The opening round of the 2021 Federation University Road National Championships has already been claimed emphatically as a win for a new generation of riders, with Sarah Gigante (Tibco-SVB) and Luke Plapp (InForm TMX Make) taking the elite time trial wins. Now the pressure is on for Team BikeExchange to flex its WorldTour muscle and hold onto the elite road race titles.
It is not likely to be an easy task for Australia's only WorldTour team to take control of the racing in the women's or men's event. The fact that the talented Australian-based youngsters are staking their claims is far from the only challenge in this year like no other. The race was delayed a month due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ranks of WorldTour riders have been diminished by the difficult travel circumstances and lack of international events while the domestic teams are out in force with the form and motivation to embrace opportunity after facing a 2020 domestic calendar laden with cancellations.
Here, we take a look at 10 of the riders to watch as the competition for a national jersey culminates on Sunday with the Australian Road Championships elite road races.
Elite and U23 Women
The racing begins on Sunday morning with the 104.4km event on a course that runs nine times around a loop that starts and finishes in the small town of Buninyong just outside Ballarat in Victoria. The key features of the regular Nationals circuit is the climb up Mount Buninyong Road and a technical section through Federation University, where there are plenty of corners to break the line of sight to those riders that manage to get away. It’s a race for the breakaway riders rather than the bunch, most often coming down to a small group or a solo victor.
The elite and under-23 women race together, which means promising youngsters in the women’s field don’t have to choose which category they race in but are eligible for both titles.
At 20 years old, Gigante still fits squarely in the under-23 category and, as she is signed to the US-based Tibco-SVB, is racing without any teammates. Usually those two factors would weigh heavily enough to strike any rider off the favourites list, but Gigante is not just any rider. The Brunswick Cycling Club member has a habit of making the seemingly impossible look easy, starting off with her clean sweep of the under-19 titles three years back. She then took out the elite road race title in her first year out of U19’s and has won the time trial at the event two years running. On top of that, she’s just secured overall victory at the Santos Festival of Cycling, with a long solo break in one stage and a flying run up Willunga Hill.
With defending champion Amanda Spratt (Team BikeExchange) remaining in Europe, she also has a target painted on her back by virtue of being the most recent victor in the field. That, and her recent performances, means she won’t be able to make a single move without her rivals trying to jump on her back wheel. The question is will they be able to?
Team: Team BikeExchange
Last year was a huge one for Brown, despite the interrupted race schedule, with a win at Brabantse Pijl and a second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Though it hasn’t been quite the start to 2021 she may have been hoping for, Brown entered the Santos Festival of Cycling a favourite and then fell out of contention in the very first stage. Then on Wednesday she failed to win back the time trial title again, but did see her second place with a significantly faster time than 2020 as a step in the right direction.
“This race has given me some extra confidence heading into Sunday’s road race and I’m looking forward to the next opportunity to fight for the National jersey,” said Brown.
She’ll have a relatively small team to do it with this year, having just Jess Allen, Sarah Roy and Lucy Kennedy, but all are powerful allies. Kennedy particularly so on the climb and she is also another clear card to play for the team, given her record at the race. The climber has a podium and two top 10s, and was the next best rider to Gigante at the Santos Festival of Cycling.
Team: Sydney Uni-Staminade
The Tasmanian rider has the strongest claim of being able to match it with Gigante, Brown and Kennedy on the climbs and sheer individual speed, having taken third on both the Willunga Hill stage at the Santos Festival of Cycling and the elite time trial on Wednesday. She also took fourth overall at the Santos Festival of Cycling and may have even been in the running for the podium if it weren’t for a painful wrong turn near the line that lost her valuable seconds on the overall. A podium place at Nationals would surely help her quickly forget that near miss.
Team: ARA Pro-Racing Sunshine Coast
Roseman-Gannon is another one of those domestic riders who has shown she is quite prepared to go toe-to-toe with the returning Women’s WorldTour riders. Last year, when she was racing the under 23 category, her turn of speed left her a close second to one of Australia’s best sprinters, Chloe Hosking, during the criterium. This year she has also been displaying a climbing ability that is bound to increase her chances of being a threat during the road race. Roseman-Gannon finished third on the overall at the Santos Festival of Cycling and delivered a more than respectable fifth on top of Willunga Hill.
