The Tour of Toowoomba, the second event on the men's 2012 Australian National Road Series, may only be in its third edition, but it has quickly built a reputation as a true challenge on the domestic calendar.
Pat Shaw will be chasing his third-straight overall victory in Toowoomba when the five-stage tour begins this Thursday, when he lines up for a Genesys Wealth Advisers squad which will be hoping to capitalise on a strong start to the season in Asia. Shaw didn't race the opening event of the NRS, the Mersey Valley Tour, instead racing the Tour de Taiwan, the Tour of Japan and most recently the Tour de Kumano where he finished sixth overall.
Not only has the tour been expanded for 2012 with an extra stage on offer, a team time trial, but there will also be a record field of 23 teams and 138 riders.
Shaw told Cyclingnews that while going for the trifecta of wins was on his mind a while ago, his priority is making sure the team is successful as a whole.
"I really can't say I haven't thought about winning three in a row but definitely now those thoughts have gone right to the back of my mind," he said. "The most important thing for me now is that Genesys runs away with the tour victory. My thoughts over the last four weeks, have been to make sure that all the guys are progressing in the right direction so that we can get results in the NRS that we really require."
Genesys dominated the 2011 NRS, taking out all but one of the events on the calendar - Eclipse Pro Cycling won the Grafton to Inverell via Mark Jamieson - with Nathan Haas claiming overall honours and Steele Von Hoff sprinted to 18 victories and the Scody Cup.
Shaw believes that the 2012 squad is more "well-rounded" but only time will tell if the 'Orange Army' can surpass the achievements of 2011 with increased climbing capabilities and solid sprinting stock. The team recently added Jai Crawford to its roster and the Tasmanian will line up in Toowoomba in his first NSW event of the year, following his impressive performance at the Tour de Singkarak where he finished second overall.
"The new riders coming into the team have just really enjoyed our culture and the way that we conduct ourselves not only on the bike but most importantly, out of sight of cameras, and other people," he explained. "We make sure that we are always developing and learning about each other so that when we are on the bike we know the ins and outs of each other on all fronts."
Who can spoil the party?
Mark O'Brien (Budget Forklifts) won the second stage at Mersey Valley and finished third on the third and final stage to take out the overall title by 1:25 from Genesys' Nathan Earle. Budget Forklifts teammates Michael Cupitt and Marc Williams were next best in a solid team effort and with O'Brien and Cupitt both racing in Toowoomba, and joined by Brian Mcleod, the Perth-based team will be looking to build on their momentum.
"As far as I'm concerned, our team showed at Mersey Valley that we're one of the strongest, if not the strongest, at the start of the season so hopefully the team time trial plays into our hands," O'Brien told Cyclingews last week. "The courses in Toowoomba are just really surprising. I think the wind will be a huge factor because it's really open and windy there. Then it should come down to a strong climber that can still be there at the finish on Sunday... I think a lot of the pure climbers could be found wanting when the roads open up to the cross winds early on in the stages."
Joe Lewis returns to the RBS Morgans - ATS Pro Cycling team following a stint racing in Belgium and the USA and the Pat Jonker-managed outfit will be looking to feature. Along with Lewis, the team boasts the talent of Cam Peterson who should be well-suited to the parcours.
Second to Genesys at the end of last season, GPM-Wilson Racing will be looking to open their account having not raced Mersey Valley. The team has recently completed a "death camp" with Sam Rutherford reportedly performing well and the team time trial receiving some focus.
Other riders to looks out for when it comes to individual efforts include Brenton Jones (Team Torq - Bicycle Superstores) who recently took second place at the Victorian Country Road Championships, and third at the Fred Icke Handicap. Mitch Lovelock-Fay (Jayco-HoneyShotz), a solid climber who in April claimed overall honours at the UCI 2.2 Tour of Thailand at age 20; and Alex Morgan (Jayco-VIS), winner at Fred Icke and who together with Jack Cummings could give their team a reasonable shout when it comes to the team time trial.
Tougher Toowoomba for 2012
The Tour of Toowoomba not only boasts an extra stage in 2012, with the inclusion of a team time trial, but the brutal hilltop finish at Upper Flagstone Creek of 2011 has been replaced with an even tougher 128km stage to the Bunya Mountains a definite highlight. Race director, John Osborne, told Cyclingnews that he is hopeful there will be fewer issues for riders due to the badly damaged roads that the peloton experienced last year following the devastating floods in the region.
"The roads that we've selected this year have been pretty much fully repaired but such was the enormity of that damage that complete repairs are eight-10 years away," he explained. "We have selected roads with minimal damage."
The tour will start on Thursday with the 125km road race at Cambooya, in the south west of the Darling Downs. The stage will also be a memorial to Tim Francis who was Queensland Commissaire of the Year in 2010, and was tragically killed a couple of months ago, not long after he was appointed Chief Commissaire for this year's event.
Osborne describes the second stage as "a pearler" with three brutal, successive climbs ranging from 5.9 per cent to 9.6 per cent gradient to the finish line following a lumpy day in the saddle.
"When they leave Highfields Village shopping centre and head out towards Haden, there are a number of what you would call, leg-sapping even though they're short, climbs," he described. "They're one after the other so by the time they get to the foothills of the Bunya's, they will have pretty tired legs anyway. It's very definitely a climber's stage."
Stage 3's team time trial on Saturday is short, so shouldn't have a huge bearing on the general classification. Teams will leave the start area in two minute intervals on the out-and-back course with time trial bikes and disc wheels not permitted for use.
Sunday will be a big day for the peloton with two stages to be completed. The first a 118km road stage from the sleepy town of Oakey, to the outskirts of Pittsworth and concluding on the $3million criterium circuit at Glenvale.
The Tour of Toowoomba will then conclude with the traditional afternoon criterium around the 2.4km circuit in the centre of Toowoomba at Queens Park.
"I'm lucky enough to have won it twice but I think the rider that wins the Tour of Toowoomba is a true all-round rider," Shaw concluded. "You don't necessarily have to be there on the hilly day at the front but you need to be in that main group and then make the most of the other days."