By Shane Stokes
Fifteen years after the final Nissan Classic was won by Phil Anderson, some of the world's top pro teams and riders will return for the new-look five-day Tour of Ireland.
Running from August 22-26, it will begin in Kilkenny and end five days later in front of Government buildings on Merrion Square, Dublin. It will be heavily backed by the Irish Tourism board, Bord Fáilte, and is expected to feature several ProTour teams.
Ranked as a 2.1 event, the race will be organised and promoted by the Events Group, previously responsible for the Nissan Classic and the hosting of the 1998 Tour de France in Ireland, as well as Shade Tree Sports.
The race will revisit many of the highlights of the Nissan Classic, which ran from 1985 to 1992. St. Patrick's Hill in Cork, perhaps the most famous 'wall' in the country, will feature, as will other Nissan staples such as the Healy Pass, Moll's Gap and Ladies View. It will also pass through Carrick-on-Suir, the hometown of four-time winner Sean Kelly, who said on Tuesday afternoon that the race will be of major significance for Irish cycling.
"It is of huge importance to have the event back on the road again," he stated. "It helps to promote cycling in this country and to get the race back will really help boost interest in the sport once more. It dropped off in the past, and while it has been building up a bit over the past couple of years, a professional event such as this will certainly help it grow.
"It will also help bring through the next batch of strong Irish riders. Things are improving now with young guys such as Nicolas Roche and Philip Deignan, and this will certainly be important."
Stage one will take the riders 160 kilometres from Kilkenny Castle to Cork, passing through Carrick on Suir and Middleton before finishing with two ascents of the legendary St. Patrick's Hill. The following day the riders will pass through the Beara Peninsula, taking in the climbs of the Healy Gap and Moll's Gap along the 167 kilometre route to Kenmare.
Day three covers 190 kilometres from Tralee to Ennis, passing near Brian Boru's fort and through Limerick and Killaloe. The following day is the longest stage, a marathon 212 kilometre leg starting and finishing in Galway City and taking in Cong, Westport and Leenáun.
The event will then be settled with a final leg from Athlone to Dublin. The riders will slug it out on a route through Mullingar and Enfield, up the Strawberry Beds, though the Phoenix park and finishing off with a circuit of Merrion Square.
"This is huge for Irish cycling," said Giant Asia professional Paul Griffin. "A lot of the country's top riders got into the sport due to the Nissan Classic, and now there is a good chance that this will inspire the next generation to get involved."
He and other Irish pros will square up against some of the worlds' top riders in the race. More details will be confirmed in the coming months.
The planned scale of the event is certainly impressive. It will feature 112 of the world's best riders, 300 race personnel and media, 125 official vehicles and 28 civilian motorcyclists. The TV package will employ several cameras and helicopters, plus a fixed wing aircraft, and will be transmitted live on Irish national channel RTE. It will also be shown throughout the United States on the Versus network, and appear on television in Britain, mainland Europe, Australia, South Africa and Japan. Phil Liggett and Ireland's Jimmy Magee will commentate.
The principal event sponsor will be Bord Fáilte, while others backers include BMW and Tipperary Water. More will be confirmed in the coming weeks.
"We are very happy to be involved with the race," said Bord Fáilte's Paul Keeley at the launch. "It will be a great event and we feel it will showcase the beauty of Ireland to a huge global audience. Eight out of ten visitors cite landscape as a big part of their enjoyment of the country and there are few sports better than cycling to showcase that.
"Tourism is worth 5.1 billion to the exchequer, 3.1 percent of our GNP, and so something which highlights the country so well is very important. It will travel through some of the most scenic parts of Ireland and we think it is going to be a great spectacle."
The backing is a multi-year deal, making it likely that the race will develop and grow as time passes.
Event director Alan Rushton was very happy with the final confirmation. "We're all really excited to be able to undertake the race this year. We'd really like to thank Fáilte Ireland for coming on board to support this fantastic event.
"This will be one of the sporting highlights of the year where the atmosphere is sure to be electric and we hope that everyone will come out and support all the cyclists taking part."
Project manager Darach McQuaid was similarly positive. "I am hopeful that the Irish public will come out in huge numbers and give Irish riders as much support as Sean [Kelly] and Stephen [Roche] had in 1980s," he said.
Tour of Ireland, in association with Fáilte Ireland:
Stage 1 - August 22: Kilkenny - Cork (St. Patrick's Hill), 160 km
Stage 2 - August 23: Clonakilty - Killarney, 167 km
Stage 3 - August 24: Tralee - Ennis, 190 km
Stage 4 - August 25: Galway - Galway, 212 km
Stage 5 - August 26: Athlone - Dublin, 135 km