Orica-Scott will line up at Sunday's Australian national championships with its smallest squad to date since debuting in the Buninyong decider back in 2012. The WorldTour team will enter with two main cards to play in two-time winner Simon Gerrans and 2015 runner-up Caleb Ewan with the peloton out to stop them for a third straight year.
The last two national championships have been won by solo riders, Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) and Jack Bobridge (Trek-Segafredo), and a long list of individuals are looking to emulate the duo on the 10km hilly circuit race over 183.6km of racing.
With the merger of Cannondale and Drapac, the former Pro-Continental team that would regularly be one of the largest teams in the race, is down to a team of two and will be represented by Brendan Canty and Will Clarke. Fellow WorldTour team Dimension Data start with three riders, Nathan Haas, Lachlan Morton and Ben O'Connor, another small but power squad. Continental squads Drapac-Pat's Veg and IsoWhey Sports SwissWellness are likely to be called upon to work in lieu of the bigger teams as they both start with multiple riders.
The list of the individual aspirations for the green and gold jersey includes the likes of Adam Hansen (Lotto Soudal), Chris Hamilton (Team Sunweb), Ben Dyball, Nathan Earle, Cam Meyer, Travis Meyer, Zak Dempster (Cycling Academy), and Calvin Watson (Aqua Blue Sports), which all leads to the question of can Orica-Scott be stopped for the third year running?
"I'm not sure if everyone out there is out there just to stop Orica-Scott winning. There might have been a few situations a little bit negative in the last couple of years. But looking at the field this year, everyone is lining up is hoping to win for themselves or their team. It's not so much everyone against us," two-time Australian champion Simon Gerrans said of the potential race tactics.
The lure of a place on the UniSA-Australia Tour Down Under wild card team for individual riders is an added incentive and for riders like Dyball who is currently without a team, a ride at the WorldTour race is crucial to his career ambitions.
"It is hard to guess but I would say GreenEdge is the strongest team and some of their guys are going really well so I would say they will try and control the race. As you saw last year, it is hard to control on this circuit. We'll see what happens on the day," Dyball said of the race and his chances. "All I can is do try my best in the road race and try and get a spot in the Tour Down Under."
Having shown his form in the criterium by winning a giant Mars bar and the sprint jersey, Nathan Earle is in career-best form and confident he can claim the victory. Like former teammate Dyball, Earle is hoping a strong showing results in a call up with UniSA-Australia.
"Winning. I believe that without sounding cocky. I believe I am in better form than when I was with Sky, helping Richie. I am a one man show and I don't think that is such a bad thing on Buninyong with that sort of circuit it is a natural selection course, a hard man's course. I think it not too many tactics play into I should be there at the end.
"Anything can happen and every year is different so I can't really say what is going to happen and what my plan is. I am hoping for a showdown on the last time up the climb and I believe I am capable of being there over the tip. What happens there at the finish line, I don't know but I reckon I will be in the mix."
Miles Scotson (BMC Racing) is another of the solo riders and explained to Cyclingnews that he is expecting a tough race. As his first elite hit out though, the former U23 champion isn't quite sure what to expect on the day.
"It is really hard for me to say as I have only done the U23 race before and that one can be hard to predict. Stepping into the elite will be totally new and I don't really have a tactic or anything for myself yet so I'll watch and see what is going on. I'll race as hard as I can but it will be more of getting an idea for next year. I think GreenEdge have a smaller team than they have had in the past," the neo-pro stated.
"You have IsoWhey with a massive team so I am sure they will be aggressive. Obviously, Gerrans will probably want to win but you have a few individuals out there like Cameron Meyer and I think it will be very interesting to see how he goes out there. Guys like Jay McCarthy as well who don't have a lot of support and will probably wait but there is big opportunity for teams like IsoWhey, when there maybe hasn't been in the past.
"For me, I want to get it in the legs for the year after and hopefully I make the full length of the race but I don’t really have any expectation. If I was there at the end, I would just race as hard as I can."
For the individual riders, there is the risk they could cannibalise their chances by focusing purely on their own race. Due to the number of dangerous solo riders in the peloton, they form a quasi team of sorts and would do well to pool their resources and ride against Orica-Scott, rather than each other.
With the peloton out to stop Orica-Scott, their sports director Matt Wilson isn't making any pre-race predictions but is nevertheless confident in his riders' ability to do get the job done by out smarting and out riding their numerous rivals.
"It will be the same plan as always with the smaller teams and that is trying to beat us by numbers, outfoxing us in the breakaway. That is their best chance, or isolating our team leaders in the final. Obviously, with a smaller team it will be a dangerous race for us on Sunday," he told Cyclingnews of the approach to the race and Orica-Scott's quest for a fourth title in six year.
"This race has a history of a few different scenarios unfolding in the first few laps with groups of 20 who can go away in the first kilometre or it can take 60, 70 kilometres to go. It is unpredicted in that way so I won't make a guesstimation of what will happen. We will definitely be active."
Cam Meyer has firmed as a favourite in the eyes of many and is one rider in particular that Wilson and Orica-Scott will be keeping close tabs on. He comes into the race aiming to add to his time trial and criterium green and gold jerseys and better his silver medal from 2016.
"He is high on the list and there are a few other guys like Morton from Dimension Data. A few of the Isowhey guys, Hamilton from Sunweb as well. So there are a few strong guys that we wouldn't want to see go up the road or give too much leeway to," he said.
With Orica-Scott almost expected to win the title to its status of Australia's sole WorldTour team and calibre of rider, Wilson is feeling the pressure but is confident they won't be stopped and will emerge victorious after 183.6km.
"Of course, we are an Australian team who put a lot of money into the team and we want to get results at the Australian championships. We feel like it is our race to lose so there is a little bit of pressure there but nothing more than most races we go to be honest."