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Australian Open Road Championships - CN

Mt Torrens, Australia, January 11-14, 2006


So much to play for in 2006

Preview by Gerard Knapp and Les Clarke

Robbie McEwen (Lotto)
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As Australia's premier road riders converge upon Adelaide, South Australia, the second week of January provides an opportunity for the first serious hitout in 2006 for any significant group of road cyclists of any nation. Given Australia's increasing prominence in world cycling, chances are there'll be more than just local media attention on the outcome of the Australian Open Road Championships (AORC).

The AORC road races had developed into the country's premier one-day races in terms of the quality of riders, and this year there are record numbers of entries. In recent years they'd become a slug-fest between the top Australian cyclists - but this year, there is a different focus for both the men and women.

The women's field will be concentrating on selection for the Commonwealth Games - riders such as World Cup champion Oenone Wood, Katie Mactier and Sara Carrigan will be looking to secure a spot for the Games, to be held in Melbourne in March. Prior to the Commonwealth Games, however, is the first round of the the women's World Cup in Geelong, the Geelong Tour, and then the next round of the World Cup in New Zealand.

Lorian Graham (QAS)
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Last year's road champion, Queensland's Lorian Graham, will not be able to defend her title as she is still recovering from injuries sustained in the major training accident in Germany last July. But a return to the road is on the cards for Graham, who is surely inspired by the dramatic return to racing by her AIS team-mates from that incident, Alexis Rhodes and Kate Nichols. Last week, Rhodes staggered the Australian cycling community with her brave, solo attack in round three of the Jayco Bay Classic to take out the Australian Criterium Championship, less than six months after she was put into hospital by that out-of-control car in Germany.

Her effort - and the speedy recovery of the five survivors of the tragedy that took the life of Amy Gillett - has inspired the Australian peloton, so it's expected the 97.5km women's road race will be the most hard-fought in years, especially given its importance in Commonwealth Games selection. Also, the earlier start to the season for the women, plus the fact that the senior riders will all receive clearance from their professional teams to compete in Melbourne, gives selectors an unqualified view of who's hot and in good form.

While there is no big paycheck at the end, there is the national champion's jersey and bragging rights that go with it in the men's race, something that's inspired extremely competitive racing in the recent past.

The 2005 elite men's road race saw riders such as Robbie McEwen, Stuart O'Grady, Alan Davis, Matt White and Cadel Evans slug it out in a survival of the fittest. (In fact, almost all of Australia's top professionals raced that day, except Mick Rogers and Nathan O'Neill.) The speed and intensity of the race shattered the field and led to a selection that would not be out of place in a major European race. The previous year it was the same kind of race, but this time FDJ's Matt Wilson put in an exceptional late attack to take the win. Behind Wilson was the cream of Australia's pro riders. In 2003, it was O'Grady versus Davis in the final sprint in another hard-fought edition.

While the AORC is the lead-up event to the Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under, it is a different kind of race. There is no such thing as rolling through - such is the quality of the racing it now leaves many of Australia's male professionals with a dilemma: to stand a chance of victory in the race for the 'green-and-gold' means they may have to peak more than once or at least, be in excellent form very early in the eason, making it a very long year indeed, especially when their European employers have set the star riders performance targets in April, May and July.

Here come the young guns!

William Walker (Australia)
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In 2006, it may be the year of the future, with young Rabobank pro and silver medallist in the U23 division of the 2005 World Road Race Championships in Madrid, Will Walker, considered a chance to mix it with the frontrunners in the senior men's race. (At the AORC, the U23 and senior men compete in the same 175.5km event. Even if an U23 rider was to take out the overall win, he would not be senior champion - that would be the first senior rider to cross the line.)

Confident, and with little to lose by attacking early and hard, Walker may prove to be the big winner among this year's contenders. Joining him in the U23 ranks is junior pursuit world champion Mark Jamieson. With a strong performance in last year's under 23 road world championship time trial, Jamieson will be another with nothing to lose.

Reinforcing the coming of the youth brigade is the fact that seasoned professionals such as Brad McGee, Henk Vogels, Cadel Evans and Stuart O'Grady won't be hitting the road for the elite men's race. With these riders and world time trial champion Michael Rogers choosing to pass on their shot at becoming Australian national champion, the young guns will be even more confident of staking their claim in what will double as qualification oppotunities for the Commonwealth Games squad.

Discussions have recently centred around the fact that riders such as McGee (see recent interview) and Michael Rogers (see story) won't be released for the Commonwealth Games, providing riders such as Walker, Jamieson and fellow Tasmanian Matt Goss with the opporuntity to represent their country at such a high level. All these factors combined should lead to fireworks - and some great performances - in the men's race.

So, with riders such as Rogers missing, training instead with his T-Mobile team in Majorca this week, other TT specialists such as Health Net's Nathan O'Neill (see recent interview) will be most likely suffering in the heat after a big effort on dead roads outside of Adelaide in the time trial.

It's one of the most unpredictable road races in several years, with many riders capable of a surprise result. Still, sprinters such as McEwen have a capacity to hit a peak several times in a season, and there is considerable pride - not to mention high visibility - in wearing the national champion's jersey throughout a European season.

Over the past week, many of Australia's top riders have been racing around the streets of Geelong, taking part in the Jayco Bay Classic, a five-day series of street criteriums. Current national road race champion Robbie McEwen picked up a win, while Unibet.com rider Baden Cooke had to settle for second in another round; once again, a feature of the men's racing was the emergence of younger riders.

Cooke was beaten to the Australian criterium champion's jersey by Richard England, another under 23 rider from NSW. McEwen had to use all his road-craft to better the aforementioned Walker in a two-up sprint, later paying huge compliments to Rabobank's latest potential race winner.

Expect the unexpected this week as the cream of Australia's road racers vye for honours in the national championships, with pride and a pretty jersey on the line for those that want it the most - the question is, just who will that be?