2012 saw one of the best Australian Elite Men's Road Race Championships in memory and 2013 is shaping up to be just as impressive. January form can be difficult to measure but the majority of starters and contenders in Sunday's 195.6km race at Buninyong have been honing their condition over the first week of racing at the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic and the Jayco Herald Sun Tour that followed.
Cyclingnews' Australian team of Jane Aubrey and Alex Malone have been closely following the action and take a look at the men to watch...
The Pros -
1. Simon Gerrans (Orica GreenEdge). 2012 result - 1st: The reigning Australian Road Champion may not have won the Jayco Herald Sun Tour last week but don't discount the winner of last year's Tour Down Under and one-day classic Milan-San Remo. Gerrans animated the race over the three-days and will only be stronger come race day on Sunday.
He'll have nearly the entire Australian ProTeam at his disposal and the Sun Tour was apparently just what he needed ahead of Sunday's 195.6km race. Gerrans has already admitted that he would be in "really good condition" after a bit of racing so expect him to be at the front when the final selections are made in the closing laps.
Gerrans has shown an obvious ability to cope with the repeated laps of the Buninyong circuit and if anything, the extra distance of this year's race will suit the Victorian who can also pack a mean sprint. If it comes down to a small group, Gerrans will most certainly be in the running for a repeat title.
2. Richie Porte (Team Sky). 2012 result - 3rd: A bronze-medal in the road race last year could have been green and gold if the finish was better suited to the characteristics of the noted climber and time triallist. Porte demonstrated his natural prowess against the clock during Wednesday's time trial championship and despite "only riding his bike," he still managed to finish fourth - just three seconds off the podium.
Porte may not be targeting the national championships specifically but his ride in the time trial demonstrated that he should be taken very seriously come race day. He sat out the Sun Tour but he looks to be in fantastic physical shape and with another big year in the WorldTour behind him, his endurance and strength should have progressed even further from last year.
The 27-year-old was one of Bradley Wiggins' mountain-men for the Tour de France last year and will easily deal with the Buninyong climb. The distance should play into the Tasmanian's favour having completed a huge 18-day block of training a number of weeks ago. He already stated his season really starts once he returns to Europe but don't count him out of the race. He'll be lining up with ambitions to do well. The outcome that stems from that will be known when the race really gets going in the final hour of racing.
3. Rohan Dennis (Garmin-Sharp). 2012 result - 1st U23: The first-year professional was a force to be reckoned with at the National Championships in 2012. Dennis was a level above in the road race and used the strength of his Jayco-AIS team to perfection. There was only two riders left at the front of the espoirs race and Dennis easily disposed of his breakaway companion Eric Sheppard in the sprint. He then backed-up that result with a gold-medal ride in the time trial.
This is the Garmin-Sharp rider's first time in the elite ranks but after his second-place in the time trial, he's clearly been working hard over the festive period. Dennis will have a number of teammates for the race but he may not be the outright leader on the day. His relative inexperience may mean his team starts the day with a number of cards to play but Dennis should have the resolve to be there by the end.
Dennis told Cyclingnews that he has spent plenty of time doing base hours in the lead-up to the Championships. The added volume on the road, coupled with the lack of track riding may give mean what he lacks in speed, is made up for in endurance. He already showed his strength is far from lacking when he rode to a silver medal behind Luke Durbridge in the time trial on Wednesday. The rest will come down to legs on the day and team tactics.
4. Simon Clarke (Orica GreenEdge). 2012 result - DNF: A breakout performance at the Vuelta a España last year has landed Clarke in the favourites category. Clarke won a mountain-top stage in his first grand tour last season and also took home the Mountains Classification when the race rolled into Madrid at the end of the three weeks.
Clarke was part of the Australian National Team for the Sun Tour and while he, like the rest of his team failed to win a stage it was not for lack of trying. Clarke was right up at the front whenever the road went uphill and given the he also lacked any racing coming into the three-day tour, he performed as expected. The top-placed finisher from the National Team was Clarke and if the opening day had gone to plan, he could have quite easily been in the hunt for the overall victory.
