The 2015 Australian national championships once again take place in the inland Victorian city of Ballarat with the road race to be staged in nearby Buninyong. The defending men's champion Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) is out of the race due to a broken collarbone while two-time defending women's champion Gracie Elvin (Orica-AIS) will start the race as a favourite after impressing at the Bay Crits with a solo victory.
The championships will be the last of Cadel Evans' (BMC) career with the Tour de France champion to retire from professional cycling next month but will first be aiming for the national road title.
A world class field has been announced for the men's time trial while the women's event is there for the taking with Katrin Garfoot (Orica-AIS) ruled out through injury. The criterium events will open the championships in 2015 and set the scene for the week of racing.
Cyclingnews has put together a guide to the championships with the riders to watch and explanations of the courses and when and where to watch the action.
Wednesday, January 7: Elite men, elite women and U23 criteriums from 4:30pm on Sturt St, Ballarat
The three criterium races will be held on the Sturt Street city circuit with the men to complete 44km while the U23 men and women tackle 33km. Live screens have been placed along the course for spectators who can choose to set up a picnic on the grass or enjoy the delights of the many cafes that line the main street.
Men's Criterium - 44km
In 2014, Drapac entered the criterium hungry for the win, eager to show itself worthy of the Pro-Continental license the team successfully applied for. It looked like Drapac were going to come away with the win until a final lap crash brought down the majority of the team, dashing any hopes of a green and gold jersey. Steele von Hoff cantered away to claim his first elite national title and is looking to defend it despite having no teammates this time around.
Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge) proved himself as the inform rider of the moment with three straight wins at the Bay Crits but with just Leigh Howard for company, Ewan will have to be at his best if he wants to replicate his U23 win in the Elite ranks. Riders to watch include Shannon Johnson from CharterMason, last year's runner-up Brenton Jones, Neil van der Ploeg (Avanti) and track specialist Scott Sunderland (BudgetForklifts).
Women's Criterium - 33km
Orica-AIS suffered a similar fate to Drapac last time round as a crash ended the team's chances of claiming victory. It was Sarah Roy who emerged victorious and the 28-year-old now finds herself racing for the only Australian professional women's team. A bought of illness saw her sit out the majority of the Bay Crits, hindering her preparation for her title defence and she will need to dig deep to make it two in a row. In Lizzie Williams, Orica-AIS have a more than capable back up rider and sports director Gene Bates has said the team will look to make it an aggressive race as they also have several other cards to play.
Chloe Hosking (Wiggle-Honda) will be a formidable rival for the rest of the peloton after an impressive Bay Crits by the 24-year-old, winning a stage and the overall. Former teammate and last year's third place getter, Lauren Kitchen (Hitec Products) will also be a rider to keep an eye on. 2014 silver medallist Peta Mullens took an impressive solo win at the Bay Crits and enters the race knowing its a parcours on which she can excel. Other riders to keep on eye on are former champion Kimberley Wells, Carlee Taylor (Lotto-Soudal Ladies) and Lisa Jacobs.
U23 men's criterium - 33km
This is a race that tends to be open and aggressive with teams not quite capable of controlling the peloton with the same success as the elite men. Last year, a Harry Carpenter attack and solo ride for glory was almost rewarded with the ultimate prize only to fall short in the closing laps. While there will be plenty of attacks during the race, with several fast men confirmed to start the race, a bunch sprint looks likely. Watch out for the likes of South Australian duo Robert-Jon McCarthy and Alex Edmondson, while Jesse Kerrison and Alistair Donohoe will are sure to challenge for the win.
Thursday, January 8: Elite men, elite women and U23 time trials from 10:30am in Buninyong
A new time trial course closer to the roads of the road race in Buninyong will challenge the specialists against the clock with the chance of a storm another factor to be considered. There is hardly a flat metre of road on the lumpy out-and-back course for the riders to take a breath and a small incline to finish could prove decisive. The U23 men and women's course is 29.3km in length with a turn around point at Flemmings Road while the men turn around in the shadow of a wind farm. A spot in the town at the start finish will be the place to be to keep on top of all the time checks and cheer the riders over the line.
Men's time trial - 40.9km
The elite men's time trial will be one of the most hotly contested editions in recent years with a world class field to battle it out for the green and gold jersey on a new lumpy course. The event has been won by an Orica-GreenEdge rider since 2012 with the team occupying all three places on the podium last year. While defending champion Michael Hepburn and two-time winner Luke Durbridge will line up confident of adding another win to their palmares, they will face stiff competition from the likes of three-time world champion against the clock, Michael Rogers (Saxo-Tinkoff), Richie Porte (Team Sky) and their teammate Damien Howson.
Also having a crack at the title is Rohan Dennis (BMC) who is regarded as a favourite for the win following his mid-season transfer to BMC last year. The 24-year-old was part of the winning team time trial squad at the Worlds and then finished fifth in the individual time trial and been on a role since changing teams. Having announced an attempt at the Hour Record in February, Dennis' time trial will also be a mark of where he's at in his bid for the record.
