By Shane Stokes
Let battle commence. What looks like one of the strongest-ever fields for the FBD Insurance Rás will begin eight days of aggressive racing this Sunday when the 2006 edition of the race starts in Tallaght.
The world ranked-event has attracted twelve strong overseas teams, including riders from as far afield as the American and Australian continents. Returning once again is defending champion Chris Newton, the Olympic medallist leading an impressive Great Britain Recycling.co.uk squad. Another very strong challenge is likely to come from the USA-TIAA CREF squad, fronted by 2001 world under 23 time trial champion Danny Pate and former US Postal Service rider Mike Creed. They will be managed by Jonathan Vaughters, a Tour de France stage winner and former teammate to Lance Armstrong.
Also originating from across the Atlantic is the Canada-Team Symmetrics lineup, while Australia-FRF Couriers Caravello similarly have a long way to travel. Several strong squads are coming from mainland Europe, including the Belgium-Sean Kelly Racing Team, which comprises two good Irish riders and three Belgians, the Poland-Legia Bazylisek lineup and Germany-Team Stevens.
The Doncaster Stena Line squad is also likely to play a big part.
Reassuringly, the Irish challenge looks to be a strong one. Irish road race champion David O'Loughlin leads an impressive Grant Thornton Team Ireland squad, and will be joined by Conor Murphy, Paídi O'Brien, Roger Aiken and Ryan Connor. Double winner Ciarán Power is guesting for the Tipperary Dan Morrissey team, while the in-form Paul Healion will lead the Murphy and Gunn/Newlyn Group squad.
Contenders for the county team award include Dublin Usher IRC, Meath MyHome.ie/Cycleways, Cork Team Murray Ford Developments and others.
The race gets under way this Sunday with a mainly flat 121 kilometre stage from Tallaght to Enniscorthy, taking in two category three climbs along the way. The longest stage of 180 kilometres follows on Monday, the riders crossing three categorised ascents between Enniscorthy to Cobh before the final steep uphill rise to the line.
Day three is from Cobh to An Daingean (Dingle) and once again features an uphill finish, plus four category three King of the Mountains primes. The last of these, An Bharog Bheag, is situated just 13 kilometres from the line, providing a possible springboard for a stage-winning attack.
What is probably the toughest stage of the race follows, with the tough roads of Kerry bringing a total of seven categorised climbs. This 150 kilometre leg from An Daingean to Listowel includes the gruelling category one climb of The Maum, plus a very undulating run-in to the finish which should see the peloton split into several distinct groups.
Following a ferry transfer from Kerry to Clare, a flatter stage follows next Thursday with just one climb on the 178 kilometre leg from Kilrush to An Cheathru Rua. The Gaeltacht town is also the setting for the following morning's innovative 24 kilometre team time trial, which is then followed by an 83 kilometre afternoon stage to Westport.
Saturday's flat leg takes the riders 168 fast kilometres to Clara, the race then reaching its climax one day later with a 155 kilometre stage to Skerries. This is a departure from the traditional easier final stage, the four categorised climbs en route meaning the outcome of the race may go right down to the wire.
Stage 1 - Sunday May 21: Dublin - Enniscorthy, 121 km
Stage 2 - Monday May 22: Enniscorthy - Cobh, 180 km
Stage 3 - Tuesday May 23: Cobh - An Daingean, km
Stage 4 - Wednesday May 24: An Daingean - Listowel, 150 km
Stage 5 - Thursday May 25: Kilrush - An Cheathrú Rua, 179 km
Stage 6 - Friday May 26: An Cheathrú Rua Team Time Trial, 24 km
Stage 7 - Friday May 26: An Cheathrú Rua - Westport, 83 km
Stage 8 - Saturday May 27: Westport - Clara, 168 km
Stage 9 - Sunday May 28: Clara - Skerries + 2 Laps of Circuit, 155 km