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Unibet’s Vandenbergh takes Tour of Ireland opener

Hardship is the middle name for any professional cyclist, but Aaron Olson and Craig Lewis both overcame more than their fair share of setbacks to make it to Wednesday’s start of the reborn Tour of Ireland. Olson (T-Mobile) was broadsided by a car just 10 days ago in Spain while Lewis (Slipstream) shook off jet lag after arriving in the start in Kilkenny barely 12 hours before starting the decisive 174km stage to Cork. Despite the stumbling blocks, both managed to sneak into the winning 10-rider move with Olson slotting into second at 14 seconds behind the late-attacking Stijn Vandenbergh,

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Olson, Lewis mark winning move at Irish tour comeback

By Andrew Hood

Vanderbergh wins one for a team that ends its run at season's end.

Vanderbergh wins one for a team that ends its run at season’s end.

Photo: Graham Watson

Hardship is the middle name for any professional cyclist, but Aaron Olson and Craig Lewis both overcame more than their fair share of setbacks to make it to Wednesday’s start of the reborn Tour of Ireland.

Olson (T-Mobile) was broadsided by a car just 10 days ago in Spain while Lewis (Slipstream) shook off jet lag after arriving in the start in Kilkenny barely 12 hours before starting the decisive 174km stage to Cork.

Despite the stumbling blocks, both managed to sneak into the winning 10-rider move with Olson slotting into second at 14 seconds behind the late-attacking Stijn Vandenbergh, who gave Unibet.com a revenge victory and leader’s jersey.

“I was hit by a car 10 days while on a training ride in Spain, so if you had asked me at the beginning of the stage that I would be in the winning break today, I would have said you were crazy,” said Olson, sporting scabs on both knees and his right elbow as souvenirs. “I was really suffering in the first 10km today, then I started feeling better.”

Quick recovery: Olsen on the attack.

Quick recovery: Olsen on the attack.

Photo: Graham Watson

Ireland’s first real summer day of the year helped warm up Olson’s stiff legs just in time. Temperatures climbed into the 80s under clear skies as big crowds turned out to cheer on the peloton into Cork.

Riders were attacking left and right in what was universally described as a chaotic opener to the first Irish tour in 15 years. A breakdown of course radio didn’t help, either.

“The radio was so bad, we couldn’t hear who going away and who wasn’t,” complained Team CSC sport director Kim Andersen, who won a stage in the former incarnation of the Nissan Tour before the race folded in 1992. When suggested it was like the old days when Andersen raced without the help of course radio, he snapped back, “But these aren’t the old days.”

The narrow, hedge-lined roads of Ireland presented an ideal attacking ground and a brisk northerly tailwind helped push along the early sorties.

“We were trying to push riders into every group because we knew a break would probably stay away,” said Pat McCarty of Slipstream. “Groups of 10-15 riders would pull clear, then when we thought everyone was back, you could still a few riders up the road, but it was hard to see because of the hedges.”

Olson was taking his second stab at a break when suddenly the right mix gelled together and a 10-rider move stuck in the three-climb stage.

Joining Olson was a pair from Unibet.com – Vandenbergh and Pieter Jacobs – Wesley Sulzberger (South Australia-AIS), Gabriel Rasch (Maxbo-Bianchi), Roger Beuchat (LPR), Valeriy Kobzarenko (Navigators Insurance), Marcus Ljungqvist (CSC) and Glenn Bak (Murphy & Gunn).

Lewis’s presence in the break was anything short of dicey.

Out on the Vee

Out on the Vee

Photo: Graham Watson

The 22-year-old was scheduled to fly out of Greenville, S.C., on Sunday. Then it got bumped back to Monday and then to Tuesday. He finally arrived in Dublin at 4 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon and didn’t get down to the team hotel in Kilkenny until 9 p.m.

Barely 12 hours later, Lewis was saddling up for opening salvo of the five-day Irish tour.

