Four days of spectacular racing kicks off on January 5 at the Mars Cycling Australia Road National Championships with the nation's best cyclists fighting it out in criterium, road race and time trial disciplines in the historic centre of Ballarat, Victoria.
While the man deemed Australia's best, Cadel Evans, following his Tour de France victory in July of 2011 won't be there, there is no shortage of talent among the whopping 641 entries. In fact, Evans' last appearance at the championships was in 2005 when they were held in South Australia. Nine titles will be decided in 2012 with 376 riders (165 elite men, 86 elite and under 23 women and 125 under 23 men) vying for the honour of being declared Australian Champion.
Australia's National Road Championships will also be an all-Australian affair in 2012 with race organisers calling time on international entries with the decision to allow foreigners coming under no shortage of criticism in recent years.
In theory, the championships, held in Ballarat since 2007, will no longer be event for the European-based trade teams to dominate – however with this year's inclusion of GreenEdge who will field up to 16 of its own in the men's road race, it still may be a numbers game.
The Criterium Championship:
Racing begins in the twilight in the centre of Ballarat with the Criterium Championships, which has been a part of the Nationals since 2010. The course is a 1.1 kilometre hotdog-style circuit and includes an uphill burn.
First on the program is the men's under 23 event, raced over 33 kilometres. 2011 winner, Tasmania's Ben Grenda returns, as do three members of the top five - Japan Cup Criterium winner Tom Palmer (3rd) and Ben Hill (5th) with all expected to be in the mix when it comes down to the final sprint. Runner-up in 2011, Richard Lang and 4th-placed Phillip Grenfell both now compete at the elite level.
Other riders to watch include Palmer's trade teammate at Drapac, Pat Drapac, along with 2010 under 19 national road champion Jay McCarthy, Damien Howson, Nick Aitken, Lachlan Morton who showed plenty of aggression in last month's NSW Grand Prix Series, Luke Fetch and Alex Carver.
The elite and under 23 women will compete over the same distance with a small but focussed field of 31 riders set to take the start line on Sturt Street. Lauren Kitchen, who recently signed with Rabobank, upstaged her older rivals to take the crown in 2011 and her absence from the starters in 2012 leaves many other potential threats.
Winner in 2010, Chloe Hosking will be looking to get her season off to a great start after competing at the Jayco Bay Cycling Classic earlier in the week as will GreenEdge-AIS recruit Tiffany Cromwell, a proven performer in the discipline. Recent winners at the NSW Grand Prix Series, Sue Forsyth and Jessie Maclean and overall winner Kirsty Broun should also be considered as serious contenders, along with Grace Sulzberger, Belinda Goss and Jo Hogan.
While it's always easy to look at the top numbers on the start list and mark them down as the probable winners of an event, the elite men's 44 kilometre criterium may not play out quite as the form book would suggest.
Though Robbie McEwen will no doubt be keen to start his final year in the professional peloton on a high; Mark Renshaw will be fired up to add his name to the race palmares alongside his contemporaries and Jonathan Cantwell will be eager to defend his 2011 title in his new Saxo Bank kit, there are plenty of dark horses in the elite men's field.
And at least part of that comes down to the value of the race, which has become a sort of Holy Grail for domestic riders. The National Road Series has a heavy focus on criterium racing, and Cantwell showed last year that you don't have to ride in the WorldTour to take out a national title.
That's made many NRS teams hungry for a shot at the green and gold criterium jersey, particularly when one considers just how much new WorldTour squad GreenEdge are putting into the blue riband elite men's road race on Sunday - making it difficult to envisage an upset win there.
Genesys, Drapac, and GPM-Wilson racing have the strength in numbers, and with cards like Steele Von Hoff, Anthony Giacoppo, Phil Grenfell, Joel Pearson, Richard Lang, Ben Kersten and Dale Scarfe to play, the WorldTour riders will have to contend with the possibility of being boxed out in the finale particularly on a short and technical Ballarat circuit.
Jayco Bay Cycling Classic criterium sprints winner Bernard Sulzberger also can't be overlooked.
The Road Race Championship:
From its roots as a small unheralded event that took place with the elite men to a standalone 124 rider-strong race, it's clear the under 23 men's road race has come a long way.
And for good reason. The event has garnered a reputation of predicting that next big thing with past winners including Graeme Brown, Simon Gerrans, Rory Sutherland, Chris Sutton, Wes Sulzberger, Simon Clarke and Michael Hepburn, that's hardly surprising.
But it is the nature of racing that has really helped to raise the profile of the event. Unlike the elite men's road race, which has riders of all different conditions lining up, often with the eyes on bigger objectives in March or April, the under 23 race is the biggest event on any junior's calendar, and has led to some pretty irresistible racing over the years.
The 2012 edition will be no exception, with no shortage of quality amateur riders vying for their chance to be launched on a path to a professional career in a fierce 122.4 kilometre battle around Buninyong.