Jack Bobridge is also looking to break the Hour Record but will do so a week earlier than Dennis on January 31 in Melbourne. Bobridge will make his BudgetForklifts debut in the time trial and will be another rider to watch as will Campbell Flakemore and Tim Roe.
Women's time trial - 29.3km
Three-time national champion Shara Gillow moves across to Rabo Liv for 2015 after several seasons with Orica-AIS and there could hardly be a better way to start off the year than by winning a fourth title which would see her tie Kathy Watt as the most successful woman against the clock. Gillow was beaten by Flick Wardlaw in 2014 and the 26-year-old was visibly disappointed with that result. Gillow will have the opportunity to turn the pedals over in anger on a course that should suit her characertistics.
Katrin Garfoot was a favourite for the win until a knee injury ruled her out and as a result, Orica-AIS will not field a rider in the event.
Former national champion Bridie O'Donnell will be a rider to watch and will be confident of at least matching her bronze medal from 2014. Jenelle Crooks is an outside chance for the podium and should take home the U23 women's title.
U23 men's time trial - 29.3km
Last year Harry Carpenter was powerless to stop Jordan Kerby claiming the victory by less than one second and the South Australian will be aiming for the top step of the podium on Thursday. Fellow South Australians' Alex Edmondson and Miles Scotson should be challenging for the medals while the likes of Oscar Stevenson might just upset the favourites.
Sunday January 11: Elite men's road race from 10:50am in Bunninyong
The road races take place on the familiar surrounds of Bunninyong with no changes to the attritional 10.2km loop that finishes on Warrenship Road. The race generally comes alive on the final two laps of the course while breakaways are a certainty. For the fans, a spot on the climb up Mt Bunninyong is the place to be with riders describing the atmosphere as 'European' while a large screen at the finish line ensures that fans won't miss a moment.
Men's road race - 183.6km
Until Simon Gerrans crashed while training on his mountain bike just before Christmas, he was odds on favourite to claim a third career and second straight green and gold jersey. Orica-GreenEdge are yet to taste defeat in its three years but 2015 could see the team lose its grip on the jersey for the first time. Cadel Evans will have two BMC teammates to call on for support this year having ridden solo and into second place in 2014. Third last year, Richie Porte will be able to call upon Nathan Earle, who is also capable of a high finishing position, and CJ Sutton throughout the race.
Drapac have added depth to its roster for 2015 and in Darren Lapthorne, Tim Roe and Sam Spokes, have the riders capable of taking the win. With Graeme Brown calling the shots on the road, the team's chances of victory have also been enhanced.
Australian Continental teams BudgetForklifts, African Wildlife Safaris, CharterMason and health.com.au-search2retain will all be active and looking to get riders into the break while the New Zealand registered Avanti Racing Team will be looking to the likes of Mitch Lovelock-Fay, Neil van der Ploeg and Pat Shaw to post a top result.
Riders to watch include new IAM Cycling signing David Tanner and Bora-Argon 18's Zak Dempster.
Women's road race - 102km
Gracie Elvin has made the women's race her own in the last two years. Dropped on the final lap of the 2014 championships, Elvin dug deep to catch the leaders and then outsprinted Lauren Kitchen for the win. A solo win on the tough Eastern Gardens Bay Crits course was evidence of Elvin's form ahead of the championships, ensuring she will be a marked rider for the race. Her Orica-AIS team will have planned for several scenarios and in Katrin Garfoot, Lizzie Williams and Amanda Spratt, will be confident of securing a fourth straight green and gold jersey.
Tiffany Cromwell was recently named the Australian female cyclist of the year and a national jersey would be further confirmation of the 26-year-old's growing stature in the women's peloton and possibly spur her onto bigger things in Europe. A quiet Bay Crits might have been a bluff by Cromwell who has forced to race on a borrowed bike after her Cervelo was stolen in Adelaide.
Riders to watch also include Peta Mullens and Jo Hogan who have shown themselves on the hilly course in recent years and an inattentive peloton could see either rider slip away and ride off to victory.
NRS champion Ruth Corset is a former winner on the parcours and could pull off an upset while her 2014 teammate Ellen Skerritt is also likely to challenge for the podium and is the favourite for the U23 title.
U23 men's road race - 132.6km
Rob Power, who placed second at the 2014 Tour de L'Avenir, will be a favourite for the road race having placed second last year and will start the race with the number dossard on his back. Power's likely challengers will be Orica-GreenEdge bound Jack Haig along with Harry Carpenter and Shaun O'Callaghan. If the race comes down to a bunch finish, fast finishers Jesse Kerrison, Robert-John McCarthy and individual pursuit world champion Alex Edmondson would all be worthy winners.
A breakaway could be on the cards and with rain expected for Saturday, an early break might just get the better of the peloton.
Cycling Australia national championships schedule
Wednesday January 7: Elite men, elite women and U23 criteriums from 4:30pm on Sturt St, Ballarat
Thursday January 8: Elite men, elite women and U23 time trials from 10:30am in Buninyong
Saturday January 10: Elite women and U23 road races from 9am in Bunninyong
Sunday January 11: Elite men's road race from 10:50am in Bunninyong