Team: Roxsolt Liv Sram
The multi-discipline rider has a talent for surprising and delivering when it really matters. She is also ever so familiar with pulling on the green-and-gold jersey of the national champion. Mullens won the road race title in 2015 and it is easy to lose count of the rest of her national title wins as they span road, multiple mountain biking disciplines and also cyclo-cross. If she can hold on over the hills, her turn of speed and experience-fuelled feel for knowing just the right time to launch will make her a rider few will want to head toward the line in the same group as. Plus, with a large team around her, a win on the lumpy first stage of the Santos Festival of Cycling, and a third place in the final criterium, she looks like she has the form to be a particularly formidable competitor this year.
The elite men’s race is the final event of the championships, beginning on Sunday afternoon. The field takes on 16 laps of the traditional Buninyong loop which means 16 ascents of Mount Buninyong to wear riders down before they reach the finish line of the 185.6 kilometre race. Just like the women's race, the event is usually won from a break or by a solo rider.
The under 23 riders race separately on Saturday.
Team: Team BikeExchange
The defending champion clearly valued the opportunity to wear the green-and-gold bands of the Australian champion in Europe, an emotional winner who has come close before but finally cracked the top step of the podium in 2020. Unfortunately, though, he didn’t get to show off that hard-earned jersey quite as much as he may have liked and that may just well provide a bit of extra incentive to try and hold on for another year.
“I think there is always pressure at the National Championships and I always put pressure on myself for the event. I am very passionate about the race and always want to perform to my best so being the defending champion and having some consistent performances on this course over many years I have the expectation of being at the front of the race when it matters,” said Meyer.
Whether he is up the front to defend his title or try and set the result up for a teammate is another matter, with the focus on producing a good result for the team.
Team: Team BikeExchange
After taking such a dominant win at the Santos Festival of Cycling, there is no looking past Luke Durbridge. He has finished just off the podium in the road race the last two years and this year would be a perfect one to step up onto it, with his clearly-expressed desire to represent Australia at the Olympics. Plus a little extra motivation may come from the fact that he handed over his time trial title to 20-year-old Plapp on Wednesday, after a stressful couple of days trying to make it to the start line when he found himself on the wrong side of a snap COVID-19 state border closure.
"I’m looking forward to Sunday now, we have a strong team, I’m feeling good and I’ve got a bit of a fire in my belly from today. I’ll give it everything and hopefully we can retain the national champion's jersey," said Durbridge after the time trial.
It also won’t hurt that he’ll not only have the defending champion by his side, but also five other teammates – Lucas Hamilton, Alex Edmondson, Damien Howson and Kaden Groves – forming a powerful contingent with a number of cards to play.
· Age: 20
· Team: InForm TMX Make
Plapp was the revelation of the Australian summer even before he took the time trial title from Durbridge after stepping up to the elite category early. The rider, who won a stage at the Santos Festival of Cycling, took a gracious second to Richie Porte up Willunga Hill and secured second on the overall, has delivered one impressive performance after another. That’s why the elite podium doesn’t seem a stretch, even in his first year of racing the longer distance of the elite category, which takes in four more laps and as a result four more climbs up Mount Buninyong.
“Sixteen laps up Buninyong is going to be a tough one,” said Plapp after his time trial victory. “We have got a really good InForm team and I think we have got a few cards to play but I’d love to be able to do the double so we will see how we go.”
· Age: 22
· Team: InForm TMX Make
One of those InForm TMX Make teammates Plapp was talking about as another card to play is Kelland O’Brien. Plapp may have been in the spotlight the last few weeks, but he has repeatedly been quick to mention that O’Brien is flying when talking about riders to watch.
O’Brien showed that speed when he stood alongside Plapp on the time trial podium, putting Durbridge in the middle of a new generation of rivals on the results table. O'Brien will also be in the position of tackling the extra distance of the elite race for the first time, but the signs are promising with four days of competitive racing under his belt in the highly successful Team Garmin Australia that included a stage fourth and fifth place. It could well be the 22-year-old’s turn to take centre-stage on Sunday instead.
· Age: 26
· Team: Team Jumbo-Visma
The WorldTour rider isn’t going to have any of his Jumbo-Visma teammates to help out, but Harper is one of the few riders who has shown he can stay near Durbridge and Plapp this summer when it comes to outright time trial speed and hilly terrain. Harper was fourth in the time trial on Wednesday, third on the overall behind Durbridge and Plapp at the Santos Festival of Cycling and finished in the top 10 of every single stage of the four-day event. Harper also has a proven record on the Buninyong course, finishing seventh last year, second in 2019 and third the year before.
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