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By Andrew Hood
After a way-too-long 15-year hiatus, the Tour of Ireland is back on the international racing calendar with a race worthy of one of Europe’s most colorful and rich cycling traditions.
Twenty years after Stephen Roche won cycling rare treble of the Giro, Tour and world title and more than a decade after Sean Kelly finally hung up his cleats, Irish cycling could see a big boost from the return of a popular national tour marking its return after the 1992 demise of the Nissan Classic.
A new generation of racers will be writing a new page in Irish cycling history with Wednesday’s start in Kilkenny and ending Sunday in Dublin.
“You always like riding in your own home ground and that is why it is great that Fáilte Ireland has come on board and supported this event. It is great that it gives Irish riders the chance to race back home, and also that it will encourage young people who are watching the television, watching the scenery, to perhaps get involved,” said Roche during a pre-race press conference Tuesday. “It can bring some extra pressure to the Irish riders because they know they have to perform in front of the home crowd. It can always be difficult in putting pressure on yourself, but it is also a great opportunity, too.”
The national tourism board is betting that cycling and the reborn Tour of Ireland will serve as a great way to promote Ireland’s lesser-known tourist attractions such as Killarney, Tralee and Galway. Despite doping woes that’s giving cycling a black eye on some fronts, the revival of the Irish tour and the birth of next month’s Tour of Missouri reveals that cycling remains a viable marketing platform.
“I think the television people would be very pleased with the route from a scenic point of view, which is what the whole thing is about. We are happy with that and we are very happy that the weather is starting to improve as well,” said event organizer Alan Rushton in a pre-race press conference Tuesday. “A lot of people here worked on the old Nissan Classic and we had gotten a lot of new faces as well, so it is a case of blending the two together. It is all come together fairly smoothly.”
Organizers, however, are hoping for something far simpler – good weather.
Cold rain and winter-like temperatures have spoiled much of Ireland’s already short summer season, but luck could be on the side of the peloton. Forecasters are calling for partly cloudy skies for most of the week following one of the rainiest months in recent Irish history.
Some 109 riders from 16 squads from Europe and the United States face off Wednesday in a five-stage affair across the rolling hills of southern and western Ireland.
Among the top names in the 16-team field are Andy and Frank Schleck. The Luxembourger brothers lead a strong Team CSC outfit that’s one of three ProTour teams in the race.
Team CSC manager Kim Andersen said the Schleck brothers aren’t here to win, but suggested another member of their seven-rider ProTour team leaders could be. Riders such as Marcus Ljungvist and Karsten Kroon could shine on the hilly route.
Bernhard Eisel and Aaron Olson lead T-Mobile while Baden Cooke and a strong Luis Pasamontes could give Unibet.com a good run in what will be its final season.
Cooke, for one, will be racing on untested legs after coming back from a high-speed crash at the Volta a Catalunya that required two surgeries to put him back together, but he told journalists Tuesday he’s back in top form now.
“I’m back at 100 percent now,” said Cooke, who raced Sunday in Hamburg. “When I came back I did some one-day races, which I obviously struggled in. Since then I have trained really hard and I was focusing on Hamburg on Sunday. I was in fifth wheel with 500 meters to go but clipped the barrier and broke my wheel. Otherwise I think I would have been right up there, so I am in good shape.”
Americans will not be under-represented Navigators Insurance Cycling, Team Slipstream and Colavita Sutter Home all bring motivated teams to the mix. Danny Pate leads a strong Slipstream squad while both Navigators and Colavita are boasting Irish captains, with David O’Loughlin leading Navigators and David McCann getting captain duties at Colavita.
Rabobank lines up with its aggressive U23 squad, led by Martijn Maaskant and Roy Van Poppel while Edvald Boasson Hagen (Maxbo-Bianchi) looks to build on momentum before joining T-Mobile next season.
Perhaps the biggest draw, at least locally, will be the presence of Nicolas Roche and the Irish national team. Roche, son of Irish legend Stephen Roche, will lead a team hungry for success on home roads.
It’s hard to predict a winner because of the unpredictable nature of racing in Ireland. Strong winds, a chance of rain and a relentless series of short but steep hills means that it’s anyone’s race to win.
Breakaways and sprint finishes will decide the race void of any spirit-breaking climbs, though that doesn’t mean the Irish hills aren’t going to be difficult.
Wednesday’s 174km romp into Cork is just a preview of what’s ahead. There are three rated climbs on a lumpy course where the road is never truly flat. Northerly winds could make for a fast race over the Cat. 2 climb at The Vee at 94km. Two punchy climbs up the Cat. 1 St. Patrick’s Hill in the eight kilometers should produce an exciting finale.
Stage for Tour of Ireland, Aug. 22-26Stage 1, Aug. 22: Kilkenny to Cork, 174kmStage 2, Aug. 23: Clonakilty to Killarney, 166kmStage 3, Aug. 24: Tralee to Ennis, 194kmStage 4, Aug. 25: Galway-Galway, 232kmStage 5, Aug. 26: Athlone to Dublin, 147km