Once again the new cycling season starts with the four-day Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic criterium series in Victoria with race organisers attracting a top quality field of Australian and international riders. While the January 1 start may be off putting to some riders wishing to welcome in the new year, the high intensity racing in Geelong, Portarlington and Williamstown offers the perfect warm up before the Australian National Championships from January 6-10.
Previous winners of the race includes the likes of Tour de France green jersey winners Robbie McEwen and Baden Cooke, Mark Renshaw, and Matt Goss while in 2013 Caleb Ewan announced himself to the cycling world with overall victory. Chloe Hosking, Georgia Bronzini and Melissa Hoskins have won the last three women's edition which provides equally fast and spectator friendly viewing.
Ahead of the 2016 edition of the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic, Cyclingnews has cast its eyes over the men's and women's start list for five riders to watch.
21-year-old Caleb Ewan has already won the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic on two occasions with his 2015 appearance at the event a masterclass as he won the first three races with fifth place on the final day an offer to his battered rivals. Ewan leads the Orica-GreenEdge team again in 2016 with leadout man Mitch Docker by his side and Alexander Edmondson a second ace in the deck for the Australian team who are sure to be closely marked across the four days.
Ewan has stated he is unsure of his current form following a prolonged break from racing since his withdrawal from the Vuelta a Espana.
"My training hasn't really been training for a one-hour long race, it's been more for the four and five hour races to come," Ewan said. "It wouldn't surprise me if my form isn't quite as sharp as last year but obviously I am still there to try to go for the win."
The New South Welshman may be eyeing off targets later in the year but there is no denying Ewan's top end speed and having claimed 11 professional victories in his first neo-pro season he will hard to beat on the sprint friendly circuits.
Caleb Ewan celebrates winning stage 5 of the Vuelta a Espana (TDW Sport)
2014 Bay Cycling Classic champion Brenton Jones returns to race having missed the 2015 edition and starts as a rider to watch for both wins and the overall victory. The 24-year-old takes on the mantle as Drapac's top sprinter in 2015 following the departure of Wouter Wippert to Cannondale and what better way to confirm Drapac's belief in his talents than an early season win or two?
With victory in his last race, the final stage of the 2.HC Tour of Hainan, Jones' confidence is sky high and with Drapac fielding a strong team of rouleurs on a parcours that he know hows to perform on, the stage is set. Like Ewan, Jones is looking for success beyond January but is also a hungry young sprinter and won't let an opportunity to raise his arms pass by. Particularly at a race of immense personal significance.
Brenton Jones claimed the biggest win of his career at the Tour of Hainan (Jean Francois Quenet)
Local lad Leigh Howard joins the IAM Cycling team in 2016 but will start his season racing the Bay Cycling Classic on the composite Chain Reaction Cycles squad. Howard's last few seasons have been underwhelming in terms of results with his last win coming almost two years ago. The 26-year-old recently rode the Australian madison championships alongside Cam Meyer although his road form is largely unknown having not raced since the August 30 GP Ouest France - Plouay.
Howard won't be under the microscope at the Bay Cycling Classic with several names above his in the bookies eyes and with a team that also features fast finisher Aaron Gate, the 26-year-old should be free to find his feet on day one and could just spring a surprise later in the week. The Australian has been brought on board at IAM Cycling to bolster its sprinting stocks and and the Bay Cycling Classic could just be the platform of 2016 success for Howard and a stress start to his career with the Swiss team.
Leigh Howard at the 2013 Tour of Oman (TDW Sport)
Kimberley Wells (High5 Dream Team)
Two-time national Australian criterium champion Kimberley Wells heads up the top Australian domestic team High5 Dream Team and will one of the fastest starters in the women's peloton. Wells has consistently proved herself as one the top Australian criterium races with wins in Australia and America, and heads to the states in 2016 to ride for the Colavita Bianchi p/b Vittoria team.
Wells will up against stiff competition from the likes of Chloe Hosking, Sarah Roy (Orica-AIS) and Valentina Scandolara (Alé Cycling) but has the advantage of a strong team she is familiar with. The 30-year-old has been racing several criteriums over the Australian summer, including a second straight win at the Stan Siejka Classic to send a warning to her rivals ahead of the Bay Cycling Classic and national criterium title. With a stage win and third place overall in 2013, Wells is a proven performer at the Bay Cycling Classic and could be hard to stop should she grab an early win.
Kimberley Wells wins her second career national criterium title (Cycling Australia)
Australian national road champion Peta Mullens spent the majority of the 2015 season racing off-road with the ambition of making the Rio Olympics mountain bike team despite her winning start the season on the road. Mullens was a consistent animator in the 2015 Bay Cycling Classic, honing her form before her breakaway win at the national championships a week later.
In 2014 Mullens was the points classification winner at the criterium series and while she is racing as an individual has proven she is strong and smart enough on her enough. Mullens won't be flying under the radar come 2016 but the 27-year-old has been busying training in Bendigo in preparation for the upcoming season. While the races won't be Mullens' number one priority for 2016 a series of strong performances could lay a platform for greater success on both the road and mountainbike.
Peta Mullens wins the women's race (Mark Gunter/Cyclingnews.com)