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1st Tour of Ireland - 2.1

Ireland, August 22-26, 2007

Tour of Ireland is back

By Shane Stokes

Current Irish Road Race Champion David O'Loughlin (Navigators Insurance)
Photo ©: Stephen McMahon
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It's been fifteen years since the last edition of the Nissan Classic was run but some of the world's big-name professionals are now arriving in the historic city of Kilkenny prior to the start of the Tour of Ireland there on Wednesday.

The newly-reincarnated 2.1 race gets underway with a 174 kilometre race between Kilkenny and Cork, and over five days and 914.2 kilometres the 16 teams will slug it out for stage wins plus the final race leader's yellow jersey. Three top-flight ProTour squads lead the charge, with the world's number one team CSC plus Unibet and T-Mobile sending some of their best riders to the race.

As confirmed last week, CSC will be led by the Schleck brothers Andy and Fränk. The former is just 22 years of age but he has already marked himself out as one of the strongest stage race riders in the sport. He surprised even his own team when he finished second overall in this year's Tour of Italy, conceding just 1 minute 55 seconds to final winner Danilo di Luca over the course of the three week event.

His brother is five years his senior and last year won both the Amstel Gold Classic and the Alpe d'Huez stage of the Tour de France. He was a fine 11th overall in Paris. This season, the highlight thus far is his success on the tough stage three summit finish at the Tour de Suisse. He also took third in the Liège – Bastogne – Liège classic, the Tour of Valencia and the national road race championship.

Stephen Roche competing in the 1987
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T-Mobile's challenge is likely to be led by Bernhard Eisel. The Austrian won two out of the three races plus the overall in the Commerce Bank Triple Crown Series in the US in June, and should be one of the quickest riders in the sprints.

He is likely to be challenged by Unibet's two fast men Baden Cooke and Jeremy Hunt. Both will be out to prove a point and to improve their chances of getting replacement contracts after the team announced that it would not continue in 2008. They've spent plenty of time on the sidelines this year, due at least partly to the ongoing power struggle between the UCI and the three Grand Tour organisers. A stage win would help considerably in finding a new deal.

Others keen to hit the line first include Ceramica Panaria Navigare's Maximiliano Richeze, winner this year of stages at the Tour de Langkawi, the Tour of Trentino and the Tour of Luxembourg. The Argentinean also finished in the top ten eight times at the Giro, including two second places and a third.

The very talented 20 year-old Edvald Boasson Hagen (Maxbo Bianchi) is on a confidence high after what has been an outstanding season, winning a clutch of races including both stages and the overall classification in the recent Paris-Corrèze. His team-mate Alexander Kristoff outsprinted no less than Thor Hushovd to win the Norwegian road race championship and could take more big scalps here.

Sean Kelly, possibly thinking of Stage 1 which passes through
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Rabobank Continental's Martijn Maaskant is another in great form; the Dutchman is currently leading the UCI Europe Tour after a very successful past few months, and will be joined at the Tour of Ireland by cyclo cross king Sven Nys. Borut Bozic fronts the LPR squad and is doubtlessly psyched after his Tour de Region Wallonne win.

DFL – Cyclingnews – Litespeed rider Daniel Lloyd is keen to move up a place after finishing second in both the prestigious Tour de Qinghai Lake in China and the British road race championships; in both instances he lost out by a slender, infuriating second. Danny Pate also has memories of a very close finish; in 2006 the former world under 23 TT champ was dead level on time with House in the FBD Insurance Rás, but lost out on stage placings. He's got the support of a solid Slipstream squad and will hope to make up for that disappointment by landing a win here.

Two previous winners of the FBD Insurance Rás will also aim for success. Chris Newton is the top dog in the Recycling.co.uk team while Kristian House could deliver for Navigators Insurance. Simon Bates (South Australia.com/AIS), Anthony Colby and double San Francisco GP victor Charles Dionne (both Colavita Sutter Home) are others to watch.

Baden Cooke is a potential winner
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Of course, the Irish also have their own riders to cheer on and there is a chance that at least one of them could do something significant. National time trial champion Nicolas Roche showed good form of late, finishing fifth in the Polynormande, seventh on stage two of the Tour de l'Ain and 16th on the summit finish of the same race. He normally competes for Crédit Agricole but has been released for the Irish national team for the race. Fellow ProTour rider Philip Deignan (Ag2r Prévoyance) also dons a green jersey and is building form after an early season hampered by injury. He was 63rd overall in the Tour of Germany but if his condition keeps rising, should ride well on the climbs in Ireland.

National road race champion David O'Loughlin will most likely lead the Navigators Insurance team. He was due to share that responsibility with Ciarán Power but the Waterford man has had to pull out due to a virus.

Another David, namely former Irish RR and TT champ McCann, is also here with a US based squad, Colavita Sutter Home. He hasn't yet hit top form this year due to illness and injury but if he finds peak condition, will be an aggressive, attacking competitor.

Ireland also has its own Continental team taking part. The Murphy and Gunn/Newlyn Group/M. Donnelly Sean Kelly team are keen to impress their sponsors and with Stephen Gallagher, Paídi O'Brien and Mark Cassidy all showing good form of late, the backers will be hoping for a good return on that investment.


