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Cyclist was set to take on world's best this week...

One of Ireland’s leading racing cyclists has died in a car accident in Co Louth on Sunday night. Paul Healion, of Kilmessan, Co Meath, was alone in his car when it crashed into a tree and burst into flames on a road near Ardee at 10.30pm.

Mr Healion’s death comes less than a week before the talented cyclist was going to compete for the Irish Team in the Tour of Ireland which begins in Co Wicklow on Friday. And he would have ridden against some of the biggest names in the sport in the three-day event, including Lance Armstrong and Mark Cavendish, as well as the world’s top teams, incluign Astana, Saxo Bank, and Columbia HTC.

Cycling Ireland’s high performance director Phil Leigh told the Irish Times: “We keep thinking it’s a nightmare and that we’re going to wake up but that’s obviously not the case. It’s an awful time for everybody in cycling and just tragic for Paul’s wife [Ann] and family. Paul was very much in our plans for the next Olympics. He was an extremely strong rider with a super turn of pace. We’d had a training camp for the Tour of Ireland recently and he was at the top of his game going into that race.”

Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism Martin Cullen extended his sympathy to Mr Healion’s wife and family: “His untimely sudden death in a week when everyone was looking forward to his performance in the opening stages of the Tour of Ireland makes it all the more poignant and difficult to come to terms with.”

Mr Healion, 31, was riding for South Dublin Cycling Club this season and was one of Ireland’s leading racing cyclists and had won five national titles. He had competed on the Irish team in the FBD Insurance Rás in May and took victory in a bunch sprint at the end of the 159km stage six into Castlebar, Co Mayo, beating Jaan Kirsipu into second place. He followed this up with victory in the national championships criterium.

He was one of the best cyclists in the country for the past decade and had taken a number of victories in major domestic events including the Tour of Ulster and Kerry’s Rás Mumhan, both stage races.

He had competed for Ireland in world cup track events both as part of the 4km team pursuit and in the 1km individual event and was central to Cycling Ireland’s plans to qualify a team for the 2012 London Olympics.