After just one edition, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race has seen its UCI ranking raised from the third level 1.1 to second tier 1.HC allowing the race to invite a greater number of WorldTour teams. While there are nine WorldTour teams on the start line for Sunday's race, Etixx-Quick Step, the team of last year's winner Gianni Meersman, are missing from the start list in 2016.
Evans' previous team BMC Racing are joined by fellow WorldTour teams Dimension Data, Orica-GreenEdge, Katusha, Team Sky, Lotto Soudal, LottoNL-Jumbo, IAM Cycling and Trek-Segafredo.
However, while there have been a few changes in personal, the parcours is unchanged from 12-months prior with the 174km race starting and finishing on Eastern Beach. The peloton rolls out of Geelong, through Breakaway to Cadel Evans' hometown of Barwon Heads, follows the Great Ocean Road to Bells Beach before taking a left-hand turn on Jarosite Road to make the return to Geelong. A long straight section along Forrest Road becomes a quick right, and then left turn on the also straight Hendy Main Road. It's then a right hander onto Barrobool Road, through Highton and onto the 20km Geelong circuits. The back-half of the first section may look straightforward on paper but there is always the chance of crosswinds to cause havoc and end someones race before it gets serious.
The Geelong circuit features a lumpy beginning before the steep climbs of Barwon Boulevard and Challambra Crescent, followed by a fast descent into the Queens Park Road/Melville Avenue. A final ascent awaits in the form of the Hyland Street climb before the final bomb down into the flat finish straight on Eastern Beach. All in all, the riders will face over 2000 metres of climbing giving the race a 'classic' feel.
The 2016 Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race parcours
The man of the moment, Simon Gerrans, well and truly banished last year's bad luck by winning two stages and the overall at the Tour Down Under last week which sees him head into the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race as a favourite for victory. Gerrans, 35, missed the inaugural edition due to a broken collarbone but is a proven one-day racer with wins at Milano-Sanremo, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the GP's Montréal, Plouay and Quebec along with two national road titles.
Gerrans will back his chances in a reduced bunch sprint but is also capable of taking the race up on the Geelong circuits with the race as a whole suiting his characteristics. In Caleb Ewan, Orica-GreenEdge also has the form sprinter of the young season and a second ace in the deck. While the pressure is off following its domination of the Tour Down Under, as the only Australian WorldTour team, Orica-GreenEdge will be expected to podium at the minimum.
Last year's podium was made up of three riders in Gianni Meersman, Simon Clarke and Nathan Haas who all had solid 2015 Tour Down Under performances before coming out and showing their form in Geelong. Haas is the sole rider from that trio making his return to the race in 2016 and having seen his Tour Down Under chances affected by several crashes last week, the 26-year-old is surely hungry for a top result with his new Dimension Data team. Haas is well aware his season isn't all about January but heading back to Europe with a win under his belt would be sure fire way to kick start 2016
Able to win a race from a small bunch, the scenario most likely to decide the winner on Sunday, Haas' characteristics are equally suited to the 'classics' parcours. On Haas' team though is the 'manx missile', Mark Cavendish who makes his Dimension Data debut. Having just ridden the Hong Kong Track World Cup round, Cavendish may find racing a tad too tough at this time of the year but underestimate him at your own peril.
With three top stage results at the Tour Down Under, Ben Swift was in the mix for his first win since a stage of the 2015 Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali and came close to adding to his two stage wins at the 2011 edition of the Australian race. The 28-year-old ultimately ended the race empty handed but could well replicate last year's winner Meersman in missing out at the WorldTour race before sprinting to the win in Geelong.
Team Sky have a strong squad for the race and are sure to be aggressive as they were in the final circuits of last year's race. Besides Swift, Team Sky also have Luke Rowe who has history on the course having finished sixth in last year's event and could well better that result on Sunday.
Niccolò Bonifazio will make his Trek-Segafredo debut at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race before continuing his Australian odyssey at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour the following week. The 22-year-old had four top-eight results at last year's Tour Down Under to suggest he can handle the strains of racing in January. However, as this is his race first of the season, and with a new team no less, the Italian could instead be called upon to play a team role for the likes of Jack Bobridge or Ryder Hesjedal. Should he be present in the front group with a sprint finish firming though, Bonifazio could well start his Trek-Segafredo in the best way possible.
The women's race
The 113km women's race, like the men's, remains the same for 2016 but has also been upgraded and is now a 1.2 UCI categorised event that doubles as round two of the National Road Series (NRS). There are no finishing circuits for the women's race as the peloton heads out on the same coastal, then inland route, before arriving back on Eastern Beach Rd for the finish.
An early crash in 2015 caused carnage in the peloton as riders were forced to abandon less than 15km into the day while numerous groups then formed on the race as crosswinds added to the damage. While the weather is forecasted to be slightly less severe this weekend, the racing should be equally aggressive and a late race winning attack, like the one Rachel Neylan launched last year, could well be on the cards.
Orica-AIS and Wiggle High5 are the two Women's WorldTour teams on the start line with several NRS squads completing the lineup are provide the favourites for victory.
Neylan showed she is form at the Australian nationals with bronze and will start the race as a favourite for victory. Teammate and Australian national champion Amanda Spratt offers Orica-AIS a second sound option for success with Tayler Wiles and Loren Rowney add further depth in numbers.
Wiggle High5 will start the race with Peta Mullens, Chloe Hosking, and Dani King as all possible victors on the day and with the Santos Women's Tour in their legs, will be up for the fight.
Tiffany Cromwell, who is guesting for the Boss Racing Team, is a dark horse for victory, while Nationals runner-up Ruth Corset (Rush Women's Team) and Hitec's Lauren Kitchen are consistent animators and are sure to have a say in the outcome of the race.
Cyclingnews will have full race reports, results and photographs from both races this weekend.