Returning to the race determined to improve on his second overall of last year, Russell Downing took the best result of his career when he won the Tour of Ireland in atrocious conditions.
The British rider gave himself the best birthday present when he broke clear with Joker Bianchi's Lars Petter Nordhaug in the closing kilometres, having previously coped with the attacks from defending champion Marco Pinotti (Columbia HTC), several members of the Saxo Bank squad plus other riders.
They threw all they could at him but he refused to buckle, then turned defence into offence when he attacked with approximately four kilometres to go. Nordhaug also went with him.
It was a complete reversal of last year's finale when, as race leader, Downing was unable to follow a late attack by Pinotti and slipped out of yellow.
"The guys were attacking me all day... it was pretty nervous racing and hard to work out what was going to come back and what could stay away," the CandiTV - Marshall's Pasta rider said afterwards. "I actually got in a move myself to relieve the stress and try to put people on the back foot. I think it worked, it got people panicking."
"I felt strong out there... as soon as we came onto the big climb [St. Patrick's Hill] I was really good. I looked across at Pinotti and his tongue was out and everything, but I was there feeling pretty comfortable. This is definitely my biggest result."
The 31-year-old is riding with the CandiTV Marshall's Pasta squad, a relatively small outfit based in Britain. But, as Breschel said, he's very strong and deserves a ride with a top team.
"I'd hope this result will help," said Downing. "I've had no discussions as yet but hopefully Monday it will start." He'll also hope for a rethink on Britain's world championship selection which has left him out, despite the fact that he was the only finisher from the team last year.
Twelve months ago, Nordhaug finished fifth on the final stage and seventh overall. He improved considerably on that today, making a podium appearance vis-à-vis the stage result and ending the race as runner-up to Downing. "This is for sure my biggest win," said the past Norwegian national MTB champion. "I like this circuit very much. I am a former mountain bike rider so with these conditions too I enjoy it. For sure it is pretty dangerous so you have to be careful."
He said that the key to his success was biding his time, picking his moment. "They were really attacking Russell Downing all the time so I think they were tired from that," he said of the other contenders. "I had to just watch a bit and then attack for myself with the right move. Russell Downing also attacked at almost the same time, so then we went away and just rode hard to the finish."
They crossed the line 33 seconds ahead of the next group of chasers: Matti Breschel (Team Saxo Bank), Craig Lewis (Team Columbia - HTC) plus six others. Pinotti was also in this bunch.
The large crowds who turned out to see Lance Armstrong were disappointed; the American pulled out on the first passage over the finish line, without starting St. Patrick's Hill. He indicated afterwards that his back was sore. Lashed by rain almost all stage and facing a very tough finishing circuit, more than half of the 103 starters did not finish.
For full results, report and photos, visit Cyclingnews.com.
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