While the Northern Hemisphere shivered through ice, snow, mud, and darkness, Australian cycling had its first major event of the 2014 season this weekend. Simon Gerrans of Orica-GreenEdge claimed his second national champion’s jersey after winning a promoter’s dream three-man sprint from Cadel Evans and Richie Porte.
European and North American shivering through icy winters and polar vortices may struggle to picture the cream of Australian road cycling sweating it out under blazing sun, in January, for a national champion’s jersey. This early in the season? Really? In the sun?
The Australian road championships have become increasingly prominent over recent years, as the fields have grown in depth significantly. Despite being ridiculously early in the season for most Europe-based pros, it comes just a week before the UCI season kicks off with the Tour Down Under, which is obviously a big target for local riders, and the prestige of wearing the green and gold stripes for the entire 2014 season is a strong attraction.
With Evans and Porte both aiming for the Giro, and race schedules brought forward compared to 2013, the stage was set for an intriguing wrestle between the powerful Orica-GreenEdge and the best of the rest.
The result was one of the best races seen here in recent memory.
The Australian nationals course hasn’t changed for a number of years, a fact which has attracted some controversy. The issue is that the 10.2km circuit around Buninyong, on the outskirts of the former goldfields town of Ballarat, about 90 minutes drive north-west of Melbourne, is too hard for the sprinters.
Each of the 18 laps includes two short climbs one after the other: the Midland Highway is 1.4km at 6.4%; and Mt Buninyong Rd is 1.1km at 6.4%. This effectively means there’s a 2.5km climb every 15 minutes.
After about 15 of these climbs, in the withering dry heat of an Australian January, most pure sprinters in the world would be completely cooked, and the Australian ones are no exception. The course suits a punchy rider like Gerrans, or a powerful rider like 2013 winner Luke Durbridge, who is capable of simply riding opponents off his wheel.
Nevertheless, it’s a picturesque location and the long climb gives roadside spectators plenty of chances to get close to their heroes.
How the race panned out
The day’s major break came early, only a couple of laps into the 182km race. It was a big one, comprising 17 riders, including reigning champion Luke Durbridge.
Durbridge was joined by his team-mates Simon Clarke and Mitch Docker, but the big move came from Drapac, which put Adam Phelan, Lachlan Norris, Wes Sulzberger, Bernard Sulzberger, Malcolm Rudolph AND Will Clarke into the break.
It was a serious display of strength from the red and white squad, but it may have cost them later in the race, as the heat took its toll.
Other big hitters in the break included Adam Hansen and Steele Von Hoff.
In fact there were three former national champions in the group: Durbridge (2013), Travis Meyer (2010), and the big story of the day, Allan Iacuone, celebrating the 20th anniversary of his 1994 victory in fine style.
The group was only ever allowed a gap of around 3 minutes, as the Avanti Racing squad controlled the chase, but the gap started to fade in the final four laps.
With a couple of laps remaining, Orica-GreenEdge made the decision to wind up the break, probably spooked by its inability to drop sprinter Steele Von Hoff, despite an attack from Simon Clarke.
Five Orica-GreenEdge riders moved to the front of the peloton and swiftly brought everything back together with a lap remaining.
On the final ascent of Mt Buninyong, a flurry of attacks from Drapac’s former champion Darren Lapthorne, then Mark O’Brien of Avanti, provided a launch pad for Orica-GreenEdge to send Cameron Meyer up the road.
Cadel Evans followed, with Richie Porte and Gerrans counter-attacking and eventually bridging to Meyer. This was the decisive move of the race.
With his team-mate Meyer hammering away off the front, Gerrans was free to hold the wheels of Porte and Evans, conserving energy in the knowledge that he could easily outsprint the pair of them.
As Porte’s last-ditch attack was wound back, Gerrans slung around him and powered to his second national title, a couple of bike lengths ahead of Evans.
The estimated crowd of 23,000 spectators were captivated by the sight of three of Australia’s top cyclists going head to head in the final lap, and there was a real buzz around the normally sleepy town.
