The first stage of the tour of Ireland left the grandeur of an imposing hotel where a night of marble, oak panels and immigrant worker courtesy, could be purchased for the price of a small family car. Needless to say, I stayed in an establishment where a sign, hand written on the bathroom wall read, “Please do not steal the towels”: There you have both sides of the Irish tourist experience. Ironically, the event is sponsored by the Irish tourist board and there were no teams or dignitaries staying in my kip.
After a minutes silence for Paul Healion, (a talented Irish cyclist who died the week previous) the race began and fled into the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. The backdrop turned green and purple heather. O-so-Lovely for all to watch and O-so-hard to ride. The rough surface slows the twisted ascents for all except the frighteningly quick Jay Thompson from South Africa who took on the second KOM of the day and kept going.
Within 50k the 23 year old had built up a lead in the undulating roads and high hedges of six minutes ten.
The South African rides for the MTN squad, which are all about cycling. The second biggest mobile provider in the African Continent not only backs a professional Road team but also a pro ladies outfit, a junior development team of 300 riders and a pr
o BMX squad. Going all the way for cycling! And more- with every new mobile contract taken out in South Africa they donate a new bike to a disadvantaged kid. 20,000 so far with an aim of 50,00 by year-end. That putting their money where their heart is.
Jay came with 6 others to race in Ireland and the one getting ALL the media coverage was Adrien Niyonshuti. A slender polite guy is the first black rider in a European continental race -ever. The Rwandan national who lost 6 family members in the country's genocide, is a figure of hope for the nation. The softly spoken guy seemed very nearly excited to be here, but totally overcome by the camera and microphone attention. 120 journalists from all 4 biking corners of the world, who came to see Mr Armstrong, had to fill their columns someway when he shied away from the media conferences and the fans, and Adrien filled it in. “The Africans have fantastic aerobic threshold, you only have to look at their runners” his manager Douglas Ryder explained. “It is only openness to equipment and training that has stopped African riders making the pro ranks, we hope to change that.”
Cavendish won the sage last year over similar roads and his team were looking lean and keen, they kept tempo at the front of the bunch. And that was it. For the next two hours I got lost in the regular beauty of my homeland, the peleton rode with experienced ease and the loan breakaway emptied his soul.
With 40 k left he still had 3 minutes,looking like he could…. then… the wheels fell off. It has happened to us all. Blood sugar dips, concentration wanders and the head is writing cheques your legs can’t cash. On the final climb of the 196k stages, Jay slowed to something like my climbing pace and a young Irish star Philip Lavery slipped off the front of the bunch and took the lead.
This prompted the peloton and during contract negotiating season it exploded. The 16 teams sent everything off the front until on the narrow roads 23 men went clear. Astana, Saxo and Cervelo were all well represented, it was gone.
But 23 men is a nervous break. Too big to work efficiently and with 14 k to go the attacks became rapid fire until Haimar Zubeldia (Astana) launched an effort that made the group explode. a group of seven then eight slipped off the front. It hovered at a few seconds with Saxo Bank having three men in the final shake up – it was theirs. A picture speaks a thousand words. This one speaks a million.
This picture shows Russell Downing winning the stage with Saxo Bank riders second and third behind the little talented English man. The thousand words? The thousand words the Saxo bank manager will be shouting at Fugslang, the talented Russian Kolobnev and Matti Breschel. A thousand words boiled down into the statement “What happened? Not winning, was not part of the plan especially when we wee guy who races for the small Candi TV outfit, races for a small wage and prize money – does. About a million euros in wages rolled in behind Downing in the next 3 seconds. His gallop was so fierce he got a one second gap on the GC! No slouch with 14 wins last year and 49 in the worlds road race in Varese- Downing is used to glory although disappointed in the last few years that a bigger team wouldn’t pick him up, great to see once again David floored Goliath.
The race continues on Saturday with another 196 kilometre leg, this time from Clonmel to Killarney.
2009 Tour of Ireland Stage 1 result
1) Russell Downing (GBr) Candi TV - Marshalls Pasta 5:10:37 2) Alexandr Kolobnev (Rus) Saxo Bank 0:00:01 3) Matti Breschel (Den) Saxo Bank 4) Philip Deignan (Irl) Cervélo TestTeam 5) Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Astana 6) Marco Pinotti (Ita) Columbia-HTC 7) Frederik Wilman (Nor) Joker Bianchi 8) Oleksandr Kvachuk (Ukr) ISD 9) Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Saxo Bank 0:00:07 10) Denys Kostyuk (Ukr) ISD 0:00:16 11) Igor Abakoumov (Bel) ISD 12) Mathias Frank (Swi) BMC Racing Team 13) Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) Rabobank Continental Team 14) Gabriel Rasch (Nor) Cervélo TestTeam 15) Lars Petter Nordhaug (Nor) Joker Bianchi 16) Craig Lewis (USA) Columbia-HTC 17) Florian Stalder (Swi) BMC Racing Team 0A 18) Daniel Lloyd (GBr) Cervélo TestTeam 19) Karsten Kroon (Ned) Saxo Bank 20) Andriy Grivko (Ukr) ISD 21) Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Astana 22) Stuart O:Grady (Aus) Saxo Bank 23) Lance Armstrong (USA) Astana 24) Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Joker Bianchi 0:02:12 25) Michael Van Staeyen (Bel) Rabobank Continental Team 26) Davide Appollonio (Ita) Cervélo TestTeam 27) Mark McNally (GBr) Team Halfords 28) Graham Briggs (GBr) Candi TV - Marshalls Pasta 29) Andrew Tennant (GBr) Team Halfords 30) Ramon Sinkeldam (Ned) Rabobank Continental Team