And just like that the off-season is done and dusted, the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic has been raced and won and the Cycling Australia Road National Championships are upon us. The Victorian town of Ballarat hosts the Australian championships for a tenth year this week with the Bunninyong course remaining the parcours of choice to decide the national road champions. The Stuart St criterium titles open the championships on Wednesday course on a course familiar to fans and riders alike while the time trials will be contested on the Bunninyong course which made a successful debuted last year.
Ahead of the 2016 Cycling Australia Road National Championships, Cyclingnews has looked through the start lists to bring you our five riders to watch.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) Elite Men's road race
As a two-time winner and leader of the Orica-GreenEdge team, Simon Gerrans will start Sunday's 183km elite men's road race with a target on his back. Some riders will simply be out to stop Gerrans adding to his already lengthy palmares. Strong legs and negative tactics from rivals have come up short before as it takes something special to beat the 34-year-old on one of his favourite circuits in cycling.
Gerrans missed the 2015 titles with a broken collarbone, sustained in a pre-Christmas mountain bike, that then ruled him out of the entire Australian summer of cycling and what became a season to forget. Having failed to claim the gold medal for the first time in its short history, Orica-GreenEdge are hungry to make amends for 2015 and bring a strong squad to ensure it goes home happy.
Gerrans is the trump card for the team on the challenging 10.2km Bunninyong circuit, which the peloton will complete 18 laps of, but in Caleb Ewan have an in-form joker card to play. 2013 national champion Luke Durbridge is forgoing the time trial and adds another avenue to victory. Sports director Matt White is adamant the team take home the jersey and with a high-quality nine-rider team selected for the race, the story will be, who can stop Gerro?
The 2014 Men's road race podium, Richie Porte (Team Sky), Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and Cadel Evans (BMC) (Mark Gunter)
Richie Porte (BMC) Elite Men's time trial/Elite Men's road race
BMC have enjoyed two silver medals in its last two appearances at the Australian nationals, Cadel Evans in the 2014 road race and Rohan Dennis in the 2015 time trial. However the 2016 time trial shapes up as its best bet yet for a green and gold jersey. Richie Porte starts the time trial as the defending champion on the course he won his maiden elite national title last year. Porte will be determined for his first start in red and black to be a successful one.
Porte is aiming to peak in July for the Tour de France this year, compared to his objective of challenging for overall honours at the Giro d'Italia last May. Therefore his current condition and form is likely to be a lower level than 2015 but Porte is a proven performer in January and with a national title to defend, it would be a brave call to discount his chances on the 40km course.
The biggest challenge to Porte looks to be his BMC teammate Rohan Dennis and with bragging rights on offer, there's added incentive to take home the gold. Just a few days later and the duo will line up together in the road race with the aim of doing a potential double. Porte has finished on the podium twice in recent years but as he lacks a powerful sprint finish, he will need to arrive at the line solo or with a slower sprinter than himself.
Porte's season won't be judged on his January performances but with a new team for 2016 and the aim of leading BMC at the Tour, what better way to kick off the year than by taking home a national title or two?
Richie Porte (Team Sky) in the Australian national champions jersey at the 2015 Giro d'Italia (Bettini Photo)
Rohan Dennis (BMC) Elite Men's time trial/Elite Men's road race
Rohan Dennis won his first U23 national title in 2010 in the time trial, following it up two years later by doing the double as he grabbed a second win against the clock having earlier won the road race. In his first year at the elite level, Dennis was second to Durbridge to confirm his time trialling talent. A gust of wind in 2014 ended any aspirations of gold, whipping Dennis off his bike and dumping him hard on the ground. Despite starting the 2015 event as outright favourite, Dennis found himself with another silver medal to his name with just seven seconds bewteen himself and Richie Porte.
It seemed that Dennis was eternally cursed to forever be the time trialling bridesmaid as the second places accumulated in 2014 at the Tour de Romandie, Tour of California, Glasgow Commonwealth Games and continued into 2015 at Paris-Nice and Baloise Belgium Tour. That all changed one hot July afternoon in Utrecht when the 25-year-old rode the fastest time trial in Tour de France history to claim the opening stage and first maillot jaune of the race.
A follow up overall win at the USA Pro Challenge was evidence Dennis has cast the monkey off his back before the disappointment of sixth place at the Worlds. Considering his run of results at the national titles, it more a matter of when not if for Dennis. 2016 presents another prime opportunity for Dennis who surely is scheming to ensure he, and not Porte, is the BMC rider atop the podium wearing the green and gold jersey.
The road race will then be Dennis' final chance to stretch his legs in a racing situation before his Tour Down Under defence. Orica-GreenEdge will be doing everything in its power to take home the jersey but should an upset eventuate, Dennis and Porte could well be celebrating a BMC double.
The Men's Podium at the 2015 Australian national time trial titles (Mark Gunter)
Miles Scotson (Team Illuminate) U23 Men's time trial/U23 men's road race
There was little buzz surrounding Miles Scotson ahead of the 2015 national titles with the talented South Australian known more for his team pursuit and track performances. The 21-year-old put in a powerful ride last January, catching both Jack Haig and Shaun O'Callaghan to take the win just four seconds ahead of Oscar Stevenson with an overflow of emotion upon confirmation of his victory. A daring solo attack a few days later in the road race sealed a rare double to prove he can do more than time trial.
A call up to the UniSA team for the Tour Down Under followed before a season of dual track and road commitments. Scotson has signed for the American Team Illuminate Continental team for 2016 with younger brother Callum with the Rio Olympics his major objective of the season. While Scotson will find himself marked throughout the road race, seventh place at the 2014 Worlds U23 time trial suggest he will start as a favourite for a second green and gold jersey against the clock in Thursday's 29.3km race.
Miles Scotson was the 2015 national U23 time trial champion (Mark Gunter)
Gracie Elvin (Orica-AIS) Elite women's road race
With back-to-back wins in 2013-14, Gracie Elvin was the outright favourite for a third straight title in 2015 and started the race with a team more than capable of placing her in the right moves at the right time. As it happened, solo riders Peta Mullens and Rachel Neylan mugged their bigger rivals in a two-up sprint for victory with the winner taking home a Wiggle-Honda contract.
12-months on and Elvin once again heads to the nationals as a favourite for victory following her Bay Cycling Classic stage and overall victory with her teammates hitting top form and Neylan also wearing the Orica-AIS colours. Two wins in Europe last season were evidence of Elvin's growth and development as a rider while her early-season wins have further boosted her confidence.
The early morning start of the women's race to allow for live broadcast should have little impact on the event itself with Elvin and her Orica-AIS teammates needing to be aware of Tiff Cromwell, Lauren Kitchen and Peta Mullens who are likely to take the fight to the seven-rider team. Elvin has explained she is content to play a team role should it ensure the jersey goes to one of her teammates. Although if Elvin is in the front group on the final lap, anything is possible after 102km of racing.
Elvin is also set to race the elite women's time trial on Thursday although it teammate Katrin Garfoot who is more likely to challenge for a podium position.
Grace Elvin (Orica-AIS) win's her second national road race title (Mark Gunter)
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