Last on the 2015 National Road Series (NRS) calendar, the Grafton to Inverell finds itself as the opening act in 2016 with a familiar protagonist firming as race favourite.
Avanti IsoWhey Sports's Sean Lake was a relative unknown when he won the one-day 228km classic in 2014 and despite the peloton knowing the strength of the ex-rower 12-months on, they were powerless to stop the 24-year-old from defending his title.
After a breakthrough summer in which Lake finishing third at the Australian national time trial titles, behind BMC duo Rohan Dennis and Richie Porte, the Victorian was selected for the UniSA-Australia Tour Down Under wildcard team. Lake was quick to impress, infiltrating the stage 1 breakaway and pulling on the KOM jersey.
The whirlwind start to the season continued when Lake rode to Oceania time trial and road race in March. Avanti IsoWhey Sports were initially scheduled to head to the US for some international racing from April but have since adjusted its focus to Europe with Lake a little unsure of his form and condition heading into the NRS opener as a result
"It's difficult with lead up races and it's hard to tell exactly how you're going and when it's the last race on the calendar, because you do have all that racing you do have top end work in your system," Lake told Cyclingnews on the difference to approaching the race in May, rather than October. "First race of the season, you're coming off mainly an endurance block of training and less racing so not exactly sure how you're going, it's a little bit different but with that endurance training I think the form should be good for a solid six hour race."
"I think I am decent form and I am looking forward to it."
Lake will be joined by six Avanti teammates, who on paper are a formidable squad, and will look to take the race on rather than play it safe and look after a specific rider as he explained.
"The nature of the race, everyone on the Avanti team is strong enough to win, and you can't really 'protect' a rider that much on the course," he said of the race tactics. "I think you have to race aggressively and for us we always have to have the strongest rider in any group that's up the road and keep us in front of the race. We have to race more aggressively rather than look after a protected rider such as myself. That style of racing suits myself as well."
As the first race on the NRS calendar, there will be plenty of riders and teams looking to impress and Lake is expecting a tough day in the saddle.
"There are quire a few teams in the radar," he said. "The local one like AMR Renault and GPM always have a couple of strong guys at a this kind of race. State of matter with Dylan Sunderland, a local guy, will be pretty strong and then there a re a couple of guys like Rhys Gillett who we know is in good form. He'll try and do something special up the climb even though he doesn't have much of a team with him. Satalyst with Matt Clark, who was in good form earlier in the year… there are a few floating around as well and the NRS is a place where riders can step up and surprise as well."
Lake made history when he went back-to-back last year and when asked what a hat-trick of what is regarded as the hardest race on the Australian domestic calendar, there was no beating around the bush.
"It would be ridiculously special and I am already extremely fond of this race. If it was to happen a third time, that would be absolutely amazing and absolutely dream of that being the case. For now, I am just trying to think of it as another opportunity to get back racing and really enjoy it," he said.
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