Tour de France stage winner Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC) showed the same speed which won him six stages in this year's Tour de France when he galloped home first on today's leg of the 2009 Tour of Ireland, hitting the line ahead of Michael Van Staeyen (Rabobank), Stuart O'Grady (Team Saxo Bank) and the rest of a 93-man main bunch.
The 24-year-old Briton followed on from his three stage victories last year, having little problems after some strong leadout work from his Columbia-HTC team. The Astana squad of Lance Armstrong had tried to split the bunch in crosswinds on the run in to the finish but were unable to do so.
Overnight race leader Russell Downing finished 17th on the stage and kept a strong grip on the yellow jersey. He ended the day five seconds ahead of Alexander Kolobnev (Team Saxo Bank) and a further two ahead of the latter's team-mate Matti Breschel (Team Saxo Bank). Irishman Philip Deignan (Cervélo Test Team) is fourth, with last year's champion Marco Pinotti (Team Columbia - HTC) 11 seconds back in fifth.
Last year Downing lost his race lead on the final lap of a torturous finishing circuit in Cork city, but he said that this year 's finale could be different. "They've reduced the laps by one," he said. "If it was three laps last year I would have won the race, so we'll see how it goes. I'm feeling pretty good but there are a lot of strong riders close by - Saxo Bank have five, Astana have two, and there are others. We'll see how it goes."
The 196 kilometre stage was marked by a long breakaway by two riders, Dutchman Dennis Van Winden (Rabobank) and Irishman Mark Cassidy of the An Post M. Donnelly/Grant Thornton/Sean Kelly team. These went clear very soon after the start in Clonmel.
Cassidy took the An Post bonus sprint in Ardfinnan, while Van Winden was first to the top of the second category Vee and Musheramore climbs, shedding Cassidy on the latter. He also took the An Post sprints in Castletownroche and Millstreet. However, although he was still clear at the summit of the first category Curragh climb, he was reeled in with approximately 20 kilometres remaining.
That made a bunch sprint almost certain and so it proved, with Columbia having little problems in delivering Cavendish to yet another victory. Tomorrow's stage sees the race reach its finale on a 185 kilometre run from Bantry to Cork. The finishing circuit is, by his own admission, too tough for him, but the team's emphasis will switch to Pinotti's bid to take home another yellow jersey in this prestigious 2.1 event.
A total of 22 riders are within 26 seconds of Downing's jersey, including Astana's Armstrong. The race remains wide open and should present an utterly gripping finish in front of the passionate Irish fans.
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