Australia has become accustomed to success at the UCI Road World Championships over the last decade with that trend looking to be continued in Richmond, Virginia, from September 20-27. The team selected for the Worlds contains several former world champions and riders who have medalled at the most prestigious events of the season, and are capable of adding to those past glories.
In the first of three 'state of the nation' features, Cyclingnews looks over five riders to watch from the Australian team, assessing their previous appearances, form and chances for victory.
Name: Michael Matthews
Category: Elite men's road race
Previous Worlds appearances: On his senior road World Championships debut, Michael Matthews found himself as one of two protected riders on the Australian team. There was no doubting Simon Gerrans, having won the Canadian one-day WorldTour races back-to-back, was the leader of the team but should the race finish in a bunch sprint, Matthews was to be the man. While Gerrans won the battle for silver behind Michal Kwiatkowski, Matthews was a credible 14th.
Fast forward 12-months and it's the 2010 U23 world champion looking like the leader of the Australian team. Gerrans' season has been one of deserted luck with several broken bones halting any attempts at consistency. Matthews on the other hand has won a stage in all but one stage race he's started this season, the Tour de France where he broke several ribs the exception to the rule so far, and has been one of the standout riders this season.
Form: While some riders opted to prepare for Worlds at the Vuelta a España or Tour of Britain, Matthew decamped to North America for the Tour of Alberta and the Canadian WorldTour one-day races. A stage win and a close second place in Alberta demonstrated Matthews was returning to form after his Tour injuries. This was followed with second place at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec as Matthews won the bunch sprint behind Rigoberto Uran and ahead of Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).
Chances: There remains an unknown quality to the 259.2km Richmond course with suggestions the course may not be as selective as first thought. With Australian national champion Heinrich Haussler and Mat Hayman likely to play bodyguard roles during the race, the team will look to deliver Matthews into the final kilometres with his powder as dry as possible for a bunch sprint.
While Australia will surely be called upon to work throughout the race, they will be looking to the likes of Belgium and Italy to contribute equally, the balanced squad selection provides the team with a back up plan or two.
Matthews is the trump card for Australia, no doubt, but Gerrans got through the Vuelta injury free and if his is approaching his 2014 condition and form, the 34-year-old becomes a joker in the pack, capable of launching a late attack.
Australia's strength at recent World Championships has been its strength-in-numbers approach and with multiple leaders top 10 is now a minimal expectation. Gerrans, Haussler and Hansen on their day could cause an upset victory.
Matthews though will start the race as one of the genuine favourites for the rainbow jersey. He will need to deal with the attention from Belgium, Italy, Germany and others to ensure he isn't marked out the race but the 24-year-old has proven himself to be a calm operator after 250 plus kilometre races this season and a place on the podium should be considered par.
Michael Matthews celebrates the 2010 U23 road race title in Geelong (Sirotti)
Name: Rohan Dennis
Category: Elite men's time trial
Previous Worlds appearances: Fifth at last year's World Championships was Dennis' first genuine attempt for victory against the clock. It was “a perfect time trial for my ability at the moment” as Dennis had said after his ride.
The year before, Dennis was 12th in Florence having briefly occupied the hot seat but by the time the likes of Fabian Cancellara, Bradley Wiggins and Tony Martin had finished, he was 3:09 minutes down. Dennis cut the deficit to the winning time in Ponferrada to just 56 seconds telling Cyclingnews that either “It's a huge improvement on my behalf, or they have got a lot slower.”
Form: Until the Tour de France's opening day time trial on a hot day in Utrecht, a victory against the clock in the elite ranks had eluded Dennis with second place his most common result. Following on from his breakthrough win that also netted a yellow jersey, Dennis made it back-to-back time trial victories when he rode to victory on stage 5 of the USA Pro Challenge and sealed overall victory.
Twelve-months ago Dennis was still feeling his way into the BMC team after a rare mid-season switch of teams from Garmin-Sharp. Since the change from blue to red, the Australian has embarked on a goal-setting run of success emulating countryman Simon Gerrans in his ability to regularly hit his targets.
Along with the time trial, Dennis will also be a key rider in BMC's quest to defend their team time trial title with victory sure to provide confidence before his solo mission for the rainbow jersey.
Chances: Defending champion Bradley Wiggins and four-time winner Fabian Cancellara will both be absent leaving Tony Martin, a three-time champion, and Tom Dumoulin as chief rivals. Alex Dowsett, who broke Dennis' Hour Record, will be another challenger for the gold medal.
After breaking the World Hour Record in February, Dennis explained that pacing had been key to his record ride. At last year's Worlds Dennis' radio stopped working half way through the time trial and a repeat technological issue could be the difference between second and sixth place.
The 53km distance course will be the longest that Dennis encounters this season, the Australian national championships course in January his only other test over 40km, and just shy of his Hour Record distance of 52.491km.
Three years on from his U23 silver medal at the Valkenburg Worlds, a podium position is the minimum expectation for the 25-year-old.
Rohan Dennis riding to stage 1 victory at the Tour de France (Bettini)
Name: Rachel Neylan
Category: Elite women's road race
Previous Worlds appearances: In 2012, Neylan was the only rider able to follow Marianne Vos' race-winning move up the Cauberg with her reward a silver medal in her debut at the Worlds. It would be Australia's first medal in the women's road race since Oenone Wood's bronze in 2004.
Neylan missed the 2013 Worlds due to injury, returning in 2014 to play a support role for Tiffany Cromwell, who crossed the line in fifth place. Neylan was aggressive in the final laps as she tried to get clear before the winning move went but she still finished in the second group 41 seconds down on Pauline Ferrand-Prévot.
