There has been only one Irish winner of the An Post Rás in the last decade and that trend is unlikely to change this year, writes Brian Canty.
Rarely has the Irish domestic scene been in better health with Cycling Ireland boasting record numbers and a growing list of overseas riders, professional and amateur.
However, when it comes to the An Post Rás, the home challenge is still well off the pace of the foreign contingent who make up close to half the peloton.
This year’s edition of Ireland’s only UCI-ranked race gets underway in Dunboyne, Co Meath tomorrow and finishes eight days later in Skerries.
Predicting a winner is always difficult, given the spread of international talent but what is certain is that home talents will be underdogs in an impressive field.
Stephen Gallagher is the last Irishman to win the race (2008) and it’s safe to assume the yellow jersey won’t be staying on these shores next weekend – but there is some hope for Irish competitors.
For starters, the race lacks the gruelling climbs of previous years and it was there, on the likes of the Healy Pass, the Mamore Gap and the Wicklow Gap, to name but a few, where the damage was done to the home challenge in the past. This year’s route is comparatively flatter, an approach which was greeted with disdain by some who suggested it diminished the race’s standing.
There are 21 categorised climbs, mind, but no category one ascent. Nineteen of these are third category ramps, meaning they’re shorter, less steeper and more manageable. All positive for the Irish contingent.
The first half of the week is the easier of the two — and that’ll come as very welcome news to the home-based men.
There are four climbs on the run to Carlow tomorrow and it will be a lightning start but on Monday and Tuesday that number is cut in half while on Wednesday, the stage from Bearna in Galway to Newport in Co Mayo is climb free. That is when the race cranks up a few gears and the big contenders should start to emerge.
Stage five from Newport to Ballina promises to be a gruelling affair with a 142km test that’s likely to be hit by strong crosswinds up around the Ceide Fields and Ballycastle.
The following day is as intimidating with a 160km leg from Ballina to Ballinamore with few places to hide from the elements.
From there it’s on to Drogheda and Skerries with two relatively manageable stages around the 140km mark on both days.
The winner is going to need to be a strong all-rounder, a man who can ride well in the crosswinds which are definitely going to shape the outcome of this year’s race.
And herein is where the Irish can be optimistic, where riders like Team ASEA teammates Damien Shaw and Bryan McCrystal should do well, as should An Post Chainreaction duo Ryan Mullen and Conor Dunne.
The latter is a former stage winner while Mullen is the reigning national road race champion and with their team sponsoring the race they’ll not lack motivation.
Mark Dowling (Meath/DID Electrical) has won most of the big races on the Irish calendar and should push for a stage win, as should Dublin/UCD man Eoin Morton and Mayo/Fitscience’s Paddy Clarke.
Martyn Irvine is another former stage winner and though the Madison Genesis man is more known for his exploits on the track he will be relishing the challenge of the week.
Seán McKenna has lit up the home scene this year with nigh on a dozen wins and the Cork/Aquablue man won’t fear anyone, despite being in his debut Rás.
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