On a blazing hot day where shade was precious and cold beer tasted like salvation itself, spectators lined the climbs and yelled encouragement all day, retreating to the trees after each lap had passed.
While riders were dropping out of the race and heading for the nearest ice bucket en masse, the crowd on Mt Buninyong maintained its energy levels for the dash down the hill to the finish line.
It’s a great sign for Australian cycling and I’m sure it will continue at the Tour Down Under.
The Cadel Factor
The big drawcard was the appearance of Cadel Evans, a man who hasn’t raced the national titles since 2005, and indeed rarely races in his home country. Since his 2011 Tour de France win and the tremendous publicity that followed, even the most casual of Australian cycling fans will come out to see him race.
The fans weren’t disappointed, as he arrived looking fit and raced like a man who really wanted to win.
Cadel’s aim for 2014 is to win the Giro d’Italia, so there’s still a few months of hard work ahead, but to my eyes he looked leaner than in previous years.
He’s been spotted out training in the hills of Warrandyte, in Melbourne’s north-east, crushing the hopes and dreams of amateur cyclists as he whistles past effortlessly, and to me he looks like a man who’s had a really solid pre-season.
He’s racing the Tour Down Under next week, so we’ll get another look, but you heard it here first: Cadel is looking fit.
The Orica-GreenEdge Show?
Australia’s World Tour team is extremely popular here, and for good reason. But people are starting to ask if their dominance of the national title is ever going to end. Since the team’s inception in 2012, OGE has won every men’s road race, and it’s not hard to see why.
Australians love to back the underdog, and there’s a risk that constantly thumping its rivals in national championships (GreenEdge also won the women’s elite race with Gracie Elvin; the men’s U23 race with Caleb Ewan, who joins the team later this year; and the men’s time trial) turns a few fans off.
But what’s the alternative? Stop trying to win?
The team is stacked with powerful riders to suit every possible outcome on this nationals course, and with most of the other best riders spread across multiple teams, it’s extremely difficult to apply pressure to them.
Simply, no other team has such strength in depth. While Gerrans had a team of nine accomplices, Evans had no team-mates, and Porte had only Nathan Earle, who has just signed for his first season with Team Sky.
It was a similar story for the likes of Steele Von Hoff (Garmin-Sharp), Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol), Jack Bobridge and David Tanner (Belkin).
OGE played its Plan B first, putting multiple riders in the break.
When that tactic came up short, it could revert to Plan A – which Gerrans executed perfectly.
With plenty of firepower up its sleeve, it probably could’ve gone to Plans C, D, and E if it needed to. It’s going to take something really special to break the team’s stranglehold on this race.
That, or a move to a new course.
Drapac was the wildcard
Drapac Cycling is a name that is probably only familiar to readers in Australia and Asia. The team has re-acquired Pro Continental status for 2014, a step up for the Australian Continental team of previous years.
With the step up the team has expanded, and recruited heavily, notably including 2013 World Tour riders Travis Meyer and Wes Sulzberger from Orica-GreenEdge; Jonathan Cantwell from Saxo-Tinkoff; and Will Clarke from Argos-Shimano.
Throw in some of Australia’s best National Road Series riders, like Adam Phelan, Darren Lapthorne, Lachlan Norris, Robbie Hucker and Malcolm Rudolph, and it’s easy to see why the team was so aggressive in the race.
Indeed, with five riders in the break, and six finishing in the top 20, it’s more than fair to say that Drapac made its presence felt. However, I tend to wonder if it spent too much energy too early, and was left chasing the race in the latter stages as riders dropped off the pace.
Certainly the team was hoping for a podium, albeit there’s no shame in being beaten by Gerrans, Evans, and Porte. The fact is though, that this is probably the only team that can really mess with Orica-GreenEdge, in a systematic way at least, in future national championships.
Watch out for Drapac in the Tour Down Under, they’ve been upfront about their desire to animate the race in the style of Europcar at the Tour de France, win some stages, and hopefully earn themselves some invitations to major races.
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My race report from the 2014 Australian Road Nats, originally published on Crankpunk.