Saturday's 52nd Grafton to Inverell draws an important line in the sand for Team Budget Forklifts. Luke Davison, while not racing the one day classic leads the Australian National Road Series but for his teammate Mark O'Brien it's a chance to cap off an already impressive season, his last at home for a while before returning to Europe to race.
"We're just approaching the race like we have every other race this year which is basically just to get the win for Budget and the NRS is sort of an afterthought," O'Brien told Cyclingnews. "The Grafton to Inverell is a huge race on its own so if you win that race and nothing else for the year it's still been a successful year, really. "
O'Brien took out the tours of Mersey Valley, Toowoomba and North Western but due to their place in the tiered values of the season, he can finish no better than second overall in the individual NRS standings. Recent outings have proved tough-going, with O'Brien suffering a bout of tendonitis in his hip that proved hard to source. The issue was eventually resolved thanks to an orthotic that was overdue for replacement and mid-way through the Tour of Tasmania, the 25-year-old was back to normal.
In the last week, Budget Forklifts raced at the Japan Cup off the back of the Melbourne to Warrnambool and Shipwreck Coast weekend, and O'Brien admits that the schedule could mean that the team will fire or fail.
"The travelling does wear you out a bit but when you've got a big race like Grafton you've got to give it a good crack, knowing we can let the hair down a bit after the race," he admitted, adding that the injury battle had been more mentally draining that the recent schedule.
O'Brien was fourth at the Grafton to Inverell last year, just one-second behind the lead group of three riders after six hours of racing. This year marks his third attempt and O'Brien believes it the one race that suits him above any other on the calendar, with its "long, hard and hilly," 228km parcours.
"It's a big goal of mine to win it, especially since I'm heading back overseas next year so I don't know when the next chance I get to have a crack at it will be so it's definitely really important to me being the last race of the season so I can't hold anything back," he said.
It's a race in several stages but O'Brien says that the numbers game at the end of the climb of Gibraltar Range (just over 17km at 5.4%) is crucial to eventual success.
"If the Gibraltar climb was near the end that would be excellent but the fact that it's so early makes it hard," he said. "You can either jam it up there and run out of legs at the end, or usually you can just go pretty easy up there and it just wears people out a little bit for later on.
"We've got a very strong climbing team so Gibraltar could be a real advantage for us but then you don't want everyone just sitting on you from 150km to go. We've got to get to the top of Gibraltar and then reassess what's going on then the next part is from there until Glen Innes then it's just a race of survival and who's got the legs to go on the day."
With Genesys Wealth Advisers' Anthony Giacoppo in second overall in the NRS standings, the Tasmanian-based team will no doubt be hoping to get their man to the finish in the top-seven placings to steal the lead from Davison. It will be a tough ask with Giacoppo's main strength in speed but he has a team of climbers with serious horsepower around him. O'Brien believes that if Genesys bases their race around defending Giacoppo's position, it could be to their detriment.
Another threat will be the GPM - Wilson Racing line up, headed by Chris Jory. Three teams intently watching each other could lead to negative race tactics O'Brien warned but even if that's the case, he believes Budget Forklifts has the answer.
"If you've got cards to play it's a huge advantage," he said. "Strength in numbers is always better than being isolated, it doesn't matter how strong you are.
"On the other hand I hope it just becomes a mano-a-mano battle and we can use our strengths to get away."