A race of attrition

Any race that takes part on a multi-lap circuit plays out much differently than if it were held on one big loop course. Why? Because when riders get dropped they usually pull out soon after.

It comes down to the fact that a short circuit means being lapped is a near certainty if you’re off the back. There’s also the fact that it’s humiliating to ride past your friends and family multiple times after you’ve been dropped. I remember getting dropped once trying to finish and a bunch of rowdy fans yelling at me, “this isn’t the Audex!” I thought, “they’re right. I’m done!”

Because dropped riders almost always pull out there’s never really a chance for a chase group to assemble. And even it if did, a course like the one used for the nationals road race — up and down with barely any flat — means an organised chase group has little chance of catching the peloton.

This is why these nationals road race is often described as “a race of attrition” — the winner comes from a select group of the last riders standing. If you can’t stick with the leaders as the pace goes up, it’s race over.

The elite men will do 18 laps of the 10.2km circuit while the elite women will do 10.

The elite men will do 18 laps of the 10.2km circuit while the elite women will do 10.

The pro effect

As with any race, it’s the riders who make it hard, not necessarily the course. In past years we’ve seen the men’s road races go hard right from the gun with dozens of riders getting dropped within the first or second lap. In other years the first 10 laps have been a relatively easy stroll. But it’s when the pace starts to lift in the closing stages of the race that the professional riders really start to shine.

Gaps start to open (sometimes created intentionally by the pro riders) and you have to put yourself into the red to bridge the gap. Not long after you’re chasing on the descent rather than recovering. Riders at the front don’t experience the concertina effect, but being at the front is easier said than done.

There is an implicit pecking order and if you show the slightest sign of weakness, nobody will let you have a wheel and you’ll be relegated to the back within seconds.

Once you start to fatigue it gets most difficult to stay with the pace in the lead up to the KOM. This section of climbing only reaches 8% or so, but after 100km it is a struggle to keep pushing 400 watts up that pinch. That’s where the smaller climbers come into their own, dancing on the pedals while the heavier riders need to stand up on the pedals and give it their all. Guys like Matty Lloyd are phenomenal on this terrain.

Almost all of the climbing comes in the opening kilometres of the circuit. From the top of the climb it's more or less downhill all the way to the finish.

Almost all of the climbing comes in the opening kilometres of the circuit. From the top of the climb it’s more or less downhill all the way to the finish.

Who the course suits

Despite the starring role of the Mt. Buninyong climb, the Australian national championships road race generally isn’t won by pure climbers. In fact, the only pure climber I can think of who has won the men’s road race on this course is Matty Lloyd (in 2008). The rest of the winners have been all-rounders. Even Robbie McEwen won here in 2005 (after Nathan O’Neill dragged him around in a breakaway, but that’s a story for another time).

The same is essentially true in the women’s road race. Of the seven women to win on the Buninyong circuit since the race returned there in 2007, none of them would be considered pure climbers.

We’ve often seen that the winner in the men’s race comes from a solo move. Darren Lapthorne (2007), Matty Lloyd (2008), Jack Bobridge (2011), and Luke Durbridge (2013) all attacked within the final 20km and made it to the finish alone. Other wins came from small moves that happened near the end.

Simon Gerrans came across the line ahead of Richie Porte and Matty Lloyd in 2012 and in 2009 Peter McDonald managed to beat Columbia-High Road’s Mick Rogers and Adam Hansen in a $10,000 deal that didn’t go to plan for Rogers.

Simon Gerrans wins the national championship road race in 2012 ahead of Matty Lloyd and Richie Porte.

Simon Gerrans wins the national championship road race in 2012 ahead of Matty Lloyd and Richie Porte.

History shows that the women’s road races are won solo or in small groups as well. Gracie Elvin won last year after out-sprinting the remainder of a small group, Amanda Spratt won in 2012 after launching a solo attack with 30km to go, Alexis Rhodes took out the 2011 title from a group of six, and so on.

Course changes

Last year Cycling Australia experimented with changes to the road race course to include laps of a flatter 27km loop before taking in the traditional Mt. Buninyong loop.

In the men’s race, for example, the riders did three laps of the easier circuit before taking on 11 laps of the 10.2km Mt. Buninyong circuit to finish the race. This resulted in a longer race than usual — close to 200km.

This time around Cycling Australia have done away with the bigger opening loops and reverted to simple laps of the 10.2km circuit. This means a race that’s roughly 20km shorter for the men and 5km shorter for the women, but that’s tougher on paper thanks to a lack of flatter earlier kilometres.

