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10 riders to watch at the Santos Festival of Cycling

Richie Porte
Richie Porte (Ineos Grenadiers) (Image credit: Ineos Grenadiers)

The men’s and women’s Tour Down Under may be cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but the racing is still continuing in South Australia with a four-day National Road Series (NRS) event. The Santos Festival of Cycling NRS race will run from Thursday, January 21 to Sunday, January 24 with domestic riders getting the opportunity to take on a number of WorldTour and Women's WorldTour racers returning home for the Australian summer. Both the women’s and men's event will travel through the towns and countryside surrounding Adelaide, tackling the popular climb of Willunga Hill on stage 3 and finishing with a criterium on the outskirts of the city. 

Here are 10 riders to watch as the racing unfolds.

Richie Porte (Team Garmin Australia)

Always a fan favourite in South Australia, Richie Porte holds the impressive record of having won the Willunga climb stage six consecutive times. That’s enough to make him easily stand out as a rider to watch, even when surrounded by a field full of WorldTour teams. Though this year, as a rider who has stood on the Tour de France overall podium and has just a smattering of WorldTour riders around him, there will be absolutely nowhere to hide.

Porte will be heading up Team Garmin Australia, which was formed for the event, and he said the race was the primary reason he and his young family returned to Australia and underwent the two weeks of government-mandated hotel quarantine. With quick state border closures having left some stranded the rider, who has moved back to Ineos Grenadiers this year, has opted not to race in Australia's Road National Championships located in Victoria. That means this will be the only chance for local cycling fans to see him racing on home soil.

Lucas Hamilton (Team BikeExchange)

The Australian team doesn’t get many opportunities to race at home and with a new lead sponsor on board it is as important as ever for them to show the team colours. One of the riders they’ll be hoping will put them prominently on display, particularly on Willunga, will be Lucas Hamilton. The 24-year-old won a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico last year and finished in the top ten of the Giro d’Italia in multiple stages even though the team pulled out of the race after stage 9. The climber is one of the riders that could well follow in Richie Porte’s footsteps and become one of the nation's key Grand Tour hopes. There is an expectation that this is the year where he may step up and lead the team in a three-week race.

Cameron Meyer (Team BikeExchange)

Cameron Meyer (Mitchelton-Scott) is the 2020 Australian road race champion

Cameron Meyer after winning at the 2020 Australian Road Championships (Image credit: Con Chronis / Zac Williams)

A winner of the Tour Down Under back in 2011, this race will be Cameron Meyer’s last outing in the hard-earned green and gold jersey of the Australian National Road Champion, unless of course he wins the title again this year. The 33-year-old rider with a string of top-ten finishes in the national championships, including silver and bronze, shed tears of joy when he finally broke through to take the win so he “could proudly wear the green and gold jersey in Europe.” With the racing so interrupted in 2020 he didn’t get to wear it as much as expected so is bound to want to make the most of this final opportunity to display the spoils of his 2020 victory.

Brendan Johnston (CCS Cycling Team)

As far as the Australian-based riders go it pays not to look past the latest NRS victor, especially given the spectacular style with which Brendan Johnston took out the series win in 2020. The Canberra-based rider, also a successful mountain biker, started the year on the front foot winning the 104th edition of the 262-kilometre Melbourne to Warrnambool. After that first NRS event of the season the racing stalled because of COVID-19 and the nine-day Tweed Tour, starting late November, became the second and final event of the men's series. CCS Cycling came to the tour with a small team of four but a determination to defend Johnston’s lead. Consistent strong performances and a stand-out effort on stage 5 to pull back a threatening break clinched the overall. 

It was an event where the team gelled and rode out of their skins which delivered a growing confidence, CCS Cycling directeur sportif Matt Darling told Cyclingnews. “We are taking that confidence into this tour.” He said the aim will be to start out strong, with the first two stages suiting the team, to help Johnston secure a top ten position on the overall.

Chris Harper (Cervelo Tonsley Village)

The Jumbo Visma rider will be joining NRS team Cervelo Tonsley Village for the South Australian race. The 26-year-old will likely still feel at home in the NRS peloton, having shifted from Australian Continental squad Team BridgeLane to join the Dutch WorldTour outfit in 2020. A year of interrupted racing wasn’t quite the debut year at Jumbo Visma Harper may have hoped for but a number of top-ten results meant it was far from a disaster. Harper is another one to watch out for on the climbs and, as he is from South Australia, no doubt the roadside fans will be on his side.

