With a number of changes previously announced for the 2013 edition of the Cycling Australia Road National Championships, this year's racing is set to be some of the best. The four-day festival of racing begins on Wednesday 9 January with the time trials before crowds flock to the streets of downtown Ballarat for the criteriums. The weekend will be the highlight of the Championships with the latest batch of national road champions to be crowned on the reinvigorated Buninyong course.
It's been six years since the now famous Buninyong loop, used to host the road races, has seen any kind of change to its route. The revised circuit for the 2013 edition is set to lift the status of the championships to new heights with increased distances allocated across the under-23 and elite men's categories.
The Buninyong course remains as standard but an additional loop may give other riders a chance to shine. A 27.8km lap will give riders a moment to recuperate from the strain of the demanding climb and may also prove to be suited to an early breakaway. The under-23 men and elite women will cover two of the big circuits in the opening laps while the elite men complete three.
The revised format for the week-long Championships has also been designed to better spread the time trial, criterium and road races so that competitors can rest the legs in between each race. Entrants for the time trial will be happy to hear the roads will be completely closed to outside traffic for their respective races.
Elite Men Road Race Championship
Last year's winner Simon Gerrans is a huge favourite to take out a repeat title but he will have to utilise his 12 Orica GreenEdge teammates wisely if he is to overcome the 138-rider field. Gerrans showed his condition was on the rise at the recent Jayco Herald Sun Tour but he will have to improve in order to beat some of the riders from the domestic scene.
Podium finisher's from the 2012 race; Matt Lloyd and Richie Porte should be in good form coming into the race and the additional distance, increased to 195.6km should play into the favour of some of the WorldTour field.
Adam Hansen has been amongst the top standings over the past years and believes his history-making year in 2012, where he rode all three grand tours, may assist him overcome his rivals in the closing laps. A lack of teammates in the race may prove his biggest difficulty and he will need to use his experience to gauge when and where to make his moves.
The Garmin-Sharp team arrive with young guns Steele Von Hoff, Nathan Haas, Lachlan Morton and Rohan Dennis in the race and any three of them have the potential to be up in the final group. There season goals may lie further into the year but taking a green and gold jersey over to Europe may see them flush out a winning performance.
There's a huge group of potential winners when scrolling through the start list but the extra distance will be the determining factor. Those not suited to the tough climb will be happy about the reduced lap count but with close to an hour of racing added to the day, the winner will not come by chance.
Domestic teams like Huon Salmon-Genesys Wealth Advisers, Drapac Professional Cycling and Budget Forklifts should be in the right condition having raced the short but taxing Sun Tour.
Huon-Genesys will be riding a high after coming close to capturing a second Sun Tour title but with two stage wins and second overall, the Tasmanian team will be a serious force. Nathan Earle won the final hill-top stage to Arthurs Seat at the Sun Tour and may be in contention for a great ride. His fellow teammates Jai Crawford, Pat Shaw and last year's NRS winner Anthony Giacoppo should also be in the hunt.
The Drapac team has two former winners lining up for Sunday's race with Darren Lapthorne and Will Walker both capable of taking a second national title. The team will have a number of cards to play with Robbie Hucker, who finished 13th overall at the Sun Tour and Bernard Sulzberger who was one of the strongest in last year's championship race. His performance in 2012 gained him a spot on the Australian National Team for the Tour Down Under.
Mark O'Brien is coming into the race with his highly-tuned climbing legs and knows how to peak for the tough one-day races. He won't have the support of the Budget Forklifts team - having signed for Raleigh in 2013 but the distance will suit his characteristics and should a final selection be made in the closing stages of the race, he'll be in it.
The Budget Forklifts team will count on the services of Marc Williams and fresh signing Jack Anderson after both showing themselves at the Sun Tour. A number of other riders may prove capable on the day and with a potential place on the National Team for Tour Down Under, expect names like Richard Lang, Joe Lewis, Will Clarke, Olympian Dan McConnell and Lachlan Norris in the mix.
Race organisers are hoping the course change opens more opportunities for the field but the Buninyong course will not be conquered by fluke. Those who have put in the long days of training will come to the front and like the years gone by, those who haven't done the work will be left behind.
Elite Women Road Race Championship
The women's race remains the same distance as previous years and this may prove to really shake up the result. Last year saw Amanda Spratt from the Orica-AIS squad take a solo victory but with fewer repeats up the Buninyong climb, some of the stronger sprinters may be in the hunt toward the finish.
It remains to be seen whether the Orica-AIS team can be as dominant as the men's squad as a number of contenders could snatch the race from their feet. Tiffany Cromwell, Gracie Elvin, Shara Gillow and Jessie Maclean must work efficiently if they are to end the day ahead of the 76-rider peloton.
Second in the race last year Carla Ryan will look to put the disappointment of her team collapsing behind her as she embarks on a new season with Cyclelive-Zannatta. Ryan's AA Drink - Leontien team announced they would not be continuing in 2013, leaving many of its riders without a contract for this season. The former national champion most recently took titles in the road race and time trial in 2009 and will be motivated when the race kicks off on Saturday.
Last year's silver medal winner at the UCI Road World Championships Rachel Neylan is a strong candidate for the national title and while she won't have any of her new Hitec Products teammates in the race, she has the ability to go it alone and be in the right move when and if it happens during the 107km race.
Kimberly Wells has shown her sprinting prowess in the last couple of months, at the NSW Grand Prix and Mitchelton Bay Classic criteriums but whether she has the climbing legs for Buninyong remains to be seen. Her Specialized-Securitor team should be highly visible throughout the race.