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Australian Open Road Championships - CN
Ballarat, Australia, January 9-January 12, 2008
By Greg Johnson
With the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games on the horizon, Australia's top cyclists will be out in force in Victoria's Ballarat for this week's Australian Open Road Championships as they vie for not just their respective titles, but also the opportunity to move closer to a possible berth in the Australian Olympic squad.
As a result of the Olympic qualification points on offer - not to mention the national champion jersey bonus made available to many of the Europe-based professionals from their trade teams - the national titles will feature a star-studded lineup this year.
Though limited to riders primarily from one country, it can seen as the unofficial 'start' of the professional road racing season, given there are UCI points on offer and the depth of talent lining up on the weekend.
The events will feature a whopping 367 riders across the six races, with nearly all of Australia's top riders and some international riders taking part in the event. The prospect of a tough showdown in every category has event organizer John Craven excited about the week ahead.
"Cadel Evans and Robbie McEwen are the only big names not there," Craven told The Courier. "The depth in Australian cycling is phenomenal. It's an overwhleming response."
"It's going to be a stunning spectacle," Craven added. "All the ingredients are there for some wonderful racing by Australia's best men and women," Craven said.
Weather will undoubtedly play a role in the outcome of this week's events, with the riders expected to be greeted with fine and hot conditions, starting with an anticipated 34 degrees C for Wednesday's Elite Women and Under 23 Men's Time Trial events.
Similar conditions are expected for the road races, with the U23 men and elite women's events to be held on Saturday, January 12, and then the elite men's 162.3km race on the Sunday.
The 10.2km Buninyong circuit is highly selective and the hard-fought road races usually ends with a select bunch fighting it out for the win. This year looks like it will be no different.
Craven said he's expecting a strong crowd to make the trek out to Ballarat from Melbourne, about a one hour drive north of the Victorian capital.
The Elite Men's Time Trial will see the first new jersey holder since Ben Day claimed the jersey in 2003, with reigning champion Nathan O'Neill unable to defend his jersey after testing positive to appetite suppressant Phentermine during last year's Tour of Elk Grove. Incidentally, Day is one of the top contenders to claim the jersey, with Adam Hansen already ruling himself out of the mix.
"My time trial training is not so good," Hansen said. "In fact, it is shocking! So my goal of doing well at nationals in that [event] is fading away. So my goal will shift from the time trial to the road race at the nationals. I will still enter the time trial, for experience, and there's nothing like an hour of pain, er, fun."
While he will be in the country and indeed even at the event, three time world champion time triallist Michael Rogers will not contest the Australia Elite Men's national title. Ironically the last time Rogers competed for his national time trial crown was in 2003, when he finished runner-up to Day. The High Road Sports rider will contest the Elite Men's road race on Sunday.
The Elite Women's Time Trial will feature a similar field of contenders as the road race, with defending champion Carla Ryan returning with hopes of again claiming top honours. The Queenslander won't have it easy, however, with Oenone Wood and Sara Carrigan both entered in the event, and both having already claimed the title on two previous occasions each.
Former Olympic road race gold medallist and Australian Women's Time Trial Champion, Kathy Watt, will also contest the event.
The women's field will have added motivation to set the 28 kilometre route alight, as the victor will receive an automatic nomination for the Olympic squad providing that they average 44.7 kilometres per hour or faster.
From comments at the Bay Classic held in Victoria last week, it appears that many of the top female riders are gunning for the ITT, given that a win and an average speed above 44.7kmh will result in automatic Olympics qualification. However, on the same course last year, the winner's average speed was 38.87kmh, so it's unlikely that qualifying average speed will be met.
U23 men's road race
Those who can't wait for Sunday's show down in the Elite Men's category needn't worry, as the battle for the Under 23 crown will be equally as fierce. In a promising sign of things to come, Australia's Under 23 riders are amongst the quickest in the world and most will be out to vie for the national title this Saturday.
Tasmania's Wesley Sulzberger is the favourite to claim the Under 23 category, having taken second place at the World Championships in Salzburg, Germany last September. Such is Sulzberger's might that many of the Elite Men's riders are likely breathing a sigh of relief that the 21 year-old is still racing the Under 23 category and not yet challenging them.
Despite Sulzberger's power the Tasmanian won't go unchallenged for the weekend's crown, with West Australian Travis Meyer not just a sensational track racer but, like brother Cameron, an incredibly talented roadie as well. The Meyer brothers stamped their claim on Australian road racing last October with Cameron leading a one-two general classification finish in the gruelling Tour of Tasmania.
The pair will be challenged by Victorians Simon Clarke and Zakkari Dempster while Tasmanian Matthew Goss and New South Wales' Dean Windsor will be hoping to make an impact on the race as well.