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Australian Open Road Championships - NE
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, January 7-11, 2009
By Les Clarke
This week's Australian Open Road Championships will undoubtedly demonstrate the depth of cycling in this nation. With some of the world's best contending for the honour of wearing the national champion's jersey throughout 2009, the race is set to be a typically tough test of attrition for the 134 starters.
In previous years the event has thrown up some surprises, although with a return to rural Victoria the stars have shone brightly. Matt Lloyd's performance in last year's championships illustrated the class this Victorian possesses, while Oenone Wood's second national title in her swansong year underlined the immense talent she brought to the ranks of Australian womens' cycling.
This year there are even more big names to light up the roads of Ballarat in the showcase event, the men's road race, with Michael Rogers making a welcome return to the championships. After battling illness in 2008 before making a stunning comeback with sixth in the Olympic Games road race, Rogers will be looking for support from Columbia teammates Adam Hansen and Mark Renshaw, who will line up for the 163.2km event.
This trio will be up against defending champion Lloyd, who further proved his one-day pedigree with a fourth place against a quality field in the Giro dell'Emilia last October. Another young Victorian who has impressed in Europe for the last two seasons, Trent Lowe, will also ride the championships. The Garmin-Slipstream rider is being touted as a future ProTour event winner and should perform well on home turf.
Wes Sulzberger, brother of national criterium champion Bernard and recent addition to Marc Madiot's Francaise des Jeux squad, will be another to watch if he's given enough leash. United States of America-based Rory Sutherland, third in last year's event, returns to Victoria to try and secure a national champion's jersey to wear during another campaign on the National Racing Calendar circuit. Add 2006 champion Will Walker to the mix and there's the recipe for some excellent racing - look out for all these riders should a break prevail on the testing Buninyong circuit.
There's also a bunch of fast sprinters who'll be pinning their hopes on that break being brought back - the likes of Baden Cooke, Chris Sutton, Allan Davis and Hilton Clarke are all capable of bringing home the bacon in the form of the national champion's jersey, should the opportunity present itself.
The narrative of the women's road race may be decided on the style in which Judith Arndt rides; Germany's 2004 Olympic Games silver medallist will join a field of 54 that includes her teammate Alexis Rhodes. Rhodes herself is a good chance of taking the crown should the conditions suit the gutsy South Australian.
They'll be kept honest by the likes of Rochelle Gilmore, who is one of the most experienced riders amongst the Australian women, and Jenny McPherson, the Victorian who continues to prove that age doesn't do too much to slow her down. There are also a bunch of surprise packets, including 2007 national TT champion Carla Ryan, Ruth Corset and Vicki Whitelaw. Without the dominant Bates sisters (Natalie has retired whilst Kate won't be riding the championships), the women's race should be aggressive and captivating.
Who can stop the SouthAustralia.com-AIS juggernaut in the U23 men's road race? With the likes of Travis Meyer, Jack Bobridge, Ben King and Will Ford amongst its ranks, it will take a big effort to topple one of these riders for the crown of best espoir in Australia. Chris Jory, Tim Roe or Tom Palmer may have something to say about the outcome - they're amongst the talented contenders making the trip to Ballarat. Meanwhile Rock Racing's young bullet Rashaan Bahati may find the climbing a little too tough to get maximum traction from his outing with the Aussie kids.
Trialling times for class of '09
Before any of the two races there are the time trials to be run, with the aforementioned Ryan returning for the women's event, and defending champion Bridie O'Donnell lining up for the 28km test against the clock. They'll be up against the evergreen Kathryn Watt, the versatile Vicki Whitelaw and new girl on the block, Josephine Tomic.
Despite being only 18 years old, Tomic has proven to be one fast customer, winning junior world championship crowns in the individual pursuit and recently taking the first stage of the Jayco Bay Criterium Series. She'll be riding in the Under 23 category, but don't be surprised if her time eclipses that of her older competitors and we find her on the top step of the podium in the younger womens' division.
The men's time trial may be a sky blue affair, with triple TT world champion Michael Rogers taking on defending national champion and Columbia teammate Adam Hansen over the 39km course that offers plenty of climbing per lap. That factor makes Rogers a better chance on paper due to his better climbing ability - this has come in recent years as he has focused on developing into a general classification rider. Look for these two to push each other hard in the Ballarat heat.
There's no Nathan O'Neill in 2009, as was the case last year, which should leave the door open somewhat for the likes of Cameron Wurf, or O'Neill's former teammate and runner up in 2007 and '08, Rory Sutherland. It's hard to look past Rogers and Hansen, although as has been the case in previous years, the form of the favourites isn't always a foregone conclusion in the early months of the year.
With all that in mind, let the battle for the green and gold begin!