By Shane Stokes
Building on the success of last year's race, the 2008 Tour of Ireland looks to be a more ambitious, challenging event and one which should guarantee an uncertain outcome right up until the final moments of the last stage.
Details of the race were announced on Thursday in Dublin Castle, with the 2.1 event starting on August 27th and once again running for five days. "We were very happy with last year's race but we want to continue to develop the event," said race organiser Alan Rushton.
"We will have sixteen teams of seven riders, coming from Europe, the USA, South Africa and Australia. We have already signed up the top team in the world, Team Columbia, and they are bringing over Mark Cavendish. He is a top sprinter, the fastest boy in the world at the moment, and also will have the three times world time trial champion Michael Rogers. So we are very excited about that.
"There will be riders from over 20 countries in all," he continued, confirming that Ireland's Contental teams An Post M. Donnelly Grand Thornton Sean Kelly and Pezula Racing would be taking part. "We will be releasing details of more teams in the next few weeks."
The race will begin with a 192 kilometre stage from Dublin to Waterford, taking in the climbs of Djouce on the road up to Roundwood plus Mount Leinster, and then finishing in the Quays. Day two should also result in a bunch finish, the 158 kilometre leg travelling along rolling roads en route from Thurles to Loughrea.
Things get tougher on stage three, a 210 kilometre route from Ballinrobe to Galway, as the riders will face the category two climb of Finny plus two other tough ascents. As was the case last year, the stage will finish in Salthill after five hours racing around the picturesque region of Connemara.
This is then followed by a tough 186 kilometre race from Limerick to Dingle, crossing the category one Connor Pass before heading on to the first crossing of the finish line. The peloton will then take in a tough 36 kilometre finishing loop out by Dunquin and the steep climb of Mam Clasach, before once again heading for Dingle and concluding with an uphill sprint there.
The final stage is set to be a real classic. It starts in Killarney and covers 155 kilometre in all, this distance including four laps of a gruelling 17 kilometre finishing circuit. Each of these will take in the 25% wall of St. Patrick's hill plus another new climb on the other side of the Lee, making it entirely possible the race lead could change.
It is a reversal of last year, when the St. Patrick's hill stage started the race; on that occasion, eventual winner Stijn Vandenbergh (Unibet.com) got clear with ten others and took his first professional victory in Cork. He and his team then defended the lead until the race end five days later in Dublin.
Concluding the race with the tough finishing circuit in Cork means that suspense is guaranteed right up until the final moments of the race; this should satisfy the vocal crowds there and also the large worldwide audience, which will see the race courtesy of broadcasters such as Versus USA, ITV, RTE, Sport + France, ESPN Star Sports Asia, Viasat Scandinavia, Mnet South Africa, SBS Australia, Gillete World Sports and EBU – UER Europe.
This overseas coverage will satisfy the main race sponsor Fáilte Ireland, which is the government body charged with promoting tourism there. Other sponsors include An Post, Fiat, Di Marchi Sport, Vittel water, Festina watches, Waterford Crystal, Thule car racks and Ordinance Survey Ireland. More backers will be announced closer to the race start.
Stage 1: Dublin to Waterford, 192km
Stage 2: Thurles to Loughrea, 158km
Stage 3: Ballinrobe – Galway, 201km
Stage 4: Limerick to Dingle, 186km
Stage 5: Killarney to Cork, 155km