Astana rider Lance Armstrong is one of 22 riders still in contention for the overall win in the Tour of Ireland, which concludes today. The race reaches its finale on the streets of Cork city and there's a tough finishing circuit - which includes three ascents of the legbreaking St. Patrick's Hill plus two other climbs - is certain to shatter the main field.
Sitting 20th overall, 26 seconds back, Armstrong told reporters after stage two, "Tomorrow will be tough, very tough. I suspect the field will get small very quickly, especially with circuits. If guys are not having a good day they will just pull in and take a shower. If the weather turns hard like it is supposed to do, it will be hard. It will be a Classic day."
After two days of sun, the riders woke up to a wet morning and the forecast is that rain could well be in store for Cork. The effects of that on the steep climbs and tight, twisting bends will make things even more difficult than expected, with riders potentially being forced to stay seated to avoid wheelspins.
Sean Kelly did precisely that when he won the last of his four Nissan Classic titles in 1991. On that day there were also stormy conditions and he broke clear with Sean Yates on the run in to Cork.
Race leader Russell Downing will have a sense of déjà vu after also holding the lead going into the final stage last year, but he will hope that things turn out differently this time round. He also had a number of riders to watch then and on the last of four laps, Columbia rider Marco Pinotti surged clear and eked out an advantage sufficient to win the race.
CandiTV Marshall's Pasta rider Downing has more riders to keep an eye on and lacks a strong team. However one thing is in his favour; there are just three finishing laps this year.
"I hope I can hold on. They have reduced the circuit by one lap so if that was the case last year, I would have kept the jersey," said Downing. "It's going to be a hard task but I will go down fighting, definitely."
Six riders are within 11 seconds or less of his yellow jersey. These are Saxo Bank team-mates Alexander Kolobnev and Matti Breschel, five and seven seconds back respectively, Irish hope Philip Deignan (Cervélo Test Team), who is at ten seconds, plus last year's winner Marco Pinotti (Columbia HTC), Haimar Zubeldia (Astana) and Frederik Wilman (Joker Bianchi).
Saxo Bank has five options in all, with Jakob Fuglsang, Stuart O'Grady and Karsten Kroon all between 17 and 26 seconds back, and for many they are the best tip for victory. Cervélo has three - Deignan, Dan Lloyd and Gabriel Rasch, who punctured with four kilometres to go yesterday but managed to latch back on in the final kilometre.
Astana also has three; Zubeldia, Janez Brajkovic and Armstrong, while ISD has the same number - Andrey Grivko, Denys Kostyuk and Igor Abakoumov. Pinotti and Craig Lewis give Columbia-HTC two cards to play.
Downing said that anyone who made the break on Friday is a potential threat. "I think any one of those riders could win. As for the weather, I am not worried about that. Weather is weather. The circuit is quite tricky so it might slow them down; that might do me a favour."
Irish hope Deignan also expects a very open battle. "I think it will be down to the 23 riders who were in the break on the first day, any one of those could win," he said yesterday. "I am feeling good, we will play it by ear and see how it goes."
As for Armstrong's chances, there is a lot of debate as to how his form is. The American initially played down his chances, claiming a lack of form despite his Leadville 100 victory last weekend, but more recently has said that he is feeling better and hoping to show well.
Tour de France team time trial win aside, he's taken no victories on European soil since his comeback, and that may be a motivating factor. It's also his final race of the season.
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