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With a special place in the hearts of many, the Jayco Herald Sun Tour returns in 2011 following a one-year absence due to the 2010 UCI Road World Championships being held in Geelong. While the hoped-for UCI 2HC race categorisation was not forthcoming, the 'Sun Tour's' importance is by no means diminished with ProTour, pro-continental, continental and national teams producing a quality line-up for the event's 59th edition where on paper a showdown is looming between Saxo Bank-SunGard and Garmin-Cervelo.
Last up winner, Sky's Brad Wiggins won't be at the start line in Whittlesea and it would be fair to say that the Australian contingent will be looking to wrestle the title back to home soil, joining a prestigious list which includes Stuart O'Grady (2008), Neil Stephens (1986), Gary Sutton (1984), Shane Sutton (1983) and pioneer Russell Mockridge (1957).
"For the guys that aren't in the ProTour teams it's their chance to show themselves against the big teams and you've got other riders who are still trying to get contracts who are racing full gas," Saxo Bank-SunGard's Baden Cooke told Cyclingnews of the typically aggressive racing that can be expected to occur yet again.
"Then many of the Australian guys, myself included, it's our home town race so we're there to do as well as possible. I'll be going there trying to get a win in a stage and then hopefully do something for the overall as well."
It's a pumped up parcours that greets the peloton in 2011 despite the loss of the individual time trial, with the Jayco Herald Sun Tour's penultimate stage - 131.6 kilometres from stunning Sorrento to Arthurs Seat – taking on a Wilunga-like buzz in pre-race anticipation.
When the sun hits the sky...
A cool and wet 'Sun Tour' is predicted by weather forecasters but with the Plenty Valley hosting the opening 170.4 kilometre stage, the pace should be hot from the get-go for the undulating stage. There's two intermediate sprint points to bookend Wednesday's stage – Riddles Creek (54.1km), and Creswick (150.6km) - with two KOM's Woodend (Cat. 4, 78.4km) and Daylesford (Cat. 3, 126.9km) to give any puncheurs the opportunity of a brief escape with an early test of the legs. Keeping in mind what awaits in the beyond, the day should result in a bunch sprint into the finish in the historical centre of Ballarat to decide who will first wear the Jayco leader's yellow jersey.
There's quite a few handy sprinters chasing stage wins and among them some tourists who will be keen to push all the way. Skil-Shimano's Marcel Kittel could be one to get in on the action early, as could Jake Keough (UnitedHelathcare) or Kiwi Roman Van Uden (Pure Black Racing).
Stage 2, another undulating day but the winds could prove decisive with an early selection likely to be formed as the race heads from Ballarat, over an extinct volcano and then south towards the port city of Geelong over a distance of 140.6 kilometres. Of course, the aforementioned volcano would be Mt. Buninyong home to the Australian road nationals which has a gradient of around 6.4 per cent and kicks in after five kilometres has been covered.
If he's able to hold on, it could be a day for much-hyped (and deservedly so) Victorian Steele Von Hoff from the Genesys Wealth Advisers outfit. The orange train has been doing a stack of recon work and the former boilermaker who had a penchant for filthy takeaway is growing in confidence with recent wins over the likes of Jonathan Cantwell and Ben Kersten and a gutsy victory in the demanding Launceston to New Norfolk Classic.
Yell for Cadel... almost
Race organisers tried to lure Tour de France winner Cadel Evans to the five-stage event, to no avail but those still riding high on the historic victory can still offer a wave in the direction of his Australian base with the peloton set to fly by his front door on Friday, en-route to Drysdale.
Has Saxo Bank's David Tanner made a move yet? This might be the day with the race already split and time gaps only on the increase with blustery conditions expected to batter the riders on the second half of this 172.6 kilometre stage part of which runs along the picturesque Great Ocean Road.
Once, twice, three times in a hurt box
From the longest day on the bike in this 2011 Jayco Herald Sun Tour to the shortest – but that doesn't mean it will be easy with this punishing offering over 131.6 kilometres.
Departing the popular holiday town of Sorrento, after a morning ferry transfer across Port Phillip Bay from Queenscliff, it will be a question of how long the main bunch stays together with the peloton hitting the base of the climb after just 37 kilometres. As far as climbs go, this one to the highest point on the Mornington Peninsula is not long at three kilometres, but for what is lacks in length it makes up for in steepness with a gradient of between eight and 10 per cent – which can double on some of the bends.
Back down the other side and the fight for sprint points will be on with the first intermediate of the day at Merricks (63.1km) and then again shortly after at Flinders (84km) before the heading back to Arthurs Seat for a second (117.7km) and third time for the stage finish.
As to whether the stage will be decided here, the jury's out. There's enough decent climbing stock in the peloton, headlined by 2010 Giro d'Italia King of the Moutains winner Matt Lloyd (Australian National Team)and Richie Porte (Saxo Bank-SunGard) who could really put a dint in the rest of the field but how much will be required after three days in the wind and opportunities aplenty for escapists.
Cooke says that in order for him to repeat his 2002 overall victory, his work will have already have been cut out for him.
"I know I'll have to go full gas there [Arthurs Seat] to stay in contention, so it's been the only stage that's been on my mind so far," he explained.
"I imagine what will happen is that there will be a group in the first or second stage - there's usually a split of 20 guys in the cross winds," he continued. "So the first objective is to be in that first group and then the tour will be won from within that group on the Arthurs Seat stage. Hopefully the numbers will have dwindled, in terms of the guys in contention, before we get there."
Speed's on the menu
Ahhh Lygon Street, Carlton. Foodie hotspot and where the latest Sun Tour winner will be crowned – after a few hot laps of the 4.15 kilometre circuit. Simon Gerrans secured his 2006 victory with a win here (on a slightly different course) but this mid-afternoon jaunt will be one for the speed merchants to show what they have left in their legs after four stages that will no doubt play out just a little bit tougher than what many will have expected.