While the Tour of Ireland has been reduced from five days to three this year, the line-up for the 2009 race has shaped to be the best yet in the three-year history of the re-launched event. Ten-time Tour de France stage winner Mark Cavendish (Columbia HTC), seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong (Astana) and a host of other big names will this week compete in the Irish event, which appears to be punching well above its ranking as a 2.1 national tour.
Last year Cavendish won the first three stages of the race. He triumphed easily in Waterford, Loughrea and Galway. And while he withdrew on the final day due to the daunting finishing circuit in Cork, Columbia team-mates František Raboň and Marco Pinotti made it a race to remember for the squad.
Raboň had been clear for much of the stage with Fredrik Ericsson (Pezula Racing) and dropped the Pezula rider on the final climb of the race, soloing to the stage victory. As for Pinotti, he surged clear of the chase group with ten kilometres remaining and opened up a 33 second lead over GC leader Russell Downing (Candi TV/Marshall's Pasta). The brave move secured the Italian the first stage race victory of his now ten-year career.
All three successful Columbia-HTC riders will return in 2009, along with world time trial champion Bert Grabsch. Yet while Cavendish will be the clear favourite if stages one and two are settled by bunch sprints, the American squad has a real fight on its hands if it is to retain the overall title.
The biggest single obstacle to a repeat win is likely to come from a very strong Astana team selection, which will support seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong in his bid for success. He will be joined by his right hand man Yaroslav Popovych, Slovenian time trial champion Janez Brajkovic, Jésus Hernández, Haimar Zubeldia, Jose Luis Rubiera and Michael Schär.
In previous years Armstrong would be winding down after a Tour de France victory, but his third place finish in Paris combined with his win last weekend in the Leadville 100 mountain bike race means that he will be hungry for success. He hasn't won a UCI-ranked road race in 2009 and should be fired up to change that.
Saxo Bank will have other ideas, though. Former mountain bike rider Jakob Fuglsang has had a superb first season with the team, riding powerfully in the Dauphiné Libéré and recently taking a second successive win in the Tour of Denmark. He will be joined by strongmen Alexander Kolobnev and Stuart O'Grady, former Tour of Ireland stage winner Matti Breschel plus the highly experienced duo of Karsten Kroon and Kurt Asle Arvesen. Promising British rider Jonathon Bellis completes the squad.
Chief Irish hopes will focus on Philip Deignan, who heads to the race after taking a good tenth on the final mountainous stage of the Vuelta a Burgos, plus tenth overall. He hasn't raced much since finishing the Giro d'Italia, but with the Tour of Ireland and Vuelta a España big targets for him, he's building form at just the right time.
Deignan will be joined by six other Cervélo Test Team riders, including the Britons Roger Hammond, Dan Fleeman, Dan Lloyd and Roger Hammond. The new squad has had a great year and Tour of Ireland success would sit well on its palmares if the riders can pull it off.
Taking the fight to the big names
As previous editions of the race have shown, the smaller teams are certainly not shy about taking on the better-known squads. This was typified by the performance last year of Russell Downing, who went to within a few kilometres of taking what would have been a shock victory in the race. He's back with the CandiTV-Marshall's Pasta team, as is former Tour of Spain points jersey winner Malcolm Elliott. 2008 King of the Mountains winner Matt Wilson is also competing again on Irish soil, racing in the colours of the Team Type 1 squad.
Joker-Bianchi includes the likes of Norwegian Under-23 road race champion Alexander Kristoff, while the Australian National team selection features other promising talents such as Jack Bobridge and Travis Meyer. BMC Racing and the Rabobank Continental squad are also all about nurturing up-and-coming riders, and are likely to play an aggressive role.
ISD-Neri will be fronted by Ukrainian time trial champion Andriy Grivko and 2005 World Under-23 road race champ Dmytro Grabovskyy. The 2008 South African national champion Ian McLeod spearheads the MTN-Energade squad, and the Rapha Condor team travel with FBD Insurance Rás winners Simon Richardson, Kristian House and Chris Newton. Team Halfords/Bike Hut also travel from Britain and will bring track stars Ed Clancy and Rob Hayles.
Apart from Deignan, Irish hopes will rest on the shoulders of the Ireland national team plus the An Post M. Donnelly Grant Thornton Sean Kelly squad. The latter is registered in that country but based in Belgium; the multinational background is reflected in the composition of the team, with Irish riders Paídi O'Brien, Mark Cassidy and Ronan McLaughlin being joined by four Belgians, including FBD Insurance Rás stage winner and green jersey victor Niko Eeckhout.
The Irish national selection is led by David McCann, a multiple Irish champion who last year finished fourth overall in the Tour de Qinghai Lake in China. Experienced riders Martyn Irvine and Paul Griffin will help guide the younger riders Philip Lavery, Sean Downey and Sam Bennett, who stunned Irish cycling when he won a stage of this year's FBD Insurance Rás at 18-years of age.
However there will be a real poignancy to the Irish team's participation as national criterium champion Paul Healion will be missing; he was due to be the seventh member of the squad, but was tragically killed in a car accident on Sunday evening. Healion was having his best ever season and had hoped to perform well in the Irish Tour.
Reduced from five to three days this year due to the tough economic situation in Ireland and overseas, the organisers have nevertheless come up with a course that will include many scenic areas across Ireland. The main race sponsor is Failte Ireland, the Irish Tourist Board, and conveying postcard-perfect images of the country is of major 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 hills of Coppanagh (Cat. 3) and Inistioge (Cat. 2) 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. 2 Musheramore and Cat. 1 Curragh ascents. The climbs will provide a chance for the rouleurs and climbers to thwart the sprinters.
The final stage on Sunday August 23 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 per cent 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 will also feature three An Post sprints, serving to further liven up the race and promote attacking, aggressive racing.