DEAN DOWNING (Britain Rapha Condor Sharp) claimed the first An Post Rás raceleader’s yellow jersey when he edged out Sam Bennett(Belgium An Post M. Donnelly Grant Thornton Sean Kelly) in a ferocious bunch sprint into Portumna yesterday.
The opening stage of Irish cycling’s showpiece event that took the 172 riders from Dunboyne in Co. Meath to the banks of the River Shannon — just over 147 kilometres mostly into a headwind — was always going to end like this but there was drama six kilometres from the finish when several riders came down in a crash.
The UCI Commissaire President, Zabier Bilbao Zabala from Spain, who has officiated at the Tour de France, stopped the race although the riders at the front, including Sean Downey (Ireland Team Skoda), Yuriy Agarkov (ISD Lampre Continental) and Pete Williams (Motorpoint), who had a 32 second lead on the remainder of the field, were not aware of the incident.
“I was at the front and the crash was at the back,” Sam Bennett recalled. “They had no reason to stop the race at all. Because we had to stop, my legs kind of went dead and I could not get going again. But the lads on the team did a great job, brought me up and helped me out. I have to thank them.”
Stage winner Dean Downing was also at a loss to know why the race was stopped when so many riders were ahead.
“We did not really know what was going on,” he said. “The Assistant Commissaire was on the road with 5km to go saying the race was neutralised. It is strange. After that it is so hard on the riders. It was like we stopped at a café or something like that — everyone was saying I’ve got café legs. It was really difficult. The sprint was made harder by the stop but we managed to get to the front at the right time.”
When they went to the front the race took on a whole new dimension. The New Zealand team — all team pursuit riders — took control and Downing’s team moved alongside.
“I had a bit of a gamble that it was going to be a bunch sprint,” Downing said. “It was so hard out there with the headwinds and when it went on to a few cross-wind sections a lot of people were getting caught out.
“We took a gamble on a bunch sprint and my riders did a perfect lead out. The Kiwis were doing a lead out and we were alongside them. With about 1km to go James McCallum went for it, Dean Windsor took over with about 400m to go and they (New Zealand) were down to one rider then. Archibold had to go so I just sat behind him. Dean swung off and I left the guy on the front for a little bit more and then just hit out from about 150m and I’m just happy to take the victory.
“The New Zealand guy went too early,” Sam Bennett said. “Dean Downing was on his wheel and I was on his. I went to go but it was a bit early so I sat back in. Then when I went to go again I had nothing. After the stop my legs went to jelly.
“The form isn’t too good but the sprint is there so once I get to the finish I should be OK. Today I don’t think I would have done much without the team. They really helped me.”
As a result of the time bonuses at the finish, Dean Downing head’s into today’s stage with a four second lead over Bennett on General Classification with French rider, Erwan Brenterch (France AVC Aix en Pro) two seconds behind.
The riders face the first big climb of the week today when the 164 km stage takes the riders across Corkscrew Hill en route to Kilrush.
Meanwhile, the Cork County road club cycling team got their An Post Rás off to the worst possible start when their support vehicle, carrying spare bikes, team kit and wheels was broken into on the eve of the event.
The team had just arrived in Bewleys Hotel in Newlands cross on Saturday evening, prior to the start of the race, when raiders managed to gain access to the van via the side door.
Two spare bikes worth €2,500, wheels to the value of €1,000 as well as the team’s newly designed kit was all stolen as well as other apparel.
The team managed to secure spare kit from former Rás winner Philip Cassidy and were all present at the start line yesterday morning.
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