Australia's best riders – including Rohan Dennis, Amanda Spratt, Shannon Malseed and Caleb Ewan – will once again converge in Ballarat and Bendigo, in Victoria, from this Friday for the 2019 FedUni Cycling Australia Road National Championships, running from January 4-8.
In a change to the schedule compared to previous years, Friday sees the criterium races for all categories in Ballarat, followed on Saturday by the road races for the under-19 men and women, the U23 men and para cycling in nearby Buninyong.
What's already been dubbed 'Super Sunday', on January 6, will see the elite/U23 women's and men's road races on the Buninyong circuit. The para cycling and U19 time trials then follow on Monday, with further para time trials and the U23 men, elite/U23 women and elite men time trials bringing the curtain down on the championships on Tuesday, January 8.
It's hard to look past Lotto Soudal's Caleb Ewan for a winner in the elite men's criterium on Friday. Ewan has made the switch from Mitchelton-Scott to the Belgian WorldTour squad for 2019, and with the sprinter having won two out of the three races at the Bay Crits this week – on Wednesday and Thursday – it already looks like a good move.
A fourth straight criterium crown and a white, green and gold crit champ's jersey would be welcomed, but almost as important will be honing his sprint for a run at the sprint stages at the Tour Down Under, just over a week away.
Rebecca Wiasak will also attempt to defend her criterium crown on the same 1.1km circuit in central Ballarat, and will be up against Ale Cipollini sprinter Chloe Hosking and last year's runner-up Sarah Roy, while Roy's Mitchelton-Scott teammate Amanda Spratt could be another danger, although Spratt's also likely to be thinking about the road race on Sunday.
Whether Spratt will view the criterium as a good hit-out ahead of the road race, or if going too deep on Friday could be detrimental, remains to be seen.
Elite road races
Ballarat local Shannon Malseed was an elated winner on home turf in last year's elite women's road race in what was her first race for her new Tibco-SVB team, and she'll return to try to defend her crown in 2019.
She'll be up against 2012 and 2016 champion Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott) who appears to have reached her peak – or could just be getting better and better – and has to start as the favourite.
Also likely to be in the mix are Lauren Kitchen (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope), who'll hope to go one better than her second place of last year, and Spratt's Mitchelton-Scott teammate Gracie Elvin, who was road race national champion in 2013 and 2014.
The women's race tackles nine laps of an 11.6km course that includes the difficult climb of Mount Buninyong on each lap, making for a classic, attritional championship course.
Last year, Mitchelton's Alex Edmondson cooly, calmly and calculatingly rode to the win in the elite men's race ahead of Bora Hansgrohe's Jay McCarthy and Chris Harper (Bennelong SwissWellness). Edmondson will again be among the favourites, as will 2017 champion Miles Scotson, who has joined the French Groupama-FDJ team for 2019 from BMC, and has already shown his new colours with some active racing at the Bay Crits in Geelong and Williamstown.
Expect McCarthy to be up there again, as well as Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) – who, despite the tough Mount Buninyong climb, scaled 16 times in the men's race, should feature in any sprint finish – while Team BridgeLane's Harper will be flying the flag once more for Australia's domestic teams in 2019.
At the time of writing, there was no Richie Porte on the start list for his new Trek-Segafredo outfit, although that could yet change. Otherwise Porte will only first be in action at the Down Under Classic on January 13, ahead of the start of the Tour Down Under on January 15.
Elite time trials
Rohan Dennis (Bahrain-Merida) will be looking to take his fourth straight win in the elite men's time trial on the 40.9km course on Tuesday, and perhaps only a crash or a mechanical – and he really hopes he's put such mishaps behind him – could stop him.
With his win at the time trial World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria, at the end of last season, the South Australian appears to have come of age. The fact that another national champion's jersey would be eschewed in favour of his rainbow stripes for the 2019 season seems symbolic.
Last year's runner-up, Luke Durbridge (Mitchelton-Scott), is a two-time winner of the title, and will be waiting in the wings should Dennis falter, but that seems unlikely.
With three time winner Katrin Garfoot having retired from racing in July last year, the women's event is guaranteed a different winner, and that could be in the shape of last year's silver medallist Lucy Kennedy (Mitchelton-Scott) on the 29.5km out-and-back Buninyong course.
Shara Gillow (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope) and new Mitchelton-Scott recruit Grace Brown – third and fourth last year, respectively – will also rightly fancy their chances in Garfoot's absence.