At this point last year, riding for the Australian national team at the inaugural women's Herald Sun Tour, Brodie Chapman wouldn't mind admitting that she wasn't a marked rider.
However, after winning the opening stage of the two-day race in 2018, and then holding on to her lead on the second-stage time trial to beat Mitchelton-Scott's Annemiek van Vleuten by five seconds overall, Chapman knows that this year's Herald Sun Tour will be very different – both in terms of her being watched, and because of a very different course.
"It's like a totally new race, so we won't approach it in the same way as last year," Chapman told the media the day before the race.
"You can only really play the dark-horse card once – if it pays off, which it did – so obviously there's going to be a target on my back, and I'm not going to be able to sneak away. But I guess I'm a bit more prepared this year. Having the support of a team that I've been racing with this season, and a lot of the girls last year, you're just less anxious because you've got your team around you. It makes such a big difference."
Still an amateur rider last year, Chapman's Sun Tour ride caught the attention of the US-based Tibco-SVB team, who quickly snapped her up, with the Australian turning professional last February, just two weeks after her win.
This year's race route will see a flat – but potentially very windy – opening stage over 22 laps (97.9km) of the Phillip Island MotoGP course, south of Melbourne, on Wednesday.
It's followed the next day by a second, and final, stage on a circular route starting and finishing in the nearby town of Churchill, and uses the same finish climb and downhill run to the finish that stage 2 of the men's race will have used earlier in the day.
"The Churchill climb has a bit of gravel at the end [1.1km], and it does kind of ramp up to some pretty steep percentages at some points," explained Chapman, "although I anticipate that by the time we get to that climb, the race will already have been made very hard.
"Before the climb, there are a lot of rolling, hard roads. I'm unsure of the wind yet, but that could always be a factor, and I expect it to be raced hard.
"I did the climb yesterday [Tuesday] for the the first time," she continued. "It's definitely tough, and I do anticipate that the legs will be quite loaded before that point, but I imagine I'll have my team making sure that it's reduced as much as possible."
The gravel section to the top of the climb should suit a rider like Chapman, who recently returned to Australia from New Zealand, where she won the UCI 1.2-ranked Gravel and Tar La Femme one-day race in Palmerston North.
"I do feel pretty confident on gravel on my road bike, just because I seek it out occasionally [in training]," she said. "But once you're tired and there are other riders around you, you've just got to back it off just a little bit in order to get through it safely. I think it definitely adds a tougher element to the stage, and this may be a race of attrition, I feel."
In terms of rivals for her crown, 27-year-old Chapman faces a strong Mitchelton-Scott team, led by recent Tour Down Under winner Amanda Spratt.
"I'm definitely looking at them," she confirmed. "They'll obviously come in with their extremely strong climbers and in-form Australians.
"Fortunately, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio [CCC-Liv] and [Astana's women's Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race winner] Arlenis Sierra are not here for this race, but there is also Jenna Merrick from the Mike Greer Homes team. She was the one who was with me at Gravel and Tar [and finished second], and she showed that she's got incredible form and can handle herself on the gravel, and out there in the wind. So as much as she might appear to be a dark horse, I definitely know how strong she can be," said Chapman.
"It's really special, and kind of cool, to be coming back as the defending champion, and I really just want to see this race grow. I'd love to see it grow in prestige over the years, and perhaps add a few more stages. But it's just really fun, and it's good to be here.
"I'm expecting it to be raced pretty hard," she said. "It is a bit of a different parcours to last year, and a bit of different peloton, so we'll treat it as if it's a fresh new race and see what we can do."
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