For the 28th year, the Australian cycling season will kick-off with the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic criterium series across the first three days of the new year. Since 1989, the 'bay crits' have become a key early-season outing for both Australians and visiting internationals in and around the city of Geelong.
With an honours roll that features the likes of Kathy Watt, Robbie McEwen, Anna Wilson, Baden Cooke, Oenone Wood, Mark Renshaw, Giorgia Bronzini, and most recently, Caleb Ewan, the quality of the field ensures the trade off for a quiet new years eve is top-notch racing.
Initially riders' had to race all four races to be eligible for the overall victory which is calculated on points rather than time. In the last few years, the format has changed to allow rider to pick and chose their events in line with the 'Challenge Majorca' events that place in late-January.
The length of the events remains unchanged with the men's races traditionally one-hour, with 45-minutes for the women.
In 2017 the Eastern Gardens criterium has been chopped from the race schedule with organisers forced into a reduced three-day event in order to avoid a clash with the Australian national championships will now act as a 'fourth' day of racing when the green and gold criterium jersey is awarded on Sturt St, Ballarat on January 4.
Richie Blvd in Geelong will again play host as the setting for the first race which starts at the later time of 5pm for the women, and 6pm for the men. The Richie Blvd course is the shortest of the three at 740m with the 'hot dog' circuit suited to the fastest finishes in the bunch. As a new year's day race though, an unexpected winner can emerge on this course with riders shaking out off-season cobwebs.
With no Eastern Gardens race, Portarlington is bumped up to the second race on offer for the 2017 peloton. The parcours is considered the most challenging of the current races on offer at the 'bay crits' with little chance to rest due to the hilly roads. It is also the longest of the three at 1.3km in length and generally features aggressive racing from the punchy riders. However, the likes of Ewan and Bronzini have both won on the course with wind and positioning crucial to success.
The 'bay crits' leaves behind Geelong for the third race and moves into the western-Melbourne suburb of Williamstown. The 900m circuit features two long straights on Cecil St and the finish/start line of Nelson St, allowing the sprint trains to get into place. But, it's also a race which has regularly featured an aggressive breakaway of riders trying to make a final mark on the race.
Headlined by Caleb Ewan, the men's start list is packed with talent from the domestic level through to WorldTour riders who will race on composite teams. Ewan will be hungry to make it three wins in a row and a fourth career title. He starts the 'bay crits' with a strong team of Michael Hepburn, Damien Howson, Mitch Docker, and Luke Durbridge, who also knows who to win on the Portarlington circuit, in support of his ambition.
IsoWhey Sports Swiss Wellness will take up the fight against Orica-Scott with its dual weapons of Scott Sunderland and Jesse Kerrison. Add into the mix Anthony Giacoppo and Neil van der Ploeg and the top National Road Series (NRS) team of the decade on paper look like snaring at least one victory.
Fellow Continental outfit JLT Condor continues its love affair with early-season Australian racing and in 2014 winner Brenton Jones and three-time Olympic gold medallist Ed Clancy, are another squad with options. Along with men for a sprint finish, JLT Condor will also be starting riders capable of causing an upset via a breakaway and look like being one of the most active teams across the three days.
Two-time Australian criterium champion Steele von Hoff is another fast man to watch and receives backing from a strong VTWO composite squad that features the likes of Nathan Haas (Dimension Data). Add into the mix Zak Dempster (Total Rush) and Koen De Kort (GTR) for riders to keep and eye on, and don't count out a dark horse emerging from the shadows and shining brightly in the new year sunshine.
A lost bike travelling back from New Zealand to Australia has crippled Gracie Elvin's defence with the Orica-Scott rider no longer lining out. However, the Orica-Scott team will still be fielding a strong roster featuring the likes of current Australian champion Amanda Spratt and former criterium champion Sarah Roy. Annemiek Van Vleuten will also line out for the Australian team and adds an aggressive card into the team's hand.
Chloe Hosking with her Ale Cycling team though is firming as a favourite to add to her 2015 overall title. With several wins on the European circuit in 2016, including La Course, the 26-year-old will be hard to beat on Richie Blvd and in Williamstown with teammate Valentina Scandolara better suited to the Portarlington course.
Former Australian champion Peta Mullens and her new American team Hagens Berman | Supermint team aren't making the trip to Australia just to make up the numbers and should figure at the pointy end across the three days.
The Novotel Geelong / Japan team always contains several wild cards, while Shannon Malseed and Ruby Roseman-Gannon are riders to keep an eye on.
Click here for the full 2017 Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic start list.