For the second year in a row, Australia’s summer of cycling has been gutted by COVID. The only event to come out completely unscathed is the National Road Championship, currently underway in and around Ballarat.
The championships conclude this Sunday with the elite road races. We have already watched the women’s race; read on for your guide to elite men’s running.
If you’ve watched even one edition of the Aussie Road Nats in the past 15 years, you’ll be familiar with the road race course that will be used this weekend.
Each 11.6 km lap begins in the town of Buninyong before tackling the gradual 2.9 km climb up Mount Buninyong. From there, the course undulates and descends back to Buninyong via some twists and turns through Federation University.
While the Mount Buninyong circuit has changed slightly in the 15 years since Road Nats returned to Ballarat, the course used this weekend is the same one used for the past four years since the arrival of the Federation Uni as the title sponsor of the event.
It is a difficult course, which tends to exclude the most pure sprinters, but also the most pure climbers. Instead, he’s a powerful all-rounder who tends to have a hand in Buninyong.
The elite men will tackle 16 laps of the circuit for a total of 185.6 km.
How could it be
Here is how the 15 editions of this race took place around Mount Buninyong:
- Nine were won by a lone rider.
- Four were won out of a group of three.
- One was won from a group of five.
- One was won from a group of six.
These numbers paint a pretty clear picture: this is your classic attrition run. While Mount Buninyong isn’t the toughest climb in the world, repeated climbs do a great job of clearing up the terrain, especially once the pace picks up and the attacks start to fly in the final laps.
We won’t see a big bunch sprint on Sunday afternoon. Instead, it will be a solo or small group winner who reaches the line first. How to get there, well, that’s a whole different matter.
Each edition of the men’s road race at Mount Bunyinong seems to produce a dynamic, aggressive and engaging race where it is usually quite difficult to follow all the movements. There will almost certainly be an early breakaway – and riders have already won with this move – but things will get most interesting later.
Expect to see a host of attacks in the final laps. We will see small groups breaking away from the main peloton, groups coming together, groups splitting, lone riders breaking free, more regrouping. Really, just about anything can happen, but when it does, there won’t be many runners left with a chance of winning.
Runners to watch
Cameron Meyer (BikeExchange-Jayco) winning a third consecutive title seems as likely an outcome as any other Sunday. A solid all-rounder, Meyer is very well suited to this course. Perhaps more importantly, his experience in Buninyong gives him a real advantage. Meyer is a very crafty cyclist, who knows exactly how to measure his effort in this race. Look at his victory last year as a key example. He was dropped on the penultimate lap, but pulled out all the stops to win an extraordinary sprint in a small group.
The Western Australian has raced in the elite ranks here 13 times and has seven top 10 finishes, and finished first, second, third, fourth and sixth. Expect him to be in the game again on Sunday. If he won, he would be the first male runner to win three in a row since John Trevorrow between 1978 and 1980. (On the women’s side, Kathy Watt won three in a row from 1992 to 1994).
It’s worth noting that Meyer won’t have the kind of team support he might have had a few years ago – likely due to COVID-related travel difficulties, he’ll only have three teammates that day . Even in last year’s COVID-affected edition, BikeExchange had six riders on the start roster.
One of Meyer’s teammates is Luke Durbridge, another driver who shines brilliantly on this circuit. He won in 2013 and is a regular in the top 10. Durbridge will probably be looking to enter the first break, as he is used to doing at this circuit, and from there just about anything is possible. Another victory would certainly not be a surprise.
In what is an interesting late development, it seems that Michael Matthews could also run on Sunday. As of this writing, he hasn’t entered yet, but his Instagram Stories suggest he might be there. If he is, it will be his first National since 2014. Matthews won the peloton sprint for second place in 2013 (see image below), and he’s been on the podium twice in the U23 ranks. If he comes out of his offseason well and is in the leading group at the finish, watch out.
(Update: Although he wrote on his Instagram story that he was “ready for the Road Nationals this weekend”, his team offers Matthews might have meant to say he’s ‘ready to watch and cheer on the runners from Europe😉“. This is all a bit strange.)
Jumbo-Visma should have two riders on the starting line in Chris Harper and new recruit Rohan Denis. It was on this circuit that Harper really made his name, finishing second and third as a Continental rider. He finished seventh and 10th since joining the WorldTour. You wouldn’t want to bet he misses the top 10.
If Dennis starts, we can probably expect him to support Harper. Wednesday’s time trial – where Dennis won a fourth Australian title in emphatic fashion – was his biggest focus. While Dennis has what it takes to win on this circuit (he won the U23 race in 2012), he has yet to finish an elite race here in five starts.
Luke Plapp will be the only Ineos Grenadiers rider in the race to miss the chance to defend his TT title on Wednesday due to close contact with COVID. Plapp was strong last year on his debut (he was in the elite when he could have been riding U23s) and launched a menacing long-range solo move that excited many (but ultimately didn’t carry its fruit). With slightly better timing, Plapp could be a real threat on Sunday. His best chance of victory will likely come from another solo move.
Chris Hamilton (DSM) finished sixth here in 2018, but that career-best finish probably isn’t indicative of his talent. If Hamilton has come out of the offseason well, he could fight for a place on the podium.
With fewer WorldTour riders on the starting roster than we’ve seen in a long time (seven this year versus 24 in 2018), this year’s Road Nats provide a great opportunity for some of the smaller teams to shine. The leader of these teams, as usual, is Bridgelane.
The Australian Continental team will field a squad of seven riders – the most of any team – including some strong contenders. Nick White finished fourth last year and won here as an U23 in 2019. He is likely to be one of the fastest finishers in any group he is in.
Bridgelane has also James Whelan who upgrades to Conti level in 2022 after three years on the WorldTour with EF Education-Nippo. Whelan finished sixth last year and will most likely play a role in the final rounds.
The Japanese continental team Ukyo will be ably represented by former WorldTour riders Ben Dyball and Nathan Earl. Earle has three top-10s on this circuit and Dyball has three top-15s. Both are good enough to be in the mix when the real attacks start to happen.
Other runners to watch include the stalwart Road Nats Mark O’Brien (inform the TMX brand) who, in 12 appearances, reached the top 10 five times. 2020 NRS Winner Brendan Johnson was ninth in 2020 and could play a deep role in the race. Monk of Cyrus (CycleHouse) is a virtual certainty to get into the early breakaway. And keep an eye out for the brave Liam White (Oliver’s Racing) also; another cyclist who probably wants to hit the road.
A maximum temperature of 27ºC is forecast for Sunday with very little wind expected. The conditions are likely to have little impact on the outcome of the race.
How to watch it
The elite men’s road race will be broadcast live in Australia via SBS On Demand, SBS TV and Fox Sports Australia. International viewers can catch the action via GCN. The race begins at 12:30 p.m. AEDT, but live coverage will begin at 2 p.m.
Who is your choice to win the elite men’s race?
Follow the link for the full start list.
This article was published ahead of Friday’s National Road Championships criterium. All relevant updates will be made after this race.