With a week to sharpen-up, Clarke, after the final stage last Sunday at Arthurs Seat Clarke will be one of the Orica GreenEdge team's most-likely contenders to take out the race on Sunday. Like Gerrans, there are plenty of potential candidates from the Orica GreenEdge squad but Clarke has the ability to stake a claim in the protected role.
5. Matt Lloyd (Lampre-ISD). 2012 result - 2nd: Lloyd gets the final spot in the top-five thanks to his silver-medal performance at the road championships last year. Lloyd was missing from the professional ranks for much of the 2011 season after leaving the Omega Pharma-Lotto squad and while he rejoined the WorldTour in 2012 with Lampre-ISD, it seemed like he never really got going.
The former King of the Mountains winner at the Giro has reportedly been riding well in his hometown of Melbourne but his condition is relatively unknown. He raced a limited schedule in 2012 and completed a little under 50 days of racing however, there was plenty of quality. He rode Tour Down Under, Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de France - albeit for a little over a week.
He achieved few results in 2012 outside of the National Championships but if he's serious about this year's race then look out. Last year he lined up in a skinsuit such was his eagerness to save as much energy as possible throughout the day. With nearly an extra hour of racing added for this year he may leave the skinsuit at home but his climbing legs will definitely be on show at some point during the day.
Notable mentions: The list of WorldTour riders continues to grow at each year's National Championships and 2013 is no different. There are plenty of quality entrants who could finish on the podium or, in the right circumstances, take the gold. Bronze medal winner from the time trial Michael Matthews may be in the mix. However, the former Rabobank rider failed to finish last year.
Sky's Chris Sutton was one of the few riders to be right in the mix last year and almost made it across when the attacks begun toward the final ascent of Buninyong. He missed a lot of racing last year due to injury but the Sydney-sider has been putting in huge blocks of training and finishing it off by demoralising the field at local criteriums. He will be aiming at a good result before Down Under.
Adam Hansen (Lotto Belisol) is one of the most consistent finishers at Buninyong and has achieved a number of medals in the road race and is also a former national time trial champion. Hansen has stated that he would love to "honour" the green and gold jersey in Europe for the coming season. He won't have any teammates but that may work to his advantage, leaving others to do the chasing.
Cameron Meyer (Orica GreenEdge) could have been included in the top-5 contenders list based on his former national champion status, however it wasn't until he won the national criterium title that his form could be truly gauged. Meyer attacked the field in the opening minutes of the race and despite a combined chase, his lead was big enough that he could savour the final 200 metres and salute the crowd as he crossed the finish line. Sunday's road race will take much longer than an hour but if he is on his own - and remembers to stay fuelled - he could well do the same again.
Finally, there's the two-time national TT champion Luke Durbridge who is looking lean and ready to tackle his second year at the WorldTour while Zak Dempster is an outside shot. He's already earned an Australian jersey for the National Team at Down Under.
The locals -
6. Will Walker (Drapac). 2012 result - Did not race: The 2006 Australian Under23 Champion and 2005 World Under23 silver medallist has been nothing but impressive since his return from tachycardia mid-season having been forced to the sidelines for nearly three years.
At 27, Walker has been attacking his races with a renewed vigour as he continues to work towards his goal of returning to the WorldTour and riding the Tour de France. In his comeback riding in the Australian National Road Series, Walker won the Tour of Gippsland, his second start, before being forced to take a break the very next event, the Tour of the Great South Coast following "a light episode of tachycardia".
He was most-recently in action at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, finishing sixth overall off the back of a runner-up placing on Stage 2 to Healesville having ridden away from the field with eventual winner, Luke Davison. Dehydration played a tangible role in the result for Walker but he was back in the hunt the very next day on Arthurs Seat, finishing fifth across the line, right on the wheel of good mate, Simon Clarke.
