The 2019 Jayco Herald Sun Tour will see two of the best-performing riders from the recent Tour Down Under do battle on the slopes of Arthurs Seat on stage 4 of the five-day race – Australia's oldest stage race – which runs from January 30 to February 3.
Home favourite Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) and EF Education First's Michael Woods are two of the star names who will line up on Philip Island, south of Melbourne, on Wednesday, and fans will be hoping they can replicate their move that went clear on the Corkscrew climb on stage 4 of the Tour Down Under, with Porte attacking again a couple of days later to win the final stage of the race on the top of Willunga Hill.
Porte is clearly in good form, but he's unlikely to have it all his own way against a strong EF team backing Woods, including Lachlan Morton and neo-pro James Whelan, who had an excellent Tour Down Under in South Australia.
Of the other WorldTour teams taking part, Team Sky arrive with the in-form Kenny Elissonde and Dylan van Baarle, while Mitchelton-Scott will include 2017 Sun Tour champion Damien Howson and rising star Lucas Hamilton.
Doing their bit for the domestic scene, Team BridgeLane will bring along the 'king of the mountains' from this year's Tour Down Under, Jason Lea, and his teammates from the UniSA-Australia team that they rode for at the TDU: Chris Harper, Dylan Sunderland and Neil Van der Ploeg. Pro Racing Sunshine Coast, meanwhile, will be headed up by recently crowned Australian road race champion Michael Freiberg, who missed out on a spot with the national team at the Tour Down Under, and so will be raring to go in his new white, green and gold jersey.
Porte and Woods are the two stand-out names of those riders confirmed to be taking part in the Herald Sun Tour so far. While Woods' EF Education First roster is the same as that which took on the Tour Down Under, Porte's teammates at his new Trek-Segafredo team had yet to be named at the time of writing, but were likely to include most, if not all, of the riders who supported him at the TDU, including Jarlinson Pantano and Peter Stetina, who will be key sources of help on the climbing stages.
Howson will be dangerous as a past winner for Mitchelton-Scott, although the team is placing its faith in Hamilton as its leader, who rode so strongly in winner Daryl Impey's service at the Tour Down Under. Not on their roster is defending champion Esteban Chaves, who's recovering from mononucleosis.
Team Sky have won this race thanks to Chris Froome in 2016, and although Froome won't be a starter this year, the team knows the race well, and will be ready to take any opportunities that come its way, and Frenchman Elissonde could be that man.
A standout sprinter who's almost certain to be in the mix on stages 1 and 5 – on Philip Island and in Melbourne – is Australian criterium champion Brenton Jones, who normally plies his trade with the French Delko Marseille Provence team, but will lead the KordaMentha Real Estate national team while enjoying a stint at home in Australia before he heads back to Europe.
Watch for teams such as the Drapac Cannondale Holistic Development squad and EvoPro Racing to animate the racing, with the latter boasting former Aqua Blue Sport riders Shane Archbold and Aaron Gate, who are both more than capable of taking stage wins.
In recent years, the race has begun with a time trial in Melbourne, but it's all change for 2019 as the race heads down to the Mornington Peninsula for a start on Philip Island and, more, specifically, its Grand Prix circuit, in Ventnor, which has hosted 23 MotoGP races since 1989.
A 97.9km road race at the motor circuit – 22 laps – kicks things off, and will be one for the sprinters, while already by stage 2, from Wonthaggi to Churchill, a flat start gives way to the South Gippsland hills.
Stage 2's main climb – up Dobbins Road, at Jeeralang, comes just 15km from the end of the 127km stage, but features a gravel road for its final kilometre to the top before a fast descent to the finish. The GC riders will have to already be on their game at this point; the final classification could already begin to take shape here.
Stage 3 again features a flat first half from the start in Sale, but things get very lumpy for the second half of this longer, 161.6km stage, and although it shouldn't prove decisive for the GC, it will be one for the opportunists to try to steal a stage win at the finish in Warragul.
This year's 'queen stage' – stage 4 – is where the Herald Sun Tour will be decided, on the four climbs of Arthurs Seat, with the stage finishing at the top after the fourth ascent.
The three-kilometre, 8.1 per cent climb is back on the menu for the first time in three years, and will show who this year's best climber, and probably best rider, is. In 2016, when it was last used, for three ascents, it was Froome who won the stage there with a 17-second buffer back to Howson, with Froome sewing up the overall win that year, while Howson had to wait until the following year to take his overall title.
The sixth and final stage takes the riders up to Melbourne for a stage on a circuit around the city's beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens. It's a similar, but shorter, circuit to the one used for the 2006 Commonwealth Games road race, and the riders will face 22 laps of a far-from-flat 4km circuit, with the nasty, leg-sapping climb of Anderson Street each time likely the last thing they'll need after almost a week of hard racing.
It should still all come together for a bunch sprint, and the overall classification should have been decided by this point. But if it hasn't – and if riders use Anderson Street as a springboard – this stage may prove to be doubly exciting.
Something for everyone
A two-stage women's race – won last year by Brodie Chapman, which helped secure her a pro contract with Tibco-SVB for the rest of the season – will again run concurrently with the men's race.
Stage 1 takes place at the Philip Island GP Circuit, over the same 97.9km distance (22 laps) as the men's stage, and will likely be a stage for the sprinters.
Stage 2 the next day takes place on a significantly more challenging 91.5km route, using the same Dobbins Road climb as the men's second stage.
"Last year's inaugural Women's Herald Sun Tour stage around Healesville produced one of the best races seen in this country," said women's race director John Trevorrow.
"Our challenge was to come up with a course that could replicate that, and I believe we have done that. The climb in the final 20km is a ripper that will test even the best," he said.
"The Herald Sun Tour gave me a platform to really showcase my abilities and hard work," last year's winner Chapman said. "The outcomes came a lot quicker and easier than expected, but it certainly gave me the confidence to continue to aim to be the best rider I can, and that there was a real place for me in the professional peloton."
Chapman's back with Tibco-SVB this year to defend her crown, but will face extremely stiff competition from what is a strong Mitchelton-Scott team, whose roster boasts Tour Down Under winner Amanda Spratt, climber Lucy Kennedy and Australian time trial champion Gracie Brown, who won a stage at the Tour Down Under.
Besides the racing, fans and families following the race will be able to take part in Ride Philip Island on Wednesday, January 30, on the GP circuit – between the opening women's stage and stage 1 of the men's race – and then will have the opportunity to ride on the closed Royal Botanic Gardens circuit ahead of the men's final stage at Ride Melbourne on Sunday, January 3.