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One last visit to Mt. Buninyong

It's the end of an era for the Aussie Road Nationals.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 05.01.2024 Photography by
Matt de Neef
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In the sleepy Victorian town of Buninyong, just south of Ballarat, preparations are well underway. Roadside barriers are arriving, commentary stages are being built, and all the while a constant stream of cyclists flies past.

Normally home to around 4,000 residents, on one Sunday every January Buninyong swells considerably and is briefly transformed into the epicentre of Australian cycling: the home of the Nationals road race.

This time around, though, the vibe is a little different.

Construction crews prepare the finish line area …
… including a tent for TV commentators.

After 18 straight editions held here, and 21 of the last 23, Road Nats are leaving Ballarat and Buninyong. In 2025, the event will break free of its familiar moorings and set sail for another Australian population centre. The exact destination isn’t yet clear – that’ll be announced at some point after Sunday’s elite road races – but Perth appears to be the front-runner.

While the City of Ballarat is lamenting its loss, the move is a welcome change for many. Not least for the chance to have a different road race circuit.

While the Mt. Buninyong road race course has undergone several small variations over the years, its central feature – repeated ascents of a 2.8 km section of the Mt. Buninyong climb – has remained. It’s a climb that’s become etched in Aussie cycling folklore – the left turn at the roundabout in Buninyong to start the exposed climb up Midland Highway; the left turn onto Mt. Buninyong Road partway up where the road climbs stepwise through the trees; the pinchy section at the top where big crowds line the road.

Come Sunday the Mt. Buninyong climb will be lined with fans.

To those critical of Road Nats’ long tenure here, the course has long excluded pure sprinters from winning the green and gold. It’s a criticism grounded in some truth, and yet the Buninyong circuit has offered consistently entertaining and unpredictable racing, and some truly memorable victories along the way.

In just the past decade or so: a world-class men’s podium in 2014 featuring Simon Gerrans, Cadel Evans, and Richie Porte; Jack Bobridge’s breathtaking 90 km solo win in 2016; Shannon Malseed’s underdog victory in 2018; Sarah Gigante beating WorldTour pros as an 18-year-old in 2019.

Gigante winning in 2019. (Image: Matt de Neef / CyclingTips.com)

***

On this warm Friday morning, two days before the elite road races, there’s a sense of building anticipation on the slopes of Mt. Buninyong. The first of the campervans have arrived, securing prime real estate for the weekend’s racing. A raised platform is being built for the fixed TV camera that will track riders coming up the hill.

The stream of cyclists is constant here too – weekend warriors bobbing and weaving their way up the steepest slopes, aspiring future pros doing their best to look the part, actual pros not needing to try. When a six-strong men’s Jayco AlUla squad glides up the hill, in tight formation, their pedal strokes smooth and steady, its clear they’re WorldTour pros long before their jerseys are visible.

As ever it will be the elite men’s road race that rounds out the Road Nats carnival on Sunday afternoon – a 16-lap, 185 km battle that’s sure to be another fascinating affair. Newly crowned ITT champ Luke Plapp, now with Jayco AlUla, comes in the favourite to take his third-straight victory. He’d be the ninth Australia to win three or more, and the fourth to win three in a row. 

In previous wins, Plapp has been on his own; a lone Ineos Grenadiers rider free to tackle the race however he chose. This year he’ll have seven teammates which, in a strange way, might make things more complicated.

He told me yesterday he doesn’t care who wins as long as that rider is wearing a Jayco AlUla jersey. He told another reporter that fellow recruit Caleb Ewan is their team leader and that he, Plapp, believes this is the year Ewan can tame the Buninyong beast, after coming second to Heinrich Haussler here back in 2015.

Jayco AlUla might have swept the top four places in Thursday’s time trial, but it’s Sunday’s road race that the team will really want to win. It’s eluded them for the past couple years, thanks to Plapp, and having the green and gold bands back in Australia’s team will mean a lot. Of course, there are many who have other plans.

Jimmy Whelan, newly returned to the pro ranks with Q36.5, is always a threat on this course (three top-10s including second in 2022) and desperately wants to win. This year he’ll even have a couple teammates in Damien Howson and Cyrus Monk, rather that needing to do all the work himself.

Simon Clark (Israel-Premier Tech) was second here last year (his fourth top-10 without a win), one among several European-based pros who’ll be keen for a strong showing. Others include Matt Dinham, Chris Hamilton (both DSM-Firmenich PostNL) and Michael Storer (Tudor), to say nothing of the local semi-pros on teams like BridgeLane who tend to be flying this time of year.

There’s one variable for Sunday’s race that even the most seasoned Buninyong campaigners won’t be familiar with: the prospect of rain. If it’s rained on any elite Nationals road race in Buninyong since it was first held here in 2002, even the most knowledgeable observers can’t remember it. “We’ve had a couple of wet crits but I don’t recall a wet road race in Buninyong,” says long-time Road Nats commentator and walking cycling encyclopaedia, Matt Keenan.

With up to 20 mm of rain forecast – and the chance of a thunderstorm – expect the attrition rate to be higher, and for the course’s technical section through Federation University to come into sharper focus. A more accomplished writer might try to describe the forecast weather as some kind of climatic retribution for AusCycling moving Road Nats away from Ballarat.

A snapshot from the Bureau of Meterology website.

With the rain set to develop as Sunday goes on, it should be less of a factor in the elite and U23 women’s race, held a few hours before the men’s. It too should be a fascinating affair, with a stacked startlist tackling nine laps for a total of 104.4 km.

Now four-time ITT champ Grace Brown (FDJ-Suez) will again be in focus. She’s been close so many times on this course – third in 2018 and 2020, and second for the past three years – all without taking the top step. Earning the right to wear the green and gold in time trials and road races this year would come as a tremendous relief.

As in previous years, though, she’ll be the lone FDJ-Suez rider. And again she’ll be at the mercy of the bigger teams: the five-strong Jayco AlUla, and a Lidl-Trek trio that includes the ever-impressive Lauretta Hanson, and two former winners in Brodie Chapman (defending champ) and Amanda Spratt (2012, 2016, 2020). The superstitious might take note of the pattern in Spratt’s victories.

All eyes will also be on Sarah Gigante (AG Insurance-Soudal). Winner here five years ago in that remarkable solo ride, but a rider who’s had so much misfortune in recent years. In her first Nationals road race since 2021, she’ll be desperate for some success to help kickstart a new chapter in her career. Especially after her miserable experience in Thursday’s time trial.

Others will surely be in the conversation too: the likes of former winner Nicole Frain (Hess), 2023 National Road Series champion Emily Watts, BridgeLane recruit Matilda Raynolds, and WorldTour pro Neve Bradbury (Canyon-SRAM).

***

Back in the main street of Buninyong, the roadside barriers have now been set up. The event’s TV production crew is getting its broadcast van in position. Caterers are getting themselves organised. The flow of riders through town has slowed a little with the Nationals criteriums about to start up the road in Ballarat. Crowds along Sturt Street in the heart of the city will be significant, as they always are. But come Sunday, all eyes will be on Buninyong, for one last time.

There are whispers of Nationals coming back to Ballarat and Buninyong in the near future, possibly as early as 2028, after a three-year stint elsewhere. For now though, the end of an era is upon us and Road Nationals is about to change dramatically. But not before one last visit to the infamous Mt. Buninyong circuit.

Stay posted to Escape for coverage from Sunday’s elite road races. Follow the links for startlists for the elite and U23 women’s race, and the elite men’s race. Live TV coverage will be available in Australia via Fox Sports and SBS TV.

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