Not since 1992 and the final Nissan International Classic has Ireland had its own professional stage race. Now, big time professional cycling is back, with the inaugural Tour of Ireland starting its five day journey around the Emerald Isle on Wednesday August 22.
Principal sponsors Fáilte Ireland, the Irish tourism board, see the Tour as the perfect vehicle to expose the natural beauty of Ireland's landscape to an estimated global TV audience of around 100 million viewers in the USA, Japan, Australia, South Africa and mainland Europe.
The race route has all the ingredients of a top class stage race with 864km in total to be covered over the five stages. The first 160km-leg leaves Kilkenny Castle for Cork with two ascents of the brutally steep St. Patrick's Hill before the finish on South Mall. The scene of some of some epic battles in the Tour's predecessor, the Nisan Classic, this short, sharp climb reduced some continental pros to walking in the 80s.
Thursday's second stage sees the race start in Clonakilty, taking in a scenic but demanding 176km route with five climbs along the way, including the category one Healy Pass before the finish in Killarney. A mainly flat 190km stage from Tralee to Ennis follows on Friday, before a tough 232km penultimate stage on Saturday. Irish road race champion David O'Loughlin will be keen to impress here as the race takes in the rugged beauty of Connemara, via O'Loughlin's home village of Cong (location for the John Wayne film, The Quiet Man). The final stage will leave Athlone and head through Mullingar, Kinnegad and Enfield on its way to Dublin, before finishing with a spectacular ten laps of a circuit based in Merrion Square.
Former world number one Sean Kelly believes the event will be of massive importance to the sport in Ireland. "I think it's fantastic to finally get an event like this back on the calendar here," said Kelly. "The popularity of the old Nissan Classic was unbelievable and if we get anything like that again, then it's going to be the biggest sporting event in Ireland this year."
As well as a national team, led by professionals Nicolas Roche (Credit Agricole), Paul Griffin (Giant Asia) and Philip Deignan (AG2R), Ireland will also have David McCann (Colavita / Sutter Home), current road champ David O'Loughlin (Navigators) and the Murphy & Gunn / Newlyn Group / M. Donnelly team on the start line. The country's only continental professional team is based in Belgium at the Sean Kelly Academy most of the year and are chomping at the bit to get the chance to show the Irish public what they can do. "We've ridden a lot more at this level in Belgium and all over Europe this year," says 23-year-old Páidí O'Brien. "We're all getting older now. We've raced against the big guys a lot more now. The big thing for us now is not to be afraid of anyone and to get stuck in and do what we're capable of doing. We're going to take it as it comes. We'll go for stages and hopefully we should be up there for the overall as well."
The home riders will be up against stiff opposition though. The UCI 2.1 ranked event has attracted ProTour outfits CSC, T-Mobile and Unibet.com among its 16 teams of seven riders. This year's Giro d'Italia runner-up Andy Schleck and his brother Frank (CSC), 2003 Tour De France green jersey winner Baden Cooke (Unibet), and sprinters Jeremy Hunt (Unibet) Max Richeze (Panaria), Bernard Eisel (T-Mobile) and Edvald Boasen Hagen (Maxbo Bianchi) will also be looking for glory en route to Dublin.