While the road season has now come to a close, the Australian ‘off-season’ criterium racing is only just beginning. After the success of the Noosa Grand Prix and the Vault criterium, the NSW Grand Prix Series organised by Phill Bates brings international racing into Australia’s most populous state for the first time in 2011.
Record fields have been announced for the men and women, and there is no shortage of quality with three WorldTour teams, a handful of continental teams, and Australia’s best domestic cyclists all in attendance.
Along with last year’s winner Chris Sutton, Graeme Brown, Pieter Weening, Michael Matthews, Michael Rogers, Jeremy Hunt, Ben Kersten, Lachlan Morton and Jens Mouris will be participating in the two event series.
In the women's field, Chloe Hosking leads a classy field that also includes the first glimpse New South Wales residents will get of the freshly-launched Specialized SA squad. 2010 victor Rochelle Gilmore has been relegated to the sidelines through injury, however Shara Gillow, Kirsty Broun, Amanda Spratt, Allison Rice and Kate Bates will ensure the racing is highly competitive.
Playing down his own chances of a repeat Sutton conceded that with many of the top European professionals still in the process of very early pre-season training, and with the change in scheduling of the Series to a fortnight earlier than usual, this year’s race could go to an unheralded winner.
"I’m not going to be starting my major 2012 training until early December, so I’ll be a little under done," Sutton told Cyclingnews.
"But races like the NSW Grand Prix are always enjoyable to ride, and I always like to support uncle Phill. Cronulla is my home, and Wollongong is sort of a second home – that’s where I did my apprenticeship as a youngster. So I’m still motivated to do my best – but there are some local guys who are going very well at the moment."
Bates echoed Sutton's sentiments by saying the growth in quality in the domestic scene has not only made it easier to attract a larger field, but will also make things difficult for some of the seasoned professionals taking on the series.
"Events like this integrate well with the domestic calendar. I think the National Road Series has surprised a lot of people, including myself in getting off the ground, and it benefits events like this with providing quality riders.
"But what we offer is an international flavour to these events, we've got a lot of riders from all over the world attending this year - and that's something we can continue to build in the years ahead."
Bates pointed to young gun Sam Nelson (St George) as one potential dark horse.
"He's just come off winning the under 19 criterium championship last week and he's going really well."
Wollongong will host the first race on Saturday, with the course around Flagstaff Hill recently repaved to make the circuit truly world class.
The series will then continue its coastal theme with Cronulla, the traditional finale to the series providing a fast and flat parcours that has always favoured the sprinters.
"The venues of both Cronulla and Wollongong are spectacular locations," said Bates. "Cronulla is a wonderful venue for the crowds to view the action, and Wollongong is a perfect setting for a bike race surrounded by ocean, surf and the harbour."
The points system
The NSW Grand Prix series will carry individual prize money for the two races of the series with an overall prize also to be determined based on a points system.
Competitors will receive 10 points for starting each event. Points of 10 - 8 - 6 - 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1 for the first 8 places will then be awarded for each round.
The cyclist that accumulates the most points will be declared the overall winner. A sky blue leader's jersey will be awarded after the conclusion of the Wollongong criterium for the winner to wear in Cronulla.
In the event of a tie for an overall place, the best placed cyclist in the final race will determine the placing.