After nearly a month's break, the Subaru National Road Series returns on June 19 with the Santos North Western Tour – stop five on the calendar for the men and stop four for the women.
It's a better organised and far safer race that greets the peloton in 2013 with a hefty police presence, after the inaugural running of the tour was mired in controversy. The man behind the Commonwealth Bank Classic, Phill Bates, with nearly 40 years of experience to his name, along with Warren Scott took charge of the North Western Tour's management in March. Some stages received an overhaul, another was scrapped but the overall result, according to Bates will be an event that is "simpler, better and far more safe."
The men –
The NRS standings are stacked with the orange of the Huon Salmon – Genesys Wealth Advisers squad with five riders in the top-10, led by Battle of the Border winner Jack Haig. Budget Forklifts and Euride Racing are making some inroads to the domination with two riders each, while sprinter Neil Van Der Ploeg (search2retain p/b health.com.au) is third overall.
Second overall in the standings, Nathan Earle (Huon-Genesys), recently-signed to Sky for 2014, will be looking to make the most of the hilltop finish at Siding Springs on the penultimate day to hopefully boost his general classification ambitions.
"I'm confident and looking to do well at the Santos North West Tour," the winner of the Tour of Toowoomba said. "Hilltop finishes are my favourite and I think stage four will be the decisive stage in the tour.
"The boys have had a bit of time off since Japan and we are now all sharpening up again for New South Wales," Earle continued. He'll join fellow stage winner from the Tour de Kumano, Ben Dyball in the Genesys line-up which also includes Jai Crawford, Brenton Jones, Pat Shaw and Kane Walker.
The formidable team's winning run of every NRS event so far this season was only broken by Euride's George Tansley last-up at the Adelaide Tour. In an impressive performance, Euride took out the overall podium with Harry Carpenter and Tom Kaesler securing the top-three having blitzed the opening stage team time trial. Tansley and Carpenter will both be in action at the North Western Tour.
Defending champions at the tour, Budget Forklifts head into the 2013 event without their victor, Mark O'Brien but in Jack Anderson and Josh Prete, the team boasts the two current leaders of the Queensland Road Series.
Another potential spoiler to the Huon-Genesys domination, is Cam Bayly (search2retain) who took out the South Australian elite road title on the weekend in preparation for the Tour of Qinghai Lake next month.
There is not just the usual Australian and Kiwi contingent lining up for this NRS event with a team from Kenya included on the start list. The squad, which includes national champion Paul Ariko and John Njoroge who finished third overall at the Tour of Rwanda last year. They may be a long way from home, but should not be discounted.
The women –
Pensar SPM Racing has so far dominated the women's series, with 2012 overall series and event winner Ruth Corset holding a four-point lead over teammate Katrin Garfoot and that looks likely to continue this week in New South Wales with the team of nearest rival Grace Sulzberger and her Polygon team not on the start list.
"It's definitely a goal of mine to win the tour for the second year running, however Katrin [Garfoot] is in good form too so we will have a few cards to play," said Corset
"I've stepped up my training in preparation for the Giro which I travel to straight after the Santos North West Tour and I've been doing a lot of climbing in my training and I'm really looking forward to the Siding Spring stage of this Tour with the hilltop finish," 35-year-old Corset explained with a guest ride in the Bizkaia – Durango squad next on her schedule at the Giro Rosa.
Strong climber Miranda Griffiths (Holden Women) should perform well on the hillier days and therefore challenge for overall. Griffiths, a former triathlete, beat Corset in the opening stage of the Battle of the Border.
The parcours –
Just like last year, the Santos North Western Tour begins with an individual time trial but in 2013 it's an extended 8.5km out-and-back course that begins proceedings. Later on Wednesday, the second stage takes place with a criterium 1.1km circuit with the men racing over 30 laps while the women will compete over 20.
Bates and Scott have introduced a new road stage from Bingara to Narrabri, in place of the troublesome Gunnedah to Tamworth stage of 2012. The distance of 108.5km is the same for men and women, with the women leaving five minutes after their male counterparts. Six KOMs await the peloton, the first three in the opening 12kms giving an added incentive to attack the race. The outskirts of the Mount Kaputar National Park sees the race head upwards with a further two climbs, the longest at 4.3km at 5.7 per cent gradient. It's the type of stage which could result in a breakaway being able to stick if enough of an advantage is gained while a largely downhill finish into Narrabri may give the peloton an opportunity to get back in touch with the race leaders.
Stage 4 is a return of the hilltop finish at Siding Springs Observatory, the men's peloton racing over 126.4km, while the women have a shortened 76.1km stage which omits the Tooraweenah town turnaround. In 2012 Corset and Griffiths went 1-2 on the stage while Ben Hill (RBS Morgans – ATS) won the men's race. With Hill not in action during this year’s NSW, runner-up Ed White (GPM Data#3) could be out for redemption if he can overcome the strength of Huon-Genesys.
The final 15km of the stage sees the peloton climb 600 metres in altitude and the gradient maxes out at over 11 per cent just after the sixth KOM point. After that, there will still be 3.5km left of utter attrition.
The North Western Tour should be decided come Friday night, leaving just one stage to be raced on Saturday. The women's event will conclude over 107.1km while the men take a less direct and longer 137.8km route via the Black Stump Way between Coonabarabran and Gunnedah. A bunch sprint should bring an end to the four days of racing.