By Shane Stokes
Returning to road competition after competing in the Madison event at the Olympic Games, Mark Cavendish will be one of the biggest spectator attractions at the Tour of Ireland, which begins in Dublin on Wednesday.
The Isle of Man competitor won a superb four stages in this year's Tour de France, following on from two victories in the Giro d'Italia. He is now the top sprinter in world cycling and will look to add to his season tally of 13 wins on Irish roads. He will be assisted in that goal by the relatively flat profiles of several of the stages, as well as a strong Columbia team selection.
Amongst the others on the squad are fellow sprinter Bernhard Eisel, Giro d'Italia and Italian national championship time trial victor Marco Pinotti and Michael Barry, who was a fine ninth in the Olympic Games road race.
While he's not as quick as Cavendish, Garmin Chipotle's Julian Dean should also be one of those in the thick of the bunch gallops. David Millar, Magnus Backstedt and Martijn Maaskant will help him out there and have also the ability to chase stage wins in solo moves or from breakaway groups.
The team is guaranteed additional media interest due to the inclusion of Irish national champion Daniel Martin on the squad. Although he's only 22 years of age and in his first year as a professional, Martin has already clocked up some impressive results. He won the Route du Sud and the Irish title in June, then finished fifth on the hilly third stage of the Tour of Denmark before highlighting his good form in the recent Tour of Portugal. Martin landed three top-10 placings there, finished 10th overall at the race conclusion on Sunday, and was second in the best young rider ranking.
While the parcours of the Tour of Ireland is a bit flatter than he'd like, he is likely to show his ability on at least one stage. The final leg to Cork city takes in four ascents of the feared St. Patrick's Hill, and this may well appeal to the young climber.
Tinkoff Credit Systems heads to Ireland for one of its final races before revealing which big-name riders will compete for the team in 2009. It will be renamed Katuscha then and will have a budget of over fifteen million euro, making it one of the biggest in the sport. Right now the goal for the seven riders in the Irish squad is to make their mark on the race; Alberto Loddo should be one of the fastest sprinters there.
Also likely to be motoring in the gallops is Ruben Bongiorno (CSF Group Navigare), a multiple stage winner in races such as the Tour of Denmark and Tour de Langkawi, plus his team-mate Matteo Priamo, who won the sixth stage of this year's Giro d'Italia. Sprinter Maximiliano Richeze is also in the squad after successfully appealing a positive test earlier this year.
The full preview of the Tour of Ireland is available here.