Toughest Tour in decades by 107.7km
CYCLING: Esteban Chaves will take on the toughest Herald Sun Tour course in decades as Australia's oldest stage race turns up the heat.
The three-time Grand Tour stage winner will use Victoria as the launching pad for a defining 2018 season, joining Orica-Scott for a January 31-February 4 event that pulls no punches.
The Herald Sun Tour, which will also features a two-stage women's race - will be Chaves' only Australian race as he looks to puts an injury-plagued 2017 season behind him.
The Colombian climber, who endured a long-term knee injury and broken shoulder blade this year, was itching to get stuck into the rugged 731.9km course.
"It's important to feel excited to get back on the bike and enjoy again," Chaves said.
"I'm in full-training now and happy to see every week the fitness and body returning step by step to what it can do. I'm excited, as always, to go back to Australia."
The 65th Herald Sun Tour will start with a 1.6km CBD prologue, but that January 31 twilight blast is the only thing short about a race route 107.7km longer than this year and 192.7km longer than the 2016 edition.
BELOW: CHECK OUT THE GRUELLING TOUR SCHEDULE
After a sprinter-friendly Stage 1 and a lumpy Stage 2, Chaves and co will face a weekend showdown in the hills from February 3-4.
The 218km Stage 3 slog from Mitchelton Winery to the Lake Mountain summit is the queen stage to be feared, with race director John Trevorrow saying the Herald Sun Tour hadn't seen a stage like it for years.
"I think they're getting too soft, so I thought I'd make it like the old days," Trevorrow joked.
"But I think it's the best stage we've put together in this race."
A Stage 5 battle at Kinglake, which features five 9km climbs - up from four this year - will provide the final-day fireworks.
But Team Sky and Chris Froome won't be firing any, with the four-time Tour de France winner opting for a different preparation after featuring in the last two editions.
"I can't put soft touch on it, we're disappointed. We very much wanted them to be here," Trevorrow said.
"He's riding the Giro d'Italia (in May) and Sky decided to have a different preparation this year, but hopefully they'll be back."
Trek-Segafredo is the World Tour team replacement, while some of the best female riders will also be on show in Healesville and the CBD time trial.
"A women's race is something we've always wanted to have and we wanted to make sure that when we did do it, it was up to the standard of the men and a really well presented event," Trevorrow said.
Minister for Tourism and Major Events, John Eren, said the Jayco Herald Sun Tour showcased the best of what Victoria has to offer.
"Sporting events like these aren't just great spectacles, they're a big driver of our visitor economy - and they offer up big opportunities for local businesses and local families," Eren said.
HERALD SUN TOUR 2018
Victoria, Jan 30-Feb 4
- Jan 31 Prologue 1.6km prologue Alexandra Gardens-Southbank
A smash-and-grab for the pure fast men, now shortened by 500m. Danny van Poppel (Team Sky) blazed around it at an average 49.6km/h this year.
- Feb 1 Stage 1 161.6km Colac-Warrnambool
Another one for the sprinters, with the peloton taken along the scenic Great Ocean Road and into Warrnambool for the first time since 2009.
- Feb 2 Stage 2 198.6km Warrnambool-Ballarat
The sprinters will fancy themselves, but the sting in the tail is Ballarat's Mount Buninyong, which could encourage the climbers and breakaway specialists to roll the dice.
- Feb 3 Stage 3 218km Mitchelton Winery-Lake Mountain
The defining - and biggest - day of the race. Picturesque, but brutal, the Strathbogie Ranges will soften the legs early before a 14km climb to Lake Mountain presents the climax.
- Feb 4 Stage 4 152.1km loop (5x31km laps, minus 2.9km neutral) Kinglake-Kinglake
An extra lap is added to this iconic loop for the mountain goats - with a 9km climb up to Kinglake, five times.
- Jan 30 Stage 1 123.5km Healesville-Healesville
The same demanding Yarra Ranges course Team Sky dominated in 2016, with the grind up Meyers Creek Road certain to split the peloton.
- Jan 31: 1.6km time trial Alexandra Gardens-Southbank
Like the men, one for the powerhouses. Could also decide the title should Stage 1 feature a close finish.