By Ben Abrahams
After a two-year hiatus, the cream of Australian cycling will once again descend on Ballarat, Victoria next week for the Australian Open Road Championships based around the very selective 'Buninyong' circuit. "It's so tough and unforgiving, the best rider always wins," said race organiser John Craven. "If anyone's underdone they're not going to win the Australian Championship."
Widely regarded as the most fiercely contested one-day race in Australia, the 2007 open men's event will feature a host of top European pros including 2006 Tour Down Under winner Simon Gerrans plus Unibet.com pairing Baden Cooke and Matt Wilson - winner of the green and gold jersey on the Buninyong course in 2004. "It would be a huge honour to be crowned the Australian Champion," said Gerrans. "I truly believe I am capable of winning - it's always at the back of my mind."
Following last year's men's race, where under 23 star William Walker beat all the seniors, Cycling Australia has decided to hold separate events for the open and under 23 categories. "It's a decision I don't necessarily agree with," said Craven. "You've got top class bike riders in the under 23s like Wesley Sulzberger from Tasmania - there's heaps of them that are capable of winning the open."
The first senior rider home last year was South Australia's Russell Van Hout, who actually finished in third place behind Walker and Tasmanian U23 rider, Wes Sulzberger. It was a genuine race of attrition in 2006, with only 26 finishers out of 180 starters - the only factor reducing the field was the speed of the leading riders. It was also the race that brought Australian cycling's 'Crocodile Man', Adam Hanson, into focus. The Queenslander and two-time winner of the brutal Crocodile Trophy MTB stage race showed he was a very accomplished road cyclist. Hanson animated the final few laps of a very select group and finished fourth overall, ahead of riders such as Henk Vogels. This year Hanson will ride for German's T-Mobile.
While Van Hout was entitled to wear the national champion's jersey in 2006, Walker was contracted to ride with Dutch ProTour team Rabobank, but couldn't wear his national champion's jersey. Later in 2006 he was finally permitted to wear the 'green and gold' in European competition, such as the Vuelta Espana.
Last year showed that the race has become one for the younger riders. Despite the prestige and financial rewards which accompany a national champion's jersey - riders can earn personal bonuses of several thousand euros from their teams - some seasoned European-based Australians professionals are unwilling to reach peak form early in the season for fear of jeopardizing their chances in later races. Also, they would line up against a clutch of promising riders - eager to impress selectors and professional teams - who've trained almost specifically for the event.
It's a similar situation among the elite women, however, the proximity of the first round of the women's World Cup in Geelong means the leading women are likely to be closer to full race fitness. Among the star names expected to compete in women's event are Olympic road race champion Sara Carrigan and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Natalie Bates.
The 2004 event attracted strong crowds from nearby Melbourne. Bright sunshine and warm temperatures aside, the Lion of Flanders flags and Australia's own version of Didi the devil creating an amazing spectacle not unlike a Belgian Classic.
Full schedule for the 2007 Australian Open Road Championships:
Thursday, January 11: Under 23 men's time trial (39km), Women's time trial (28km)
Friday, January 12: Men's time trial (39km)
Saturday, January 13: Under 23 men's road race (122.4km), Women's road race (102km)
Sunday, January 14: Men's road race (163.2km)
Cyclingnews will be providing full coverage of the Australian Open Road Championships. For further details from the official website, click here.