So how will the races unfold this weekend?

Elite men’s road race

Cadel Evans has confirmed he’ll be there come Sunday morning and the 2011 Tour de France winner doesn’t often race to make up the numbers. However, he’s been downplaying his chances for the win. Richie Porte has ridden well on the Buninyong circuit in the past and you’d expect him to be in the mix in the final stages of the race as well.

Orica-GreenEDGE has any number of riders who could win, but Luke Durbridge is looking on form at the moment (although he pulled out of the last Bay Crit from illness and was upstaged by his teammate Michael Hepburn in the ITT earlier this week).

Could it be success for Cadel Evans, who's racing his first national championships since 2005?

Could it be success for Cadel Evans, who’s racing his first national championships since 2005

The inside word is that Simon Gerrans is in red-hot form right how after a fractured hip at the Vuelta a Espana forced him to abandon and also miss the World Championships which brought his offseason forward. However, last year Gerro began his build up to the Ardennes Classics a little later in the season than usual and there’s no word if that’s what he’s doing again.

Matty Lloyd, who recently signed with team Jelly Belly, has been training like a mad man and shouldn’t be discounted given the good form he’s shown on the Buninyong circuit. And David Tanner has supposedly been putting in the hard yards and could well be in the mix.

Drapac will be the wrench in everyone’s plans. They have a stacked squad this year after registering as a Pro-Conti team and they’ve shown that they can mix it up with the World Tour riders (winning with McDonald 2009 and Lapthorne 2007).

One thing working in Drapac’s favour is that the whole team has been training together for the past 10 days and with this being one of their most important races of the year, they can afford to peak this early in the season. WorldTour riders have a long year ahead of them and having peak form this early is not a priority.

But all things considered, we like Cadel Evans for the win on Sunday, even though he’s well outnumbered.

The women’s road race

To find out about how the women’s race might unfold we spoke to last year’s winner Gracie Elvin (Orica-AIS). Gracie suggested that the change of course could have a couple of different effects.

“I think the change back to only small laps this year will scare a lot of the riders and they will just try to sit in and last as long as possible. On the other hand the field of women is probably the strongest it’s ever been and the race will be on from the start.”

By Gracie’s reckoning Tiffany Cromwell goes into the race as the red-hot favourite having shown solid form at the Bay Crits and in the nationals ITT earlier in the week. As a pure climber the course suits Cromwell to a tee.

But there are plenty of other riders that could be in the mix.

“Katrin Garfoot will be one to watch after she dominated the NRS last year”, Gracie told us. “Jo Hogan also has a point to prove [ed. after finishing second to Gracie last year] and has been training well.”

Tiff Cromwell goes into the women's road race as the favourite.

Tiff Cromwell goes into the women’s road race as the favourite.

We asked Gracie how she was feeling about defending her title — a question she’s been asked a lot in recent months.

“I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself and trust my instincts once I am in the race. Of course I would love to win again, but I’m not a diva and I will ride to support one of my team mates if they are in a winning position.”

For us here at CyclingTips, Carlee Taylor is one to watch. She could well be cast in a support role for her Orica-AIS teammates, depending on how the race unfolds, but the South Australian showed at the world championships in September that she can match it with the best on a hilly circuit. She also won the U23 women’s race at Buninyong in 2011 so we know she races well on this course.

What it all means

There’s no doubt winning the national championship road race is the perfect way to start off the season, but it can be far more than just a confidence booster.

National champions in men’s racing often get a bonus in their contract (often 25,000 euros) for the win, not to mention the honour of wearing their national colours throughout the season.

Simon Gerrans wins Milan-San Remo in 2012 while wearing the green and gold stripes of the Australian national road race champion.

Simon Gerrans wins Milan-San Remo in 2012 while wearing the green and gold stripes of the Australian national road race champion.

While there are rarely (if ever) any financial bonuses for a woman who wins a national championship, there are other flow-on effects, as Gracie Elvin told us.

“Winning the national champs is a big deal for the women because it usually has a big influence on national team selection for worlds, Commonwealth and Olympic Games. Unlike the men who have the Tour de France and many other big races, those three events are the pinnacle for the women.”

***
So who’s your pick for the nationals road races and how do you think the races will unfold?

Days and times

Saturday

– 9:00am: U23 Men’s Road Race (132.6km – 13 x 10.2km laps)
– 1:30pm: Elite & U23 Women’s Road Race (102km – 10 x 10.2km laps)

Sunday

– 11:30am: Elite Men’s Road Race (183.6km – 18 x 10.2km laps)