The Melbourne Commonwealth Games, March 25, 2006
The final day of the 2006 Commonwealth Games will take place on Sunday with only the road races remaining in the cycling events. The women will line up first for nine laps of an 11km course that starts and finishes in the Royal Botanical Gardens in downtown Melbourne. Huge crowds are expected to match or exceed those attracted to both the marathon and individual time trials, with fine and sunny conditions forecast.
The course does not boast many challenging climbs but is more like a technical criterium course, containing 23 corners and a number of short but very steep climbs. But as Australian men's road director Neil Stephens told Cyclingnews today, "The circuit is only as hard as you make it." Hard or not, the number of corners means that breakaway groups will be quickly out of sight, and will also make it very difficult for any one team to co-ordinate a concerted chase. Wins from small groups or solo breaks seem the most likely outcomes.
The women's field is only 36 riders strong; however the field is world class. According to the Australian team, they have six riders who are capable of winning the race and will use the many cards they have to play. "Australia comes first," says Australian women's national coach Warren McDonald. "I think personalities aside, Australia comes first. The girls have raced enough over the last couple of years to know that when they put Australia first, the results will come."
McDonald declared his team "a phenomenal six". "It's the strongest team we've fielded at a Commonwealth Games and even a world championships and it's going to be exciting." Joining time trial gold and bronze medallists Oenone Wood (Nurnberger) and Sara Carrigan will be sprinter Rochelle Gilmore (Safi-Pasta Zara Manhattan), the Bates sisters - Kate (Nurnberger) and Natalie (AA Drink) - and Olivia Gollan (Nobili).
McDonald believes their strongest challengers will be Sarah Ulmer (New Zealand) and Nicole Cooke (Wales). Ulmer and the New Zealand team proved their strength and unity in the Wellington round of the World Cup, with the former Olympic pursuit champion proving that she is now capable of keeping a strong field at bay for well over two hours, while Cooke has spent over a month preparing locally. Her Swiss professional team, Univega, regularly fine tunes their pre-season training with a stretch in Melbourne leading into the opening round of the World Cup and the Geelong Women's Tour, and stayed until a week before the Games to support their Welsh champion.
"The Canadians also have a strong team," said McDonald, although the withdrawal of superstar Lyne Bessette after a fall on the MTB course before she had a chance to compete will be keenly felt. Gina Grain (Colavita-Cooking Light) narrowly missed a medal on the track, but will have strong support from team mate Audrey Lemieux and Amy Moore (T-Mobile).
The men's race will follow the women's and will be six laps longer. The Australian team has a strong team and has cards to play here too. According to Stephens, "the depth is not great but the field is deceivingly strong."
"I'm yet to see the official start list but there will be some strong riders out there and some surprisingly strong teams," he added.
The Australians plan to use all their cards. One would say they are race favourites having swept the podium in Manchester with Stuart O'Grady taking the win. "In Manchester," commented Stephens, "we weren't aiming to get all three places on the podium. We were aiming to win the race." And they will do the same in Melbourne.
"We are lucky in that Aussies are proud people. When they put on the green and gold they give it everything," said Stephens. "We have riders like Peter Dawson (SouthAustralia.com) and Ben Day (Boavista) to keep the bunch under control and we have a very strong team." Riders like Allan Davis (Liberty Seguros) and Matt Hayman (Rabobank) have just returned from Europe after very strong starts to their season.
Australian Under 23 champion (and the first rider to cross the line in the combined Elite/Under 23 event), Will Walker (Rabobank) is the local hero, and could be given more individual latitude with Simon Gerrans' forced withdrawal following complications arising from surgery to treat a broken collarbone earlier in the season.
Challenging the Australian team will be strong teams from England and New Zealand. British national champion Russell Downing (DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed) heads the English team, while the Welsh team boasts rising stars Geraint Thomas, who has trialed with the T-Mobile team, and Yanto Barker (DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed). In fact, there are five riders from the DFL-Cyclingnews team competing on Sunday (England, Wales, Scotland) so there is already an understanding of these riders that their only chance for a victory may be to work together.
The real dark horse of the group is Barker, the highest-placed British rider in last year's Tour of Britain (ninth on GC). It's understood that his potential is recognised by the Australian management and it's unlikely he'll be allowed to slip off the front. But he is an attacking rider on a course that suits his strengths.
Another rider to watch is the fast finishing and experienced Kiwi, Greg Henderson (Health Net), who's come up empty handed so far after the track endurance events. Henderson was tipped by many as a potential triple gold medalist, and will be looking to the road race to salvage a result.
Although none of the teams boast the depth of the Australian five, given the co-operation between England's Rob Hayles and the Isle of Man's Mark Cavendish which helped the Manx rider take the track scratch race win, similar alliances during the road race between the British teams cannot be discounted, especially with the DFL-Cyclingnews connection.
Nor should the chances of a host of well credentialed riders from smaller teams be discounted. Phonak pro Robert Hunter (South Africa) can't be discounted, while Canadian Dominique Perras (Kodakgallery.com/Sierra Nevada) has already experienced local success after finishing second to Gerrans in the 2005 Herald Sun Tour. Emile Abraham (Aerospace Engineering) has a quick finish and could take home a surprise medal for Trinidad and Tobago, while a well drilled Malaysian team also boasts a quick finisher in Mohd Jasmin.
View the course map and profile for men's and women's road races.