BUNINYONG, Australia (VN) — The sight of the Aussie peloton shredding it on the Mount Buninyong circuit at the Australian road championships on a stinking hot Sunday may well worry Europeans preparing for the Santos Tour Down Under.
The 183.6-kilometer race, won by 22-year-old neo-pro Miles Scotson of BMC Racing ahead of Simon Gerrans of Orica – Scott and Nathan Haas of Dimension Data, was as exciting as it was hard. Their form, and that of so many riders in the race who will now head to Adelaide for the TDU, should be regarded as a warning to the event’s international entries that they are in store for another fast and furious opening to the WorldTour.
The strong early season form of Australia’s top professional road racers is no accident. The national road championships were held the week after the annual “Summer of Cycling” began with the high octane intensity of the Mitchelton Bay Cycling classic criterium series in Victoria from January 1-3.
Don’t be fooled. The “Bay crits” series is no exhibition. It lights the fire for an explosive contest on wheels that Sunday’s national road race championship showcased. And rest assured, there is no shortage of motivation from the riders who race there and backed up for the Australian road titles.
The domestic professionals, who are at a new peak after having recovered from the National Road Series and resumed training, are always desperate to try to get one over the international-based Aussies — many of them on WorldTour and Pro Continental teams. While the overseas-based Aussies are under pressure to make sure the national champion’s jersey is worn by one of them for the season and not by a rider in the NRS or one based in Australia, they will dig as deep as they ever will to win it.
But for them, it is also the start of another long and tough year. And tackling the Australian calendar that includes the Tour Down Under (January 14-22), the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race that is now a WorldTour race (January 29), and the Herald-Sun Tour (February 1-5) with such good form and so vigorously, so early exposes them to a major risk. That risk is early season burnout and a form slump in Europe come April for the spring classics and early season tours.
It is a challenge that many Australian riders are conscious of.
Durbridge: ‘January is such a special thing’
Fully aware of this risk is Orica – Scott rider Luke Durbridge, one of the strongest riders in Sunday’s national title race following a second-place finish in last Thursday’s elite time trial behind South Australian Rohan Dennis of BMC, who did not race Sunday.
“It’s very difficult,” Durbridge said of managing early season form without running into the red by April. “One of the best options is staying in Europe for as long as you can in the off-season so you just stay away from the Aussie summer.
“If I go home to Perth I get fit too quick. There are bunch rides, there’s my mates … there’s just five or six hours [riding] a day and that’s what you grew up doing. And January is such a special thing for all [the] Australians,” he continued. “You probably wouldn’t understand it if you were a European rider … to understand why you can go at threshold at the first ‘Bay Crit’ on the first of January. They would probably throw up if they heard that, but we just love it.
“That’s why I think the best option really is to stay in Europe [longer], stay away from it, and then come back [to Australia] and try to take the focus off it. But even then, I have tried to take the focus off it and still find myself here [at the national road championships], giving it a red-hot crack.”
Dennis is aware of the pitfall of being too strong, too early. Despite his convincing national time trial win, he said he came into it without the usual level of intensity in his training: “If you come in absolutely flying you have got that risk of hitting that absolute hole … of boring in and boring in and going into a bigger hole when you really need to be firing.”
“We have been pretty conscious about that with my training,” Dennis explained further. “That’s why I have not been doing the specific high intensity work for the time trial. This [result] is a lot more [about] base. The specific stuff is quite minimal at the moment. It’s good to get this out of the way and be basically going the way I was last year and lighter and stronger for road races.”
Gerrans: ‘Have a rest before you need it’
Gerrans, who at 36 years old is one of the peloton’s more seasoned professionals, has often won races in January and February and likewise throughout the year — although not without having to learn through trial and error about handling form management.
“A real key that I have learned over the past couple of years [is that] you’ve actually got to have a rest before you need it,” said Gerrans, who hopes to extend his record of Tour Down Under wins to five and will take his first break after the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the Herald Sun Tour.
“If you try to drag your form out too long, to the point where you are getting tired and your form is disappearing, you’ve gone too far and it’s very hard to bounce back from that.
“I guess the key in that [is] if you want to be greedy in how many times you come into form in a season, you can’t be too greedy in how long to try to hold that form for.
“The thing is not to be tempted to drag that form out for too long. Go for that goal and whether it goes good, bad, or otherwise, after it you have a rest … reset and go again.”
Ewan: ‘It has a lot to do with your coach’
Gerrans’s mantra is very much that of the Orica – Scott team whose younger riders such as 22-year-old sprint star Caleb Ewan find their form and workload is monitored very closely.
Ewan, now in his third year as a professional in which he plans a return to the Giro d’Italia, said his program last year compared to his rookie year in 2015 included “more specific goals to target, and my training was a bit more structured with peaks and lows and that kind of thing.”
“This year will be very much the same. I will try to peak for this start of the season and then maybe bring it down a little and come back up for some classics and after that, maybe rest and come back up for the Giro. It has a lot to do with your coach and how he manages your training … to come down at the right time and obviously, come up as well.”