The three top teams in the ProTour ranking plus the sixth-placed outfit have been confirmed for the 2.1-ranked Tour of Ireland, which will take place from August 21 – 23 this year.
Saxo Bank, currently second in the post-Tour de France ProTour rankings, and Cervélo TestTeam were announced on Wednesday as joining the previously-announced Astana and Columbia HTC teams in the race. The lineup of these four teams is yet to be finalised, but Mark Cavendish, Lance Armstrong, defending champion Marco Pinotti and Irish professional Philip Deignan (Cervélo Test Team) will all ride, according to the race organisers.
“This year’s line-up is a very strong one, and features two out of the three biggest names currently in cycling,” said Event Organiser Alan Rushton at the race launch in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Powerscourt, Enniskerry. “Having Mark Cavendish back again is fantastic and he obviously enjoyed himself last year when he won three stages. Lance Armstrong is a legend in cycling and it will be great for fans to see him race on Irish roads.
“Team Saxo Bank, Cérvelo, Columbia-HTC and Astana all had great results in this year’s Tour de France and we are sure that racing in Ireland will be very competitive,” he added.
Both riders played a pivotal role in the Tour, with Cavendish winning an excellent six stages and bringing his career total to 10 such victories in the race. Armstrong returned to the Tour after a four year absence and finished third overall.
Last year’s race winner Pinotti is also expected to return, and will join Cavendish in the Columbia squad. He secured a last gasp effort in 2008 when he broke clear on the final lap of the gruelling finishing circuit in Cork and opened up a winning advantage on race leader Russell Downing. Downing is also expected to return, competing in the colours of the Candi TV Marshall’s Pasta team.
The other squads that will line out in the race are Rabobank, BMC Racing, ISD Neri, Team Type 1, MTN Energade, Joker Bianchi, Rapha Condor, Halfords Bike Hut, An Post M. Donnelly Grant Thornton Sean Kelly squad plus the Australian and Irish national teams.
The lineup for the latter has been more or less finalised; 18-year-old FBD Insurance Rás and 2008 European junior points race champion Sam Bennett will be present, as will another strong first year senior, Philip Lavery. David McCann and Paul Griffin will add a good deal of experience, and the remaining places will be filled by three out of Martyn Irvine, Paul Healion, Stephen Barrett and Sean Downey.
The An Post team was expected to be led by David O’Loughlin and Paídi O’Brien, second and third behind Nicolas Roche in last month’s national road race championships, but both are in a race against time to be ready for the Tour of Ireland. O’Brien had a freak accident while training after the national championships, catching his hand in his spokes and badly damaging a tendon. His hand was heavily bandaged at the launch and he explained that the timescale was going to be difficult.
“I think it is really, really tight,” he said. “The Tour of Ireland comes six or seven weeks after my accident, and I have been told that it will be between six or eight weeks before I can race. I’m getting physiotherapy done on it to try to speed up the healing; at the moment, I can’t use the brakes on that hand.”
Team-mate O’Loughlin is in a worse way. He crashed hard on stage three of the Sachsen Tour and broke bones in his face; it is not yet known how long he will be out of action.
O’Brien hopes he can ride the race, having enjoyed competing in 2008. “The atmosphere in Cork was unbelievable last year,” he said. “St. Patrick’s Hill was packed and with guys like Lance coming this year, the crowds should be even bigger again.”
Irish team rider Griffin agrees. “Lance Armstrong coming is going to be unreal,” said Griffin. “I remember Greg LeMond was here before with the rainbow jersey, riding the Nissan Classic, and things like that inspire people to really get into it.”
Reduced from five to three days this year due to the tough economic situation in Ireland, the organisers have come up with a good course which visits many Irish scenic areas. The main race sponsor is Failte Ireland, the Irish Tourist Board, and conveying postcard-perfect images of the country is of big importance to them.
Day one covers 196 kilometres from the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Powerscourt to Waterford. Very shortly after the start the field climbs the Lower Sugar Loaf, and then travels through towns such as Roundwood and Bunclody before scaling the category one Mount Leinster climb. After the descent it will then move through Borris, over the Coppanagh (cat 3) and Inistioge (cat 2) hills and then race on towards the finish on Merchant’s Quay in Waterford.
Stage two begins in Clonmel and travels 196 kilometres to the tourist haven of Killarney. The second category Vee climb will shake things up early on, while towards the end of the stage the peloton encounters the cat. two Musheramore and cat. one Curragh ascents, giving a chance for the rouleurs and climbers to thwart the sprinters.
The final stage on Sunday August 23rd is the shortest at 185 kilometres, but is certainly the toughest. The category three Ballyane climb comes soon after the start in Bantry, and while it is generally flat for quite some time after that, the three laps of the Cork finishing circuit are going to cause absolute mayhem. The effects of the famous 25% slopes of St. Patrick’s Hill climb (category 1) will be exacerbated by a number of other tough ramps, and there could well be serious upheaval in the general classification.
Each stage of the race will also feature three An Post sprints, serving to further liven things up.
“The route is interesting, very hilly,” said Griffin. “Mount Leinster on the first day is not going to be easy...it comes early on during the stage and it is going to be hard doing that cold. I think it is going to be a tough race, a tough three days, and then St. Patrick’s Hill is obviously going to be the big decider.”
The 2009 event is shaping up to be a very impressive contest. It will be televised around the world, with broadcasters carrying the images in Ireland (RTE), the UK (ITV Sport), the US (Versus), Europe (Eurosport, Sport +), Australia (SBS), Asia (ESPN Star), Mnet (South Africa) and worldwide (Gillette World Sport).
“The event punches well above its weight as regards the coverage it gets,” said Rushton. “With Eurosport now on board it will reach even more people in 2009.”
Columbia HTC, Saxo Bank, Astana, Cervélo Test Team, Rabobank, BMC Racing, ISD Neri, Team Type 1, MTN Energade, Joker Bianchi, Rapha Condor, Halfords Bike Hut, CandiTV Marshall’s Pasta, An Post M. Donnelly Grant Thornton Sean Kelly squad, Irish national team, Australian national team.