The riders lining up at the 2019 men's Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in Geelong, Australia, on Sunday will know that a number of different scenarios could play out, with the race having been won both solo and from reduced bunch sprints since its first edition in 2015.
Last year's winner, Jay McCarthy – the first home winner of the race – returns as part of a strong seven-man Bora-Hansgrohe team that also includes domestique de luxe Daniel Oss and all-rounder and current Austrian road race champion Lukas Pöstlberger, who could himself have a good chance on a course that seems to best suit fast finishers who can also climb.
In 2018, McCarthy had to get the better of Elia Viviani – who would go on to have an almost unstoppable season in bunch sprints for Quick-Step, taking 18 victories – and Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott), who came into the race having won the Tour Down Under, and will do the same again this year, and must fancy his chances.
The course's principal difficulty is Challambra Crescent – a suburban climb on the way to the finish in central Geelong, climbed four times, which serves to whittle the field down to the smaller group that normal battles it out for the win.
The climb of Challambra was 'made famous' at the 2010 World Championships road race, but it couldn't stop Norway's Thor Hushovd – another sprinter capable of getting over climbs – from winning the rainbow jersey that year
Had he not retired at the end of 2014, Hushovd would have been a regular favourite at this race, which takes place on what is a truly world championship-esque course, with its multiple finishing circuits.
The anomaly to the reduced bunch sprint finish was Peter Kennaugh's attack and impressive solo win in 2016. Kennaugh has since shifted to McCarthy's Bora-Hansgrohe team, and isn't part of this year's squad, but might someone take a leaf out of his book and attempt to go it alone again this year?
Besides last year's top three – McCarthy, Viviani and Impey – who all return, and could all lay a claim to a podium spot once more, with perhaps only their finish order to be decided, a rejuvenated Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) could also be one to watch.
Sanchez recently rode a strong Tour Down Under, and his fast finishing from smaller groups, and his ability to get over the climbs, makes the two-time Clasica San Sebastian winner ideally suited to this race.
Or might Trek-Segafredo's Richie Porte or Michael Woods (EF Education First) be able to put their great Tour Down Under form into good use to make a difference and escape on one of the climbs? If Woods can't, his team's sprinter, Dan McLay, might be ready to duke it out for victory.
There's no Patrick Bevin for CCC Team – the New Zealander is still recovering from his crash at the Tour Down Under – but sprinter Jakub Mareczko could well be in the mix on the finishing circuit if the Italian can get over Challambra.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) will be hoping to make amends for his relegation on the penultimate stage of the Tour Down Under, where he was adjudged to have headbutted UAE Team Emirates' Jasper Philipsen, and Philipsen – who was handed the stage win – will be one to watch, too, if the race comes down to a sprint, despite still being only 20 years old.
Danny Van Poppel (Jumbo-Visma) and Team Sky's Kenny Elissonde – the latter a similar rider in both style and stature to Peter Kennaugh – are both in strong form, and don't discount new Australian road race champion Michael Freiberg, riding at the Great Ocean Road Race for the KordaMentha Real Estate Australian national team.
The men's 163km road race leaves Geelong and heads south-east towards Barwon Heads – Cadel Evans' hometown – on the coast of the Bass Strait. The race then hugs the coast through the stunning Great Ocean Road surf beaches of Torquay and Bells Beach before heading back inland towards Geelong.
The city is likely to be packed on what is the Australia Day long weekend, and it's as the race hits Geelong again that the fireworks should start. Four laps of a circuit that includes not only the now famous Challambra Crescent climb – where CCC-Liv's Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio forced what turned out to be the decisive move in the women's race on Saturday, with eventual winner Arlenis Sierra (Astana) bridging on the descent to the five riders that had ridden clear on the climb – but also a couple of other tricky slopes, which the riders face after Challambra and before the finish line.
The men then face it all again another three times, having joined the first finish circuit at Challambra Crescent, and it should prove decisive, if only to whittle down any larger group to something a little smaller – and perhaps smaller again if the men's race follows the pattern of the women's, at which Sierra won solo.
"Coming into the final laps is always a bit touch and go, and you have to make sure you're in a good position. You're coming to the most important part of race, which is exciting but nerve-wracking, wondering if you've got the legs," the defending champion, McCarthy, told Australian broadcaster Channel 7 ahead of the race.
"Last year, we had a small group for the final, but with another very fast group coming back to us from behind, so I opened my sprint pretty early, hugging the fence and with a tailwind behind me, and won just before Viviani caught me coming fast from behind."
"Viviani's motivated after winning a stage at the Tour Down Under," Impey said, but was worried about the other teams' climbers almost as much as the sprinters.
"Mitchelton-Scott will have a similar plan to us, trying to get Impey to be up there, so I think some of their young guys will be hitting the climbs hard to try to split things up," he said.
The men's race has had four different winners in four years. Will it be a case of five in five in 2019, or will McCarthy be able to become the first rider to win it twice?
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