Form: Rachel Neylan's 2015 contract hinged on her winning the Australian national title in January after an injury-interrupted 2014 saw her without a contract at the start of the season.
The finish line promised a green and gold jersey plus a Wiggle-Honda contract should Neylan be the first rider under the Buninyong banner. Peta Mullens spoiled the party as she got the better of Neylan in a two-up sprint to leave Neylan empty handed. Resilience is a word Neylan is more than familiar with as she demonstrated by quickly bouncing back to win the inaugural Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. The first win of her career was followed by solid performances at the Oceanias and the Tour of New Zealand to earn a contract with Orica-AIS.
Since joining the Australian team, Neylan has been building form for the Worlds with steady but unspectacular results. That changed at the Trophée d'Or Féminin where Neylan finished third in the prologue then won stage 3 to claim overall success while riding with the national team.
She took 15th place at the selective GP de Plouay-Bretagne in late August, further confirmation the 33-year-old is approaching the Worlds in the right form.
Chances: The Australian approach for the 129.6km race is likely to revolve around a Neylan-Cromwell co-leadership with both riders offering something different from the other. One of Cromwell's strength is her sprint finish from a small bunch, a characteristic that has let Neylan down in the past.
With Cromwell, and her trade teammate Lauren Rowney, proving options from a bunch finish, Neylan's best chance for victory is to attack on the final lap and arrive solo at the finish. Easier said than done.
Australia is sure to be heavily watched and marked throughout the race and Neylan won't enjoy her anonymity of 2014. With her late attacks in last year's race, Neylan has shown she has the legs when it counts and a top-10 finish would be just the reward for her determinism.
Rachel Neylan on the 2012 Worlds podium before collecting her silver medal (Bettini)
Name: Alistair Donohoe
Category: U23 men's road race
Previous Worlds appearances: 20-year-old Alistair Donohoe makes his able body Worlds debut in Richmond having already won several Para-cycling rainbow jerseys. Donohoe is a world champion on the track and road in the Para-cycling C5 level but will enter the men's U23 road race and time trial events with genuine chances for top-10 results.
Donohoe enters the Worlds off the back of a trip to South Africa having defended his C5 world title at the Swiss Nottwil championships in early August. The sprinter won his first road world title in the US albeit a five-hour car journey in Greenville, South Carolina, back in 2013.
Form: Donohue has balanced both road and track ambitions in the 2015 season which kicked off at the Australian national championships with 10th in the U23 time trial, followed by third place in the road race two days later. He was 45th at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race a few weeks later, which may not have been a top result but it was hardly shabby either considering it was Donohue's first 1.1 event up against WorldTour teams.
Donohue had two 45th-place finishes at the Tour of Iran in May before switching focus to the track, winning the time trial and road race at the Para-cycling World Cup round in June. A silver medal followed in round three against the clock, a result he replicated at the Worlds a month later before successfully defending his Para-cycling road race title.
Chances: Since taking up the sport in 2010, Donohue has proven himself more than adept at competing in the able body ranks proving the injury he sustained to his right biceps has not curbed his or lessened his leg speed.
Alex Edmondson would likely have been given a leadership role for the Worlds but knee injuries have forced the 2014 individual pursuit world champion to end his season early. Injuries have cruelled the U23 team this season for the Australian team but a balanced team heads to Richmond with a few cards to play.
Donohue provides the team with a sprint option should the race finish in a bunch sprint while Jack Haig and Miles Scotson can be called upon as should the race splinter to pieces.
Alistair Donohoe (far right) on the podium at the 2015 Australian U23 national road championships (Mark Gunter)
Name: Anna-Leeza Hull
Category: Junior women's road race and time trial
Previous Worlds appearances: Anna-Leeza Hull made her Worlds debut in Ponferrada last year, finishing with a bronze medal in the time trial, just point five of a second ahead of compatriot Alexander Manly as Australia finished with three riders in the top four.
Hull had started slowly but picked up the pace on the second half of the course to finish strongly, explaining she was “maybe a little bit anxious on the first corners.” In the road race Hull was almost eight minutes down on Amalie Dideriksen (Denmark) with Manly the best of the Australians in 11th.
Form: A 16-year-old Hull ambushed the women's National Road Series (NRS) peloton last season with a successive of performances that had many asking who she was and where had she come from. Another season of racing the NRS and a European stint has given the now 18-year-old a greater engine and further experience and insight into racing.
Hull hasn't enjoyed the same European racing schedule in 2015 with her focus on racing domestically in the NRS as she finishes her final year of high school. Victory on the opening day time trial at her most recent race, the Sam Miranda Tour of the King Valley, though, suggests Hull is headed in the right direction for Richmond.
Chances: With no U23 events for women at the championships, the U19 junior title is the only opportunity Hull has before moving up the senior ranks. With just one teammate in the road race, the time trial presents Hull with the best opportunity to emulate Macey Stewart's 2014 rainbow jersey.
A rich history of success in the women's time trial events have shown the Australian set up can regularly get the best out of its athletes on the day.
Stewart earned herself a contract with Orica-AIS in part due to her time trial win last year, as did Manly. While 18 is young to be signing a contract for the top level of the sport, Hull's compatriots have shown it is possible and a second medal looks to be well within reach, barring any disasters on the day.
Having won both the national and Oceania time trial titles this season, a world title would complete the trifecta for Hull.
Anna-Leeza Hull (far right) on the podium of the 2014 Junior women time trial podium (Bettini)
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