Manager of Team DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed Eric Vanderaerden
Photo ©: Stephen McMahon
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The race will revisit many of the highlights of the Nissan Classic, which ran from 1985 to 1992. St. Patrick's Hill in Cork, perhaps the most famous 'wall' in the country, will feature, as will other Nissan staples such as the Healy Pass, Moll's Gap and Ladies View. It will also pass through Carrick-on-Suir, the hometown of four-time winner Sean Kelly.

Stage one will take the riders 174 kilometres from Kilkenny Castle to Cork, leaving the so-called Marble City at 12.35 and heading on to a hot-spot sprint in Kelly's backyard of Carrick on Suir (kilometre 39.1). Another follows half an hour later in Clonmel (61.8 km), then the riders will speed on towards the second category ascent of the Vee (kilometre 94.8). Shortly after the top there will be another bonus sprint in Lismore (kilometre 108.6), then the peloton will head through Midleton and on to Cork city. There one of the most spectacular sights in Irish racing history will be repeated as the riders strain to get up the wall-like St. Patrick's climb, which is an estimated 25 percent in severity. The first ascent will buckle the field; the second should break it, enabling the strongest riders to sprint it out for victory on South Mall.

A big emphasis on day two will once again be on guaranteeing a spectacle, but this time round it should be the scenery which impresses as much as the racing. Over the course of the 166-kilometre stage the riders will pass through the stunning Beara Peninsula, taking in the Healy Pass and Moll's Gap, two well-known climbs from Nissan Classic history.

It was business as usual for the mechanics
Photo ©: Stephen McMahon
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Fifty kilometres after the 13.00 start in Clonakilty the field will crest the summit of the third category Glenlough climb. Very soon after the top two bonus sprints will come in quick succession, one at Bantry (60.1 km) and the second at Glengarriff (kilometre 77.6). Almost immediately the lumpy parcours will see the riders hit the third category Derreenacarrin climb (kilometre 85.7), then drop back down and speed on towards what could be a decisive point of the stage.

Ranked as first category, the rugged Healy Pass comes 63 kilometres from the end of the stage and could act as the springboard for a winning move. It tops out at kilometre 103.1 and then just 11 kilometres later the riders will hit the top of the third category Knockreagh. While neither has the length nor the altitude of Alpine climbs, a determined group could stop clear on what are sluggishly heavy roads.

After another bonus sprint in Kenmare (kilometre 133.6) the riders will begin climbing the second category Moll's Gap, another very picturesque mountain which should make for great television pictures. The Irish tourism authority Bord Fáilte are the primary backers of the event and with coverage going to countries around the world, this consideration was of importance when selecting the route. It should also make for exciting racing, as the summit comes just 23 kilometres from the finish in Killarney.

Day three covers 194 kilometres from Tralee to Ennis, passing near the fort of legendary Irish king Brian Boru and through Limerick and Killaloe. The route sees it skirt the Shannon, Ireland's longest river, for much of the stage, then peel west toward the finish. It's flatter than the previous day's action but has intermediate sprints at Tarbert (kilometre 64.9), Foynes (kilometre 85.1) and Limerick city (kilometre 123.4), then the third category Cahir Mountain (kilometre 155.5) which comes less than an hour before the front-runners fight it out for stage honours.

Stephen Roche, David O'Loughlin (Navigators Insurance) and Sean Kelly.
Photo ©: Stephen McMahon
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The following day is the longest stage, a marathon 232.5-kilometre leg starting and finishing in Galway City and taking in the hugely picturesque areas of Cong, Westport and Leenáun. The films 'The Quiet Man' and 'The Field' were both made in this area of Ireland and with the stage being both long and lumpy, it's likely that other exciting camerawork will be produced.

Following an early-morning start in Galway's Eyre Square, the peloton will hit the second category Finny climb (kilometre 57) and then the first category Tourmakeady (kilometre 76.5), intermediate sprints in Westport (kilometre 98.1) and Louisburgh (kilometre 119.3) and the third category climbs at Leenáun (kilometre 152.3) and Maumturk (kilometre 167.8). From there remains the third intermediate gallop of the day in Oughterard (kilometre 187.9) and the second category ascent of Keeagh (kilometre 203.1), these coming in the buildup towards the final sprint in Salthill, Galway.

While it lacks the high peaks of day two, the length of this stage plus the fact that it is the penultimate day of racing – and thus crucially important to GC – means it is likely that this could be a very decisive part of the race.

The event will then be settled with a final 147.7-kilometre leg from Athlone to Dublin. The riders will slug it out on a route through Mullingar and Enfield, up the Strawberry Beds, though the Phoenix park and concluding with ten laps of a circuit of Merrion Square. It's mainly flat, lacking any categorised climbs, but intermediate sprints at Kinnegad (kilometre 56.4), Lucan (kilometre 104) and Merrion Square (kilometre 130.9) will spice things up before the final few circuits outside government buildings.


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Images by Stephen McMahon

Images by PhotoSport International