Panaria gives chase

Panaria gives chase

Photo: Graham Watson

“I pretty much woke up and got into the breakaway,” he after coming through eighth at 15 seconds behind Vandenbergh. “We were excited to be here, so I was glad the plane arrived. The team’s always done well in Ireland. (Danny) Pate is the man. He was second overall last year in the Ras (another Irish stage race). I was glad I was able to pull it off today.”

Once the order was set, the 10-man group widened its gap to north of 10 minutes after clearing the day’s main obstacle over the The Vee, a Cat. 2 climb in the windswept Knockmealdown Mountains, a rugged coastal range before rolling toward the finish in Cork.

Two passages over the short but very steep St. Patrick’s Hill in downtown Cork would prove decisive.

Olson lost contact over the first passage as Team CSC’s Marcus Ljungqvist uncorked an attack on the 300-meter-long wall that looked to have legs.

“I only had enough to give it one shot. I wasn’t the strongest in the group, but I thought I could surprise them,” said Ljungqvist, who moved into fourth overall at 26 seconds back. “I tried to stay away, but they could catch me. I hope to be stronger as the week goes on. I will try to get the jersey if I have a chance.”

Lewis crests St. Patrick's.

Lewis crests St. Patrick’s.

Photo: Graham Watson

The leading 10 came back together on the slicing descent back into Cork and revved it up again for the second run. This time everyone knew what lie in store and Lewis rode with strength to lead the group up the second assault of the Irish version of Fillmore Street from the old GP San Francisco.

Fans were lined five-deep along pitches as steep as 25 percent.

“It was every man for himself in the finale. I took it from the bottom of the road and rode it to the top,” Lewis said. “There was a false flat at the top and the Unibet rider goes from the left. Everyone was looking at each other and he opened up a gap. That was it.”

With Lewis setting the pace, this time Olson was able to stay with the leaders. His legs felt better as the day wore on, but no one was able to reel in the attacking Vanderbergh. The Belgian soloed in for victory with Olson attacking in the final kilometer to finish 14 seconds slower and just ahead of the chasing.

“I didn’t win, but you gotta start somewhere. I kind of held back in the first climb because I knew we had another crack at it,” said Olson, who slotted into second 21 seconds back. “We’ll take the overall day-to-day. This time of year, some riders are tired, others are still motivated. Unibet missed all the early moves but they two guys in the move that mattered. Now they will try to take control.”

Vanderbergh and his Unibet.com cohorts will be motivated to try to defend the leader’s jersey.

The team is shutting down at the end of the 2007 season after being caught in the middle of a bitter power struggle between the UCI and the grand tour organizers. The team missed such races as the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia and sponsors decided to withdraw its sponsorship at the end of the 2007 season.

Vanderbergh in yellow

Vanderbergh in yellow

Photo: Graham Watson

“I had problems with my chain and I was quiet on the first climb. On the last climb, I was still on my 23 and not trying to get into my 25. I was good on the steep climb and I attacked after the top and I got a hole,” said Vanderbergh, a neo-pro this season. “This year, we couldn’t race a lot of the events. Now the team is closing and we have to find a new team. That was not nice.”

Thursday’s lumpy five-climb stage Clonakilty to Killarney along Ireland’s spectacular southwestern coast should be a trampoline for another big breakaway.

Whether Vanderbergh 13-minute head-start on the rest of the peloton holds up remains to be seen.

Racing in Ireland has always been unpredictable. It looks like a 15-year absence hasn’t changed that.

Race NotesNational fave Nicolas Roche (Irish national team) abandoned the first stage from complications of a saddle boil. The son of Irish cycling legend Stephen Roche admitted before the start he’d be touch and go to make it to the finish. Also not finishing was James McCallum (Plowman-Evans). Not starting were Markus Burghardt (T-Mobile), Antonio Bucciero (Panaria-Navigare), Cieran Power (Navigators Insurance) and Tyler Butterfield (Slipstream). Roger Beuchat (LPR) claimed the climber’s jersey with Vandenbergh in the leader’s jersey and the points jersey.

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