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The fourth edition of the FKG Tour of Toowoomba is set to get underway on Thursday with the four-day, five-stage format returning after its successful inception for the 2012 race. Just the third event of the 2013 Subaru National Road Series (NRS), a new leader stands on top of the rankings with Huon Salmon - Genesys Wealth Advisers claiming an early-season advantage with four riders making up the top-five which should force the Orange Army's rivals to be on the offensive this week.
Last year's winner, Mark O'Brien won't be back to defend his title, having left Budget Forklifts for Raleigh and the most successful rider of the Tour's short history, two-time winner Pat Shaw (Huon - Genesys) also won't be starting but that doesn't mean that there's a shortage of talent lining up.
While many of the stages will be familiar to the peloton, it's an all-new parcours with the exception of the Tour-ending 50km criterium around Toowoomba's Queens Park and the consensus is that this year's event will be far more testing to what was seen in 2012.
"We've had a policy from day one to present entirely different stages annually so that the riders aren't covering the same ground," Tour organiser John Osborne told Cyclingnews.
Action in Toowoomba begins with a 113km stage from Oakey to Highfields with three KOMs and three intermediate sprints over a rolling parcours. In 2012, O'Brien took a giant leap towards his overall victory with his Stage 2 win at Bunya Mountains National Park but with this climb once again deciding the second day of racing, Osborne was unwilling to commit to a similar outcome in 2013.
"It's difficult to predict," he said. "Certainly a good climber's going to be at a distinct advantage, but the sprinters have the opportunity to collect points in the intermediate sprints. We endeavour to make the race as open as we possibly can."
Seven climbs make up the testing 122.7km stage, two of which peak at over nine per cent in gradient despite being relatively short in nature. The third climb of the day just outside of Evergreen is reasonably punchy (920 metres at 7.1%) and makes for an altogether tougher lead-in than raced previously.
The stage 3 team time trial is back for the second-year-running and begins a big day of racing for the teams. As per last year, the TTT will be raced on standard road bikes, with disc wheels, clip-on bars and aero helmets not permitted for use but the difference comes in the form of distance, at nearly double that seen in 2012 meaning there's more at stake in terms of GC. Later in the afternoon, the 133km road stage through the Darling Downs should have an overall winner poised to take the title if they've withstood the winds that blow across the plains. Stage 4 keeps the faster men in GC contention as will the final stage with the Tour of Toowoomba once again concluding with a fast-and-furious criterium in front of big crowds in the centre of town.
The last two editions of the Tour of Toowoomba has seen racing under often-challenging conditions in the aftermath of two years of heavy and devastating floods in the region. This time around, while the damaged, heavily potholed roads have certainly improved, the tour is coinciding with significant road works.
"That doesn't mean that we haven't still got some areas where the roads are rough but under our normal method of operation we've identified those areas by an appropriate means and we'll walk through those points with the team managers at the briefing on Wednesday evening," explained Osborne.
New NRS leader Jack Haig (Huon - Genesys) will be aiming to back up his overall victory at the last-up Battle on the Border with the lumpy parcours of Toowoomba well-suited to his talents. The 20-year-old will be joined by equally-as-strong teammates Joe Cooper, Nathan Earle and Jai Crawford with the latter's form on the way up as he builds towards the Tour of Japan later this month. If they haven't already, expect the Huon - Genesys team to really put their stamp on the race in the TTT.
Jack Anderson is back in action for Budget Forklifts having missed the Battle on the Border, with his all-round abilities on the climbs and against the clock making him a genuine chance if his form is dialled in. Last year's runner-up overall, Michael Cupitt should also figure along with Karl Evans.
Search2retain powered by health.com.au take on Toowoomba with in-form all-rounder and climbing specialist Eric Sheppard, with Cal Britten and Cam Bayly providing more than adequate support on the tougher days. The team is keen to figure on the podium come the final day and will need a super run in the TTT to secure a place.
Drapac head into the tour with a very experienced line-up with Will Walker already telling Cyclingnews of the team's intentions against the likes of Huon - Genesys, while Adam Semple (Satalyst - Giant) is on form off the back of the Battle of the Border where he was third overall, and should figure at the pointy end of the overall standings come Sunday.
Other riders to watch include Darcy Ellerm-Norton (Team Downunder), winner of the KoM classification at the Battle of the Border and Matt Clarke (CharterMason Drapac Development Team).