Tour of Ireland Stage 3: Bonus report (and worth waiting for too)
Downing wins as St Patrick and the weather put the boot in to the peloton
When I got up to drive to the stage start in was raining. When I arrived to Bantry on the Atlantic coast, for the start of stage 3 and the final leg of the 2009 Tour of Ireland -it was raining. And yes, as the riders got out of the campervans and looked at the black skies with fear- it was pouring.
I did all I had to as quickly as me shutter would allow. The Australian national team got their BikePure pack and I discussed the merits of a drug free peloton with two riders who cared more about the temperature of cat poo, than the bio passport program- in the rain. Handed out a few packets of morale (fruit pastels) to friendly riders and ran.
The race headed off into hair dryer side winds and by the first climb, a front group of 58 had moved clear by simply being stronger than the other 58. No attack, no increase in speed, just attrition. ‘Hard roads’: The west Cork peninsula is relentless up and down, hard lefts. Holes that would eat a Zipp in one gulp and hedges that only hide sea gales intermittently. With today’s rain, the bunch looked collectively sad.
I left them at Clonakilty and headed off to Cork for the best bit of cycling spectatorship in the British Isles: St. Patrick’s hill. 408 meters of an incline that starts steep, before it increases and finally finishes with a vertical wall. The UK Halfords team were upbeat and talked about a 23 sprocket being enough. Saxo bank who were looking for the win went for 25s and the smart money was running with 27 tooth on Roger Hammonds Cervelo.
I joined 5,000 other fans in the finishing kilometre just as the sun came out. Irish cancer volunteers walked up and down the barriers handing out free yellow chalk for Lance’s little fans to decorate the road. The hill was covered by enthusiastic fans with such gems as ‘come on lance my hero’ – ‘Go Russell’, Lance-pants’ and my personal favourite ‘I'm on day release'.
By the time the peloton arrived into the city after 135Km the rain has begun again and the early break of Stuart O Grady and Jay Thompson (Stage 1 breakaway hero) had been swept up on the run in to the city.
For the finishing circuits around the streets, hills and houses the heavens emptied with such force that I gave up trying to edge into an neighbouring umbrella. Showers became tropical. The yellow jersey appeared around the corner flanked by last year’s winner Marco Pinotti and Saxo’s Matt Breshel. He was the biggest danger to Downing and attacked with the determination of a 2 year old facing a sweet bag. I couldn’t ID the rest of the riders in the downpour, but they were wet.
The five deep fans behind the barriers chanted for Lance but he did not appear. Neither did most of the field. The rain and the fear of the hill made the second group on the road pack at the feed. Only 50 riders hit the hill behind the yellow jersey to a Cup Final last minute goal cheer. The roar was tremendous. I put down my camera and joined in. 10 riders moved clear with all the top five contenders and the rain fell harder. No piece of dry tee shirt could be sourced to dry my lens but the morale was high.
Could little Russell Downing take the win? On his 31st birthday, Could the little Englishman who rides for the English continental team CandidTV/Marshalls Pasta beat some of the worlds top talent. The attacks went left and right from the leading group and little Downing, alone, isolated countered each one, like a giant.
As they climbed the hill on the second lap there were just seven left and the conditions were worsening. The race organisers cancelled the third ascent and began building an arc. As the bell rang out tension rumbled with the thunder in the sky. Downing had to finish clear of the main challengers as there was a 10 second bonus for the win and we all ran to the line to cheer. Wit 6Km to go Downing decided to win. As he countered Karston Kroon he just kept on going with last year's top ten rider Lars Petter Nordhaug (Joker). As Kroon cracked and Pinotti looked broken and finished: Downing sailed off- back onto the English squad for the worlds and o to the biggest win of his life. He gave the win to Lars and rode hopefully to a new level. The crowds on the hill came from the 4 corners of the world to see-to-see Lance. The masses flew, drove and biked their way in the rain to see Cav hit full throttle. Neither made it up the climb but none left disappointed. All cheered for little Downing, a wee biker with the soul and determination of ten men. Top marks.
myles mc corry