Summer in Australia is approaching and this year's Jayco Herald Sun Tour will kick off the sunny days with what promises to be one of the most captivating races in recent years. Without defending champion Stuart O'Grady and the Saxo Bank squad, all eyes will be on the Garmin-Slipstream team to animate the seven days of racing in regional Victoria.
Boasting Tour de France star Bradley Wiggins for this year's edition of the Herald Sun Tour, Matt White's crew includes talented climbers Trent Lowe and Tom Peterson, plus speedster Chris Sutton and strongman Svein Tuft. Given the Canadian's prowess in the time trial, he could prove a dark horse for the American ProTour outfit as all eyes will be on Wiggins.
The essence of this year's race will be the possibilities for smaller teams, including American squads Rock Racing, Bissell and Jelly Belly, while the ever-classy British Professional Continental crew Rapha Condor makes its way Down Under with former Australian national champion Darren Lapthorne, plus reigning British national champion Kristian House and experienced campaigner Dean Downing.
House loves racing in Australia and should relish the chance to compete against his illustrious countryman, Wiggins, on the roads of Victoria.
Another squad to look out for will be the composite Jayco Australian National Team, with 2007 champion Matt Wilson, emerging climbing talent Richie Porte and Skil-Shimano professional Mitch Docker. While the lack of big mountains may not suit them, they'll take whatever opportunities arise to liven up proceedings.
Go on, get out there!
The preface takes the Sun Tour circus to the historic city of Ballarat - an important place in the cycling culture of Australia, the roads around this regional centre host the national championships each year, although this time it's the scene of a criterium that should offer a bit of entertainment for the locals.
Fly V Australia rider and reigning Australian national criterium champion Bernard Sulzberger will be looking to get his race off to a flying start by taking line honours and throwing his name into the hat of possible contenders. Henk Vogels' squad has had a great 2009 which included winning the Scody Cup last weekend, and his troops will be aiming for more of the same throughout the week.
The following day's opening road stage takes riders on an out-and-back tour of Ballarat's surrounds, with the day starting and finishing in the city. It's a day made for the sprinters, with two minor King of the Mountains points providing little obstacle for the fast guys.
If a break does get away, look to a rider such as Drapac-Porsche's Dean Windsor or experienced Australian Ben Day to be amongst those trying their luck on the 149km parcours.
In the likely sprint finish, two fast guys on either end of the career spectrum will be raring to go: emerging Australian talent Leigh Howard, who signed his first professional contract for Columbia-HTC earlier this year, against wily veteran Jaan Kirsipuu, the Estonian making an appearance for Malaysian squad LeTua.
Stage two takes riders to the coastal town of Warrnambool, made famous by the annual 299km one-day classic that finishes there. Look out for House or team-mate Dean Downing on this day; House has plenty of experience on these roads, and with a couple of category three climbs thrown in, there may be a bunch of escapees looking to make its bid for victory a long way from home.
In all likelihood the sprinters will duke it out again, with recent Goulburn to Citi winner Richard Lang keen to try his luck against some big fish such as Sutton. The two tough New South Welshmen have stepped up to another level this year and both possess a similar track background.
The big push for victory
The following day - 164km from Warrnambool to Apollo Bay - where those looking to establish a gap on their rivals may try and make their move. In most editions of the event there's a pivotal stage where the race-defining break rules the roost; this year that may come on October 14.
A first and second category climb late in the stage, the spectacular 12 Apostles and a warmed-up peloton should all add up to some great racing on the fourth day of competition. With most teams capable of putting a man in the right move, this stage should be crucial to determining the overall winner of the 2009 Herald Sun Tour.
Contenders include natural climbers Jai Crawford or Lowe and Peterson, although the altitude may prove a little low for their liking.
If the general classification has been shaken up the previous day, the stage from Anglesea to Barwon Heads should see teams defending a lead or chasing in an effort to claw back some time. Finishing in the town that newly-crowned world champion Cadel Evans calls home when he's in Australia, stage four should throw up a bit more dramatic fare for fans.
The 10km along Geelong's Esplanade will be prime territory for Bradley Wiggins in this year's Herald Sun Tour. All eyes will be on the Brit in the stage five time trial as he looks to gain an advantage on those with ambitions of overall victory.
The distance of this time trial may prove too short to make significant splits at the top of the leader board, although it could shuffle the cards if the gaps are narrow, making for a nervous final stage in the heart of Melbourne's Little Italy.
The wine will be flowing and the crowds big the following day on Lygon St as riders conclude proceedings with a twilight criterium amongst the restaurants and cafes. Don't count on the general classification being decided but a hectic finish can be anticipated as those looking for a stage win aim to be included on the honour roll with victory in Australia's second-largest city.