Completing a hat-trick of stage victories and landing his sixteenth win of the season, Team Columbia's Mark Cavendish further extended his race lead on today's 201 kilometre third stage of the Tour of Ireland.
Italian rider Bernardo Riccio (Tinkoff Credit Systems) was second in the 93-man dash to the line in Salthill, Galway, with Julian Dean (Garmin Chipotle) and Alexander Kristoff (Joker Bianchi) third and fourth.
Cavendish's dominance saw him further extend his race lead, ending the day twenty seconds ahead of Dean and 25 up on Kristoff. He is now two days away from winning the 2.1-ranked race, although he and his team are understandably cautious about their chances of defending his lead on the more mountainous final stages. Even so, Columbia riders Michael Barry and Marco Pinotti are both 34 seconds back and poised to strike if needs be.
Today's stage began in Ballinrobe and took the riders on a 201 kilometre loop through the rugged, lake dotted Connemara region. It featured two category two climbs, a pair of category three ascents and three An Post intermediate sprints.
A number of riders tried to get clear early on, with Kieran Page (Pezula Racing) and Kurt Hovelijnck (Topsport Vlaanderen) finally succeeding when they darted away inside the first twenty five kilometres. They surged away before the category two climb of Finny, and worked well together to build a maximum lead of three minutes 55 seconds.
Page was doing a greater share of the work and Hovelijnck suddenly dropped out of the break approximately 90 kilometres into the stage. He pulled to the side of the road for what was reported as a toilet stop, although it was uncertain afterwards if he had been experiencing stomach problems.
Page is one of several riders facing the end of the financially-troubled Pezula team and, like yesterday's lone escapee Fredrik Ericsson, he is using this race to chase a new deal for 2009. He plugged away over the following climbs and eked out a maximum advantage of five minutes ten seconds, collecting a cluster of points for the king of the mountains and sprint competitions.
However Cavendish's team was determined to set things up for another sprint and reduced his advantage in the latter part of the race. Page was caught and passed by Spanish rider Juan Francisco Mouron (Karpin Galicia) approximately 65 kilometres from the finish, with both riders being subsequently reeled in by the peloton.
For complete results and photos, visit Cyclingnews.com.