By Shane Stokes
With just under 12 weeks remaining until the start of the race, the first top-level team to participate in the 2.1 UCI-ranked Tour of Ireland has been confirmed. Race organisers announced on Thursday that the ProTour Unibet.com squad has signed up for the five day event, which returns this August, some 15 years after the last Nissan Classic Tour of Ireland.
"We are delighted that a team of Unibet's stature is coming to the Tour of Ireland," said Project Director Darach McQuaid yesterday. "This squad includes Tour de France stage winner Jimmy Casper and Tour de France green jersey winner Baden Cooke, and competes at the highest level in Europe and around the world."
All three are strong sprinters and, providing they line up, they can be expected to be in the thick of the battles for stage wins. They have each been successful this season. Casper won the Memorial Samyn (GP Fayt-le-Franc) and took stage one plus the overall classification in the Record Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen. Cooke topped the podium on stage three of the Tour Down Under and also on stage two of the Etoile de Bessèges.
He is currently recovering from a broken collarbone sustained in the recent Volta a Catalunya but should be back to full strength this summer. As for former British champion Hunt, he won the GP d'Ouverture La Marseillaise earlier this season and this week placed second on stage one of the Tour of Belgium.
McQuaid is expecting more big teams to confirm their participation soon. "Negotiations with other top level teams are ongoing," he said. "The reaction from team directors to the event has been very positive, and we expect to make some major team announcements in the coming days."
The Fáite Ireland-backed Tour of Ireland gets underway on Wednesday, August 22, with a 160 kilometre stage from Kilkenny Castle to Cork. There will be additional stage finishes in Killarney, Ennis, Galway and Dublin.