Ballarat > Ballarat 186.5km
Road racing is back! No more shuffling about the house trying to think up jobs to do, it’s time to get back in the preview chair and focus on the greatest sport in the world. Last year we witnessed a very different race to what normal occurs in Ballarat, this was mainly to do with BikeExchange not having a strong team at the race, but they’re back to normal this year. The start list is about as strong as I can remember, we’re only missing Jai Hindley from the ”big” Aussie stars, I’m delighted to see Matthews and Ewan make a long-awaited return.
Temperatures are due to go over 30 degrees, so it’s going to be a hot edition of the race. The wind is light and starts from the north-west but will swing round to be from the west for the second half of the race, which means a tailwind on the climb.
We should all know this well enough by now. All the focus is normally on Mount Buninyong, which is 2.9km at 5.2%, but the winning move rarely goes on the uphill. We have a technical section through the university, where Durbridge crashed a few years back, this shouldn’t be underestimated. Once we get into the final 50km, the winning move can really go at any point, the wise riders save their bullets for when everyone else is in the red.
Team Jayco AlUla aren’t messing about, they’re here to win back the jersey. They start with nine strong riders and seem to have all the bases covered. Durbridge and O’Brien cover the long-range attack, Harper is always good here and won’t be dropped on Buninyong, and then we have Bling. I’m delighted to see him changing up his schedule a bit and he’s not coming here to make up the numbers, he wants to win. Stopping this team will be incredibly difficult, mainly because the climb just isn’t hard enough to cause splits between the best in the bunch, but that won’t stop some from trying.
Caleb Ewan is also back after not being here for several years, and he has a couple of teammates to help. Drizners and Sweeny are good enough to help patrol the early stages, but Caleb is likely to be isolated deeper into the race, and that’s when you really need teammates.
As usual, Team BridgeLane arrive with numbers, but this year they lack someone with the quality to realistically challenge the world tour riders, but they’ll still be in the mix. They have decent riders in the squad, some of whom have gone well here in the past, the numerical advantage always gives them the upper hand compared to the big-name riders who are flying solo. Every move that goes will likely contain riders from Jayco and BridgeLane, chasing it down requires teammates, they are worth their weight in gold in a race like this.
Plapp, O’Connor, and Vine are all without teammates, but that didn’t stop Plapp from winning in 2022. That day he played a clever game, letting others do most of the work before catching everyone with a sucker punch, there’s no way he gets a free ride this time round. To win the race, they all know that Matthews and Ewan will need to be dropped, which means they need to set a fast pace on Buninyong as early in the race as possible. Consequentially, this means they’ll have fewer matches left when it comes to the business end of the race, they really are in an impossible position.
Last year, Plapp was the beneficiary of Harper and Durbridge going at it from early on, but as Jayco are much stronger this time round, including signing Harper, we are likely to get the race they want. If the right break goes in the first couple of laps it could go the distance, especially if it includes strong options from Jayco and BridgeLane and representation from Lotto. The first couple of laps will be crucial, the likes of O’Connor, Plapp and Vine will need to vigilant but also try to conserve as much as possible for later in the race, they really are in a tricky position. If a large break does go, they’ll hope that one of the local teams misses it and will chase, but this can’t be relied upon.
If one of these guys makes it into the break, you’ll quickly see Jayco pulling the plug, letting them burn matches and ride themselves out of the race, it’s just so bloody hard going up against a team that’s so strong in a race like this.
So, what’s going to happen? It’s going to be a hot day, which will only add to the level of difficulty. The world tour riders should have enough about them to ensure that Jayco don’t get a strong rider in the break, and someone will chase it down. The climbers will go hard on the climb, with Jayco lying in wait. When the bunch is slimmed down to around 40 riders the fun will start, as most of the domestiques will be dropped. This is when Jayco and BridgeLane will try to make their numbers count. Caleb will desperately hope that he’ll have someone left at this point, and so will the other solo riders, but it’s unlikely. The final 50km will be chaotic with lots of attacks until the right move disappears, you just need to hope to be in it!
The Preview Show
I’m joined by Chris Harper of Team Jayco AlUla to have a chat about the race.
Jayco AlUla – I see four potential winners in their team: O’Brien, Durbridge, Harper and Matthews. Durbridge is always flying at this time of year, he’s more than capable of winning with a long solo attack. O’Brien should have won here in 2021, but he cramped up in the sprint, he’s got some unfinished business in Ballarat. The same can be said about Chris Harper, he’s finished 2nd and 3rd here when riding against this team, he’ll find it much easier his time round riding with strong teammates. Then we have Bling, the standout rider in this field, there’s no chance he gets dropped on Buninyong. The race is Jayco’s to lose, but there’s no such thing as a certainty in a race like this.
BridgeLane – White and Christie-Johnston look like their best options, but a win for either would be a big surprise. As I’ve already explained, numbers mean they have a big chance of finishing on the podium, just not the top step.
Lucas Plapp – my sources tell me he had a pretty bad training crash in Tasmania. That was a couple of weeks ago, and he’s now recovered, but Plappy has missed some crucial training. I expect him to be good but not good enough to win. There you go, famous last words!
Ben O’Connor – I’ve heard he’s already in good form, but it’s highly unlikely that someone who is targeting the Tour de France will be on top form at this point. The other issue is the difficulty of Buninyong, it’s not hard enough for him to drop his main rivals.
Caleb Ewan – no one will want to take him to the line, that’s a problem. He’s good enough to be in the mix for the win, but it’s a tactically difficult race for him to win. Unfortunately, Caleb has been a little sick this week too, not ideal preparation for this race.
Simon Clarke – exactly the type of rider who could get away with a Jayco and BridgeLane rider and fight it out for the win. Clarke had a brilliant 2022, his stage win in the Tour de France was obviously a high point. His experience could be crucial in this race.
Chris Hamilton – rocks up every year and puts in a decent shift. Similar to Clarke, he could end up in a good position, if he plays his cards right. The Hurricane also has a decent kick on him.
Jimmy Whelan – second last year, when he benefitted from being the best BridgeLane rider. He isn’t with the team this time round, so it’s going to be much harder for him. He’s got the quality to challenge for the podium, but he’ll need to ride a perfect race.
Brendan Johnston – always goes well here and would love to better his third place from last year.
Jayco AlUla will win, they have an incredibly strong team and having numbers will make it far too hard for the other world tour riders in the race. Given his sprint finish, it’s set for Matthews to be saved for a sprint, so that means when everyone looks at him one of his teammates will disappear up the road and take the win.
I’ll take a win for Chris Harper; I think he’s due it.