The Australian National Road Series continues to heat up after the thrilling Tour of Tasmania, with the iconic Melbourne to Warrnambool set to establish the true leaders of this year's rankings with less than 200 points separating leader Luke Davison (Budget Forklifts) from Anthony Giacoppo (Genesys Wealth Advisers) and Mark O'Brien (Budget Forklifts).
The trio will face stiff opposition from an in-form Drapac squad with Darren Lapthorne, Tour of Tasmania winner Lachlan Norris, Will Walker, former winner Rhys Pollock along with aging danger man Gordon McCauley among those nominated to start. Lapthorne and Walker are the highest ranked of Drapac's team individually in the NRS standings, at fifth exactly 330 points in arrears of Davison.
As for the NRS leader, he sat out the Tour of Tasmania to freshen the legs ahead of the Victorian event.
Nominated as a contender once again for the podium is Search2Retain's Luke Fetch, with teammate Neil Van Der Ploeg keen to repay him for his efforts this season. Whether some of the larger, opposition team's strength in numbers works against the likes of Search2Retain, remains to be seen.
Genesys Wealth Advisers' Joel Pearson, a two-time winner (2009, 2011) of the classic is once again a contender despite not contesting an NRS event since winning two stages at the Tour of Murray River one month ago.
Another contender is Chris Jory (GPM - Wilson Racing) having returned to Australia from a stint racing overseas, finished in the top-10 of the Goulburn to Sydney Cycle Classic and then won the NSW State Championships. At the Tour of Tasmania, Jory claimed four top-10 finishes ending the nine-day race in 11th overall.
The winner of this year's edition of the race will join the likes of grand tour stage winners Simon Gerrans and David McKenzie on the honour roll from the modern era.
What to expect
While the Melbourne to Warrnambool parcours doesn't present any real challenges, it's the conditions that give rise to the event's epic reputation. Think open plains, driving winds and notoriously unpredictable weather than can result in anything from sleet to sunshine. Saturday's forecast suggests the peloton of over 230 riders, the largest since the 117-year-old classic became a massed start race in 1996, will be battered with cross-winds for the entire 262km.
Given the size of the field, the race to the You Yangs will be fairly hectic until some sort of order forms over the first 50kms or so. Not long after that, is the first of four designated feed zones although Race Director John Craven confirmed to Cyclingnews that feeding from cars will also be allowed at the discretion of the commissaries, hopefully limiting the risk.
Riders chasing early KOM and sprint points may have gone clear early, and could stay out front under watch from the big hitters as far as Camperdown at around the 180km mark but the notorious left turn into Lismore Road (150km) will signal the beginning of the real fun. Around 40km of road, particularly open to cross winds should thin the main bunch with echelons sure to form and any breakaway likely to be pulled back prior to Camperdown with the Victorian 200km Championship also up for grabs.
The questions that then remains are: who feels good and who has the teammates still in support? The war of attrition will be well and truly on and just a select few will contest the race over the final kilometres.