By Karen Forman, cyclingnews.com correspondent
The Skilled Geelong Bay Cycling Classic has been hailed an all important key to the fitness of several of Australia's international road riders as they prepare to rejoin their teams overseas for the European racing season.
Newly crowned 2001 Cyclist of the Year, Stuart O'Grady, told the launch of the 2002 event at Melbourne's Crown Casino on December 17 that Australian domestic fixtures like the five-day "Bay Classic" provided crucial conditioning, race fitness and tactical fine tuning for pro riders.
"The obvious thing is to try to win but at the same time (competing in events like this) gives you something to take back to Europe with you," he said.
O'Grady, who held both the leader's yellow and the sprinter's green jerseys in the 2001 Tour de France, will be one of five of Australia's top road riders contesting the criterium event, which begins January 2 in Rye, continues January 3 at Barwon Heads, January 4 at Geelong, January 5 at Port Arlington and concludes on January 6 at the Crown Casino complex.
Defending champion Robbie McEwen will be going for his fourth title, while stage winner in the Giro d'Italia David McKenzie will be doing his utmost to take the winner's jersey to Europe to mark the arrival of Australia's new trade team, iteamNova.
Olympic madison gold medalist, Scott McGrory, fresh from winning four Six Day races in Europe, is also looking to continue his fantastic form, hoping to clinch an event he has not yet conquered. In the women's event, World Cup champion and 2001 Australian Female Road Cyclist of the Year, Anna Millward will be seeking a fifth title.
They will be joined by what race director John Trevorrow believes is the best international group ever to compete in the 13 year history of the race.
The lineup of 14 internationals includes Italian Adriano Baffi (Mapei-QuickStep), a top sprinter who has won more than 100 races during his career, compatriots Enzo Melloni and Diego Zanardo, Englishmen Jeremy Hunt, Russell Downing, Tim Moreley and Joby Ingram, Sion Jones from Wales, Kiwis Graeme Miller and Greg Henderson, Czech Tomas Buchacek and Dutch Olympians John Den Braber and Jens Mouris.
"The Skilled Geelong Bay Classic is gaining a global reputation as a great event that is now being used by many international riders and our own overseas based Australian riders as a major part of their New Year preparations for the European cycling season," Trevorrow said.
"We have the best field ever...we say that every year but it keeps getting bigger every year. "When we first started we were struggling to get top overseas riders here. Now we are getting them but we don't need them...because we have so many of our own guys doing well on the international scene. It's going to be a great series."
The Australian riders admit it's going to be tough. "It's always tough," O'Grady said. "But you gain a lot of experience through racing at home. I have been trying to get my base together since December and obviously this year (I will be) trying to win."
He said obviously he and other Australian pros felt more pressure to perform well when competing on home turf - which ultimately provides even better racing for riders and spectators alike. "You can't just relax and chill out because everyone expects you to do well," he said.
O'Grady will follow the Bay event with the Australian road nationals, where he will "try to take the jersey" before returning to Europe to the French team he has spent seven years with, on January 24. He said he would be a Commonwealth Games contender on the road, but not the track, due to its clash with the final stages of the Tour de France.
McGrory, still on a high after taking gold in front of a home crowd during the Sydney 2000 Olympics, said the Bay Classic would kick off the second part of the Euro track season for him. "I had a very good second half of the year," he said. "I gathered things around in time to be good for the Euro track season, which was what Mapei had planned for me... out of five six days, I won four of them."
He will leave for Europe after the final criterium, missing the road nationals. And then? "Commonwealth Games - yes, I want to do everything, he said. The Commonwealth Games are the next step to the next Olympics..."
Certainly, top performers in the Skilled Geelong Bay Classic will get plenty of coverage. The 2002 event will be seen by a worldwide audience of more than 250 million viewers, thanks to a special television broadcast package negotiated by Summer of Cycling. As well as being covered nationally through Channel 10's Sports Tonight program, Trevorrow, who is Summer of Cycling director, will produce two one-hour specials covering the men's and women's events that include visual postcards of each location.
It's a prospect that excites naming rights sponsor, the City of Greater Geelong, which has joined Australia's largest diversified services company, Skilled Engineering, as its sponsorship partner, for the first time. Councillor for major events, Shane Dowling, said Geelong was the perfect location for the event and would provide a spectacular backdrop for the action.
"With a worldwide television audience of some 250 million people, the beauty of Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula will be on show to the world," he told the launch. "It's a great opportunity for us to reach a global market and to show why the city and surrounding region is gaining a great reputation as a major events venue."
O'Grady said the nature of the event would contribute to the interest. "Criteriums are always exciting and fast, with riders flashing by on every lap and sharp corners, while in a road race, people can wait all day to see the riders just flash by."
McEwen, meanwhile, said he believed it was important for pro-riders to support events at home. "Like the other guys I find it is very important for us to promote our sport the best we can...the more the better," he said.
He said criteriums were best raced by "getting at the front, staying at the front and just going as hard as you can, almost switching off and trying to finish it off."
The criterium event is the first leg of the three-race Skilled International Series, which culminates with the Skilled Tour of Tasmania in late February.
Men 2001 Robbie McEwen (Aus)