The AusCycling 2021 Federation University Road National Championships gets under way in and around Ballarat on Wednesday, with the racing for this delayed edition beginning with the time trials. The elite and U23 women face a renewal of the battle between defending champion Sarah Gigante (Tibco-SVB) and Grace Brown (Team BikeExchange). Luke Durbridge (Team BikeExchange) is set to make it to the start line as the unquestioned favourite in the elite men’s race, but he'll be facing up to a couple of new challengers this year.
The elite women and men's events are the final battles in what will be a day of racing against the clock at the 2021 edition of the Australian Road Championships, which is running nearly a month later than normal this year given the disruptions to racing caused by the pandemic. The field has undoubtedly been altered by the circumstances, with a number of European-based Australian riders foregoing their usual summer trip home, and there were some concerns that even the riders already in Australia might miss out after a COVID-19 case led to a lockdown in and around Perth on Sunday.
Still, with a year full of cancellations behind them and some uncertainty still ahead, the motivation to take those opportunities that remain seems higher than ever. The time trials are bound to mark the beginning of a fiercely contested few days of racing, which culminates on Sunday with the elite road races.
The women’s elite and U23 women’s time trial, a combined event, runs over 28.6 kilometre with two laps of a Buninyong course incorporating an out-and-back section along Yankee Flat Rd, some short but tough hills and, to test the technical abilities, the Fisken Rd descent, along with the corner-filled roads through Federation University.
Last year it was the 20-year-old Gigante who emphatically won the U23 title and also held firm against the likes of Team Bike Exchange’s Grace Brown, Lucy Kennedy and Amanda Spratt to grasp the elite jersey as well. Brown was her nearest rival, finishing just nine seconds behind, and the 2019 winner is again expected to be among the toughest competition this year.
Gigante has already put her time-trial skills on display this year, with a solo break of more than 40 kilometres during stage 2 of the Santos Festival of Cycling proving to be a race-winning move. Brown, on the other hand, started the season on the back foot. She came into the racing in South Australia as a favourite, but missing the front group in the first stage put an end to any hopes of overall victory.
“The Santos Festival of Cycling was a tough tour and it definitely highlighted that I have a bit of work to do before being at my top level. I felt that I built form throughout those four days of racing intensity and that should improve my shape coming into Nationals” said Brown, who will be the sole representative of Team BikeExchange in the time trial.
“It’s a mental challenge starting the Australian season a bit behind, but it’s in line with the plan to be firing in time for the Belgian Classics. Despite this, I’m confident that we will be able to challenge for the Australian titles in Buninyong this year,” said Brown. “My primary focus in the time trial, but from previous years I find the preparation for both events goes hand-in-hand.”
Nicole Frain (Sydney Uni-Staminade), who finished eighth last year in the time trial, will also be one to watch after taking fourth overall in South Australia. Keep an eye out for the emergency department doctor Alana Forster as well. Forster showed she wasn’t reluctant to take on a solo effort on the bike on stage 1 of the Santos Festival of Cycling, with a strong break that forced the peloton into a furious chase. Forster managed to get her hands on a time trial bike just a couple of weeks ago while in South Australia so she’ll be out there on her new bike trying to better her 11th place of last year.
The men’s elite time trial will be the final event of the day on Wednesday, with the course replicating the women’s except with an extended stretch along Yankee Flat Rd, to give the two-lap race against the clock a total distance of 37.5 kilometres.
The battle for the Australian title has been all about two riders for the past five years, former two-time world champion in the discipline Rohan Dennis (Ineos Grenadiers) and Luke Durbridge (Team Bike Exchange). Durbridge has taken the green and gold jersey the past two years and Dennis the three before that. The last time anyone else wore the elite men's time trial green and gold bands was in 2015, when Richie Porte won.
This year, however, Dennis has remained in Europe, but Durbridge’s team has confirmed he'll be on the start line, putting to rest concerns that he could be caught on the wrong side of Victorian entry restrictions after the state limited entry to those in areas impacted by the five-day lockdown in and around Perth. Durbridge is the clear favourite, not only because of his track record, but also because of the 80km solo break on stage 1 that set up his overall victory at the Santos Festival of Cycling.
“You can’t beat a bit of confidence going into a race, once you have a victory early on you can sometimes roll with it and go from one victory for the next, so I am really looking forward to just taking the confidence and form into next week,” said Durbridge.
However, Durbridge is conscious that none of his competition is going to want to hand him an easy victory, with last year's third placed rider Chris Harper (Jumbo Visma) and a new generation of potential rivals set to roll out before him.
"When you are the defending champion, everybody wants to take it off you, so I think you have to be, not nervous, but just respect that people do want to beat you and that you are the benchmark, so make sure you go out there and give it everything because if you don’t you will definitely get it taken away,” said Durbridge.
Last year’s U23 winner Luke Plapp (InForm TMX Make) is in fighting form after coming second overall at the Santos Festival of Cycling, a result that helped the 20-year-old rider decide to step up the elite ranks early. However, the silver medallist in the junior men's time trial at the 2018 World Championships behind Remco Evenepoel, isn't taking anything for granted after stepping into the increased distance without his usual 100 percent focus on the TT.
“It is just entering with a different prep than I am used to,” Plapp, who is also entered in the road race on Sunday, told Cyclingnews. “The hard thing is that this TT is going to be ten minutes longer than I have ever raced before and [on Sunday] it's four more times up Buninyong, no one knows how you are going to go four times more up there. I am really looking forward to it and the challenge.”
Still, after his Santos Festival of Cycling experience, he is going into the race with a degree of confidence that he is ready to take on the increased distances of the elite races and compete in the elite field. “I don’t pin a number on just to roll around so if I am entering the race I am there to try and give it a crack.”
Kelland O’Brien (InForm TMX Make) is another rider stepping up from the U23 ranks who could also prove a podium contender this year. He came second to his teammate Plapp in the U23 event last year.
Cyclingnews will have all the latest reports, results and news from the Australian Road Championships over the coming days, so be sure to follow what is set to be exciting racing with plenty of room for surprises.
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