The Jayco-AIS squad are always hard not to look past, and have made it a habit of winning the under 23 national title. The team has plenty of options for any kind of race situation and will be looking to add another AIS graduate, perhaps Jay McCarthy, to the race palmares.
But the team will face stiff competition, not least from Drapac Cycling, who bring back last year's fifth place getter Tom Palmer.
Genesys Wealth Advisers will also be aggressive, particularly after only just being edged out in last year's race by the solo break of Ben Dyball - ironically Dyball will be riding for the team in 2012. They bring new recruits Sam Davis and Blake Hose to this year's race along with the talented Campbell Flakemore.
The real surprise packet however may be Lachlan Morton (Chipotle Development Team). Though Morton won't be able to rely on the support of a team in the race, he's shown time and time again that he's a dynamo when it comes to a hilly course.
Outsiders for the title include, Rohan Dennis, Ben Hill, Scott Law, Al Loutit, and Ben Grenda.
The women's road race which follows on Saturday afternoon, incorporating the under 23's brings together a classy field to fight it out at Mount Buninyong over 102 kilometres.
Alexis Rhodes breathed life into her pro career with a gutsy victory in 2011, and past winners include Kathy Watt, Tracey Gaudry, Olivia Gollan, Katie Mactier, Oenone Wood and Kate Bates since being introduced in 1992.
While Rhodes will return in 2012, it's likely that the biggest competition will come from some of the younger competitors, despite the fact that the defending champion is still only 27.
In a scenario mirrored in the men's event, it could well be a case of the members of new professional outfit, GreenEdge-AIS in a fight against the rest of the peloton to lure the green and gold bands to the kit for their debut season. First on that list is current Oceania road and 2011 national time trial champion, Shara Gillow. The Queenslander will have strong support in Tiffany Cromwell, Amanda Spratt, Jessie Maclean and Rowena Fry but with a break off the front likely to stay away, it could then come down to whoever has the best sprinting legs.
Decent time gaps are likely in the 61-woman field and so there will be more than a few ladies attempting to place themselves in the right break of the day. Jo Hogan, NRS champion Grace Sulzberger, Katherine O'Shea, Peta Mullens, 2011 under 23 champion Carlee Taylor and Lauren Rowney also considered strong contenders for the title.
In the men's race, which takes centre stage as the lone event on Sunday GreenEdge face their first real test. No one can doubt that a national title is high on the list of priorities but the question is: what is GreenEdge prepared to do in the name of the cause?
Breakaways have a habit of taking this race, and you can expect no shortage of them in 2012 with a lot of the smaller, domestic outfits super-keen to disrupt any plans GreenEdge may have. With murmurings of a negative race being played out around the tough 10 kilometre course, GreenEdge directeur sportif Matt White's recent comments to the Sydney Morning Herald that this will be a team that expects to benefit from the hard work of others in the peloton will be scrutinised.
If you want to win at Buninyong, everything needs to fall into place, regardless of form - something hot favourite Simon Gerrans discovered in 2011 when he was upset by Jack Bobridge in a brilliant performance.
Race director John Craven wasn't far off the truth when he said: "Any one of 50 riders could win the men's road race without surprising," a fair chunk of the 141-strong field.
Garmin-Cervelo recruit Nathan Haas has already made his intentions clear in regards to the national title and will be a fair chance despite lacking in team support. As dark horses go it's hard to look past Pat Shaw (Genesys Wealth Advisers) along with GPM-Wilson Racing pair Chris Jory and Phil Grenfell will also be looking to upset the heavy hitters.
The Time Trial Championship:
Considering the pedigree that will be on display on the final day of racing in Learmonth, spectators will be forgiven for thinking they're witnessing a world championship - rather than a national event.
With Jack Bobridge, Luke Durbridge, Cameron Meyer, Richie Porte, Michael Rogers and Adam Hansen - each and any one of whom could - and have won chrono efforts against the best in the world, all riding for the elite men's trial in the afternoon, spectators can look ahead to a fascinating finale to the championship.
The first event of the final day of racing however is the under 23 men's championship which will likely see Damien Howson and Jay McCarthy battle it out for the title. Nick Aitken and Rohan Dennis also have the history to back them up but it's hard to look past the Jayco-AIS duo of Howson and McCarthy to have the goods.
In the women's event last year's winner Shara Gillow and runner-up by a mere three seconds, Taryn Heather return with the latter hungry for the chance to settle the score. Gillow has had a stellar year in which she posted several strong results along the way to getting in the winning break of stage two of the Giro Donne.
Though the likes of Bridie O'Donnell, Carla Ryan, Ruth Corset and Heather are always handy in the the race of truth, this is Gillow's race to lose.
In the men's time trial, Cameron Meyer will be hoping to make himself the first treble winner since Nathan O'Neill enjoyed an almost untouched run in the mid-2000s, but with a renewed focus on the track ahead of his 2012 London Olympic bid, it may be the perfect time for a Rogers or a Hansen to re-assert themselves on the top step of the podium.
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