on Sunday. Defending champion Sarah Roy (Canyon-SRAM) opted to stay back in Europe so won’t defend her title, while former winner Sarah Gigante (Movistar) is still recovering from a bout of myopericarditis.

With that aside, here are the riders to keep an eye on.

The clear favourite to win the green and gold jersey is Grace Brown (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope). Brown was second last year (behind her then-teammate Roy), third in 2018 and 2020, and is coming off a win in the time trial on Wednesday. This is her year.

Moving to FDJ means Brown won’t have any team support on Sunday (Brodie Chapman stayed in Europe too) but that probably won’t matter. Brown is the strongest rider in the field, and you can guarantee she will make a move at some point.

Maybe she tries to get up the road early, maybe she waits until later. Either way, when she sets off, very few will be able to follow her. A Grace Brown solo victory feels like the most likely of all possible outcomes on Sunday.

Of course that’s far from a certainty. You can bet that a bunch of the big teams will be keen to get up the road early, and to isolate Brown in the peloton. And if that happens, it’s not hard to see a situation where Brown is forced to chase the remnants of a breakaway on her own, as she did last year on her way to the silver medal. It’s going to be interesting to see how Brown handles herself on Sunday.

Grace Brown on her way to a second Australian time trial title on Wednesday.

Ruby Roseman-Gannon (BikeExchange-Jayco) has had a terrific month or so, winning all four stages of the USC Cycle Sunshine Coast NRS race in December, then both stages of the Bay Crits last weekend. She’s well placed for a good result on Sunday as well.

In two appearances in the elite road race at RoadNats Roseman-Gannon finished 20th in 2020 then seventh last year. She’s taken a big step up since then.

On paper, the 23-year-old is the strongest sprinter in the field, but she can certainly climb as well. Her best chance of victory is probably from a small-group sprint, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see her ride more proactively as well. She’s got a great chance of being somewhere on the podium.

Roseman-Gannon won both stages of the recent Bay Crits. One in a bunch sprint, the other from a group of two.

Like Brown, Neve Bradbury (Canyon-SRAM) won’t have any teammates on Sunday but unlike Brown, Bradbury probably won’t be able to ride away from the field too easily. The 19-year-old was second in the U23 ranks last year (sixth overall) and will be a good bet to win the U23 race this time around.

Expect to see Bradbury glued to Brown’s wheel throughout the race and for her to feature deep into proceedings.

Bradbury in action at last year’s championships.

Rachel Neylan (Cofidis) has a good record at this race with a second, a third, a sixth, and a ninth (last year). The 39-year-old is the only Cofidis rider on the startlist but that shouldn’t stop her from posting a strong result. Neylan is probably unlikely to win, but expect to see at the front when it counts, and to finish inside the top 10 again.

The Roxsolt Liv SRAM team is one to keep a close eye on come Sunday. The team has an impressive nine riders on the startlist, and you can bet that if an early break gets away, Roxsolt Liv SRAM will be there.

Justine Barrow was second here in 2020, aged 40, and is still a formidable climber. Emily Herfoss was fourth in 2020 and is working back nicely into racing after having a baby this time last year.

And then there’s Nicole Frain who was 24th in 2019, 13th in 2020 and eighth last year. Expect her to improve on that result again this year. As seen with her third place on Willunga Hill at last year’s Santos Festival of Cycling, Frain can certainly climb.

The new women’s Inform TMX Make team has seven riders on the startlist and you can expect that squad to feature heavily as well. Fast finisher Matilda Raynolds was 10th last year (after being in the early break) and continues to improve. Former WorldTour pro Carlee Taylor has both the experience and the climbing legs to play a key role (It looks like Carlee Taylor isn’t racing now due to a COVID positive). Watch out for Amber Pate in particular though. The 26-year-old track and road racer took an impressive fourth place one year ago and was second in Wednesday’s time trial.

Other domestic teams with big rosters include Knights of Suburbia with nine on the startlist (including last year’s U23 winner Emily Watts and the in-form Lisa Jacob), ARA Pro Racing Sunshine Coast also with nine riders (look out for Anya Louw and Alex Martin-Wallace) and Sydney Uni Staminade with seven riders (including former WorldTour rider Jess Pratt and last year’s U19 winner Alyssa Polites).

And finally, just keep a bit of an eye on 2010 winner Ruth Corset (VA Pro Racing). The 44-year-old is unlikely to win, but a strong showing at the recent Sunshine Coast NRS race suggests a good finish is very possible.

Race within a race

Much to the chagrin of some, this year’s Road Nats again combines the elite and U23 road races into one event. The first three U23 riders across the line will get their own podium presentation and the winner will receive a green and gold jersey.

On paper, the U23 crown is likely to be won by either Neve Bradbury or last year’s winner Emily Watts, but as we saw with Watts’s win last year, an unexpected result is certainly possible. In all, there are 29 U23 riders on a starlist of 89.

The podium from last year’s U23 race: Emily Watts with the win, Bradbury second, and Gigante third.

The weather

A top temperature of 27 ºC is forecast for Sunday, but with the women’s racing starting in the morning, conditions should be cooler than that – perfect for bike racing. Little if any wind is expected.

How to watch it

The elite and U23 women’s road race will be broadcast live in Australia via SBS On Demand, SBS TV, and FoxSports Australia. International viewers can catch the action via GCN.

Racing gets underway at 8:50am AEDT on Sunday morning but live coverage won’t start until 10am.

If you’re keen to follow the race on Twitter, #RoadNats22 is the event’s official hashtag.

Who’s your pick to win on Sunday?

Follow the link for the full startlist.

This article was published before Friday’s Road Nationals criterium. Any relevant updates will be made after that race.

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