Women's race

Grace Brown (Team BikeExchange)

Grace Brown leads Mitchelton-Scott teammate and leader Amanda Spratt

Grace Brown leading teammate Amanda Spratt in 2020 (Image credit: Con Chronis / Zac Williams)

Grace Brown has tasted success in South Australia before, firstly in 2018 when she was the only domestic rider to stand on a stage podium at the Women's Tour Down Under as she climbed her way to a third-place while racing for Holden Team Gusto. Then in 2019, freshly signed with Mitchelton Scott, Brown took a stage victory.

In 2020 the focus was on working to try and give team leader Amanda Spratt a chance to secure a fourth victory at the tour. This year, though, Brown's place in the team has shifted. Last year was a confidence and opportunity building one for the 28-year-old, as she took a place on a Women’s WorldTour podium for the first time with second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and then secured a win at Brabantse Pijl. Add that to the departure from the team of dominant Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten and Brown is now set to grasp the opportunities to lead.  Particularly with Spratt absent, the Santos Festival of Cycling seems the ideal place for her to do start.

"This year’s course seems well suited to me,” Brown told Cyclingnews in an interview at the start of the year. “I’ve not ridden but from looking at the profile it looks good for me and GC, with maybe a stage here or there. Willunga will be exciting.” 

Lucy Kennedy (Team BikeExchange)

Grace Brown may be a clear cut GC contender but Lucy Kennedy will undoubtedly be another Team BikeExchange rider to watch. Kennedy has found plenty of success the past two Australian summers, winning the Women’s Herald Sun Tour two years running plus taking second at both the women’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and in the overall classification of the Women’s Tour Down Under in 2019. The Willunga stage is one, in particular, to keep the eyes peeled for Kennedy as while the late-comer to cycling may have a tendency to sit on the back of the peloton at times that soon changes when the road turns up.

Sarah Gigante (Team Garmin Australia)

2019 road race champion Sarah Gigante (Team Tibco-SVB) took 18th place, but with it the silver medal in the under-23 competition

Sarah Gigante (Team Tibco-SVB) (Image credit: Con Chronis / Zac Williams)

If there ever was a rider who rivals should be wary of underestimating it is Sarah Gigante. The Victorian marked herself out as a rider of the future in 2018 when she took a clean sweep of the Under 19 Australian National Road titles. Gigante then took the nation’s best off-guard in 2019, claiming the elite and Under 23 national title in the road race, and in 2020 she took the time trial double.

With the changing circumstances Gigante, who signed up with Team Tibco-SVB at the start of 2020, has had limited racing the past year but what she has done in recent months is sure to put the competition on notice. Gigante walked away from the Tweed Tour, where she lined up to race as an individual, with the overall NRS victory, delivering a spectacular 55-kilometre solo break during one stage to defeat the tactics of the teams. Gigante also came second to Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio in the first Zwift UCI Cycling Esports World Championships in December.

Neve Bradbury (Team Garmin Australia)

Just 18 years of age and this will just be the first of many races where Neve Bradbury will be riding alongside seasoned professionals. After winning the Zwift Academy at the end of 2020, a spot on Canyon SRAM and a year of living and racing in Europe awaits. The young Melbourne rider, who secured her first NRS stage victory with Roxsolt Liv SRAM at the Tweed Tour, will be one to watch on the hills.

Ruby Roseman-Gannon (ARA Pro-Racing)

The 22-year-old NRS racer made it quite clear that she wouldn’t be intimidated by the presence of returning riders last year when she took on seasoned professional Chloe Hosking during the criterium at the Australian Road National Championships. In a close sprint to the line with Hosking Ruby Roseman-Gannon narrowly missed out on securing the elite jersey to go along with the Under 23 one. Roseman-Gannon has also built on her climbing ability, staying with a small group who favour the hilly terrain on Stage 3 of the NRS Tweed Tour late last year and then sprinting to stage victory. She also won the final stage and came second to Gigante in the NRS overall.

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