Walker is more than capable of finishing on the podium on Sunday and should be make the final selection, look for him to animate the race and really test out his rivals.
7. Mark O'Brien (Raleigh). 2012 result - 12th: His third overall in the NRS belied the quality of his results with overall victories at Mersey Valley Tour, Tour of Toowoomba and North Western Tour and the 25-year-old is a serious contender in a class field.
His 12th place in the 2012 race - only 21 riders finished - was just the start of a big season with O'Brien determined to return to racing overseas having previously spent time in Asia. He got his wish, earning a contract with Raleigh for the coming season.
The additional 32.4km on the 2013 parcours won't be an issue for the all-rounder who is in the form of his life. Even leaner than his usual self, O'Brien finished third on the final stage of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, having been a major agitator on both ascents of Arthurs Seat, proving he had the ability to stick it to his WorldTour rivals. He'll do it again on Sunday.
8. Nathan Earle (Huon Salmon - Genesys Wealth Advisers). 2012 result - DNF: Such is the strength of the Huon-Genesys squad that it makes it hard to single out any one rider but we're giving the Tasmanian the nod. After a struggle with injury, Earle is back to his best and his form was on show for all to see on the final stage of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour where he was first across the finish line on Arthurs Seat.
A huge factor in any result the 24-year-old gets on Sunday will be the tremendous, reliable support from his team, Huon-Genesys and he should find himself with a few orange jerseys for company in the final selection with Jai Crawford, Anthony Giacoppo and Pat Shaw all looking good. The team used all of its savvy during the Sun Tour to out-race the Australian National Team and boss Andrew Christie-Johnston will be keen to put in a repeat performance this weekend.
9. Jack Anderson (Budget Forklifts). 2012 result - Did not race: The 25-year-old is back racing domestically in 2013 after several years overseas with Team Sprocket and Endura Racing and if his form at the Sun Tour was anything to go by, he's determined not to waste any opportunity that comes his way.
Anderson finished in the top 10 during Wednesday's individual time trial in a pleasing result but his biggest target is the road race.
The Queenslander was especially impressive during the final stage of the Sun Tour, setting the pace for the breakaway with Stuart O'Grady which animated the race in the lead up to Arthurs Seat. He looked to be doing it comfortably too.
Budget Forklifts, while losing a number of riders from their 2012 roster, showed no signs of depletion last week and should be well-placed to post a result on Sunday.
10. Darren Lapthorne (Drapac). 2012 result - DNF: 'Lappers', Australian Champion in 2007 - the guy knows how to take a race and his rivals to task and one should expect nothing less on Sunday from this perennial performer.
Word around traps is that 2013 is set to be a big one for the 29-year-old and a result at Buninyong could be just the start having warmed up his racing legs with a credible 10th overall at the Sun Tour.
Well-suited to the parcours and more than capable to handle the challenge that the new three laps of the big loop up to Navigators Road will bring, before the race returns for the usual 10.2km loop for 11 laps, it's Lapthorne's staying power and dogged determination that makes him a standout. Whether he attacks the race on his own or leaves it until the last minute to launch into clear space, Lapthorne is an excellent chance of becoming a dual national champion, joining Australian cycling legends.
Noteable mentions: There is no shortage of options from the domestic scene but it's a look back to last year's final selection, coupled with recent form which gives the best indication of who could be up there. As a team, they tend to fly under the radar a bit but 2013 could be a turning point for the search2retain p/b health.com.au which go into Sunday's race with two riders looking the goods, Neil Van Der Ploeg (20th in 2012) and Cal Britten who was less than a minute behind the stage winner on Arthurs Seat. Olympic Mountain Bike representative Dan McConnell has been fine-tuning his road legs and was 11th in 2012 and runner-up behind Earle last week. Meantime, Joe Lewis who rides for GPM - Data#3 may not have posted a result in 2012, is in fine form and will be racing in his first elite national titles gunning for a result.