Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC) did what he does best at the end of stage 2 of the Tour of Ireland. After a fast, slightly downhill leadout from his man Bernie Eisel, Cavendish turned on the afterburners to take the victory ahead of Rabobank’s Michael Van Staeyen and Saxo Bank’s Stuart O’Grady.
“It’s great to win,” Cavendish said. “It was a tough circuit but once the peloton came back together we took control with 2km to go.”
Stage 1 winner Russell Downing (Candi TV) retained the yellow leader’s jersey, five seconds ahead of Alexander Kolobnev and seven seconds in front of Matti Breschel (both Saxo Bank).
The 196km stage west from Clonmel to Killarney ended in a sprint after an all-day, two-man breakaway was captured, with Candi TV and Saxo Bank motoring the peloton.
The stage marked Cavendish’s 25 victory of the season. In 2009, he’s scored at least one win in every stage race he has contested.
“This was a team victory; it always is,” he said. “They’re my friends as much as my teammates. One guys crosses the line with his arms in the air but it’s a success for all of us and we all get a glass of wine at dinner.”
The two rovers
Clear, sunny skies greeted the race at the start, and two young riders got right down to business after the gun fired. Just 3km into the stage, Dennis Van Winden (Rabobank) and Mark Cassidy (An Post) went clear and rode their way to a maximum lead of 16 minutes.
With five riders among the 22 still in contention for the general classification, Saxo Bank drove the pack most of the day, with race leader Downing’s Candi TV putting riders on the front as well. “We have to be seen doing something,” Downing said. “We can’t just get a free ride. And the boys did a brilliant job.”
The first obstacle of the day was the Cat. 2 climb up the Vee. Van Winden and Cassidy, son of former Irish cycling great Philip Cassidy, traded pulls up the tree-shrouded lower slopes of the Vee. Huge crowds greeted the pair as the pine trees gave way to the bare upper reaches of the mountain, and fans stood on stone walls with great views of the bucolic scene in the valley below.
At the KOM line, people weren’t the only spectators; a flock of sheep grazed lazily on the damp, heather-covered hills. The high-strung riders at the front of the pack were interested in a fleece of another sort, however, and Jay Thomson (MTN-Energade) took third on the KOM behind the breakaway pair to take the virtual climber’s jersey from Matt White (Team Type 1).
Although the sun was shining, the rough, narrow roads and buffeting winds took their toll on the riders.
“It was kinda long and a little arduous, with these bumpy slow roads and the wind,” said American Tony Cruz (BMC). “It’s unbelievable. I don’t know if Sean Kelly asked to have the roads paved this way, but they’re rough.”
Astana’s Lance Armstrong seconded the sentiment: “With some of the roads we were on today, it felt like we needed suspension for my back.”
In the break, Van Winden dropped Cassidy on the Cat. 2 Musheramore climb. After Cassidy crossed the KOM line, the Wilson-Thomson battle continued, with Team Type 1’s Aussie climber getting the advantage this time.
Cassidy was swept up by the peloton before the final climb of the day, the Cat. 1 Curragh, with 42km to go. As the peloton crested Curragh, Type 1’s Wilson grabbed maximum KOM points to retain his red climber’s jersey.
“We were fighting pretty hard,” Wilson said. “On the first (KOM on the Vee), there wasn’t a signpost at 1km to go, and that caused a bit of confusion. So I lost a few points there; I didn’t score any at all. So I rallied the guys pretty hard to attack on the next two to make sure (Thomson) lost points.”
After the climb, Van Winden’s lead was 2:30 and falling and the still-intact peloton began to wind up the chase.
“I wanted to be in the breakaway today,” Van Winden said. “I was hoping to be in a bigger breakaway, not just two guys, but that’s what we had. But it was good training today. After this we have the (Dutch) national time trial, the Tour de l’Avenir and then the (under-23) world championships.”
After sweeping up Van Winden, the pack into the tourist town of Killarney, the peloton ripped through two roundabouts in the final 3km, causing a few riders to lose position in split-second decisions on which line to take.
Downing got mixed up with about 1km to go. “Pete (Williams) was doing a brilliant job of leading me out, but I went to the wrong side of an island,” he said. “We had to do a big effort to get back into position, and then when I stepped out into the wind I had nothing.”
BMC’s Cruz had good position, but ran into another problem on the slight downhill finish: “I honestly needed a bigger gear,” he said. “I topped out, and that was it. I came into the final turn sixth or seventh wheel. When it came time to go, I was already spun out, and I had to sit down with 100 meters to go.”
Cavendish had no such problems, and came across the line with his hands in the air.
Uncorking the queen stage
The Tour of Ireland concludes Sunday with a 185km ride from the south end of the island in Bantry to Cork, where riders will tackle the sharp St. Patrick’s Hill three times.
“It’s very tough,” Armstrong said of the 5km finishing circuit. “I suspect the field will be very small on the circuits, especially for the guys who aren’t having a good day. If there are showers and the weather turns bad, it could be a tough day, a classic day.”
There are 22 riders still in the GC hunt, with at least 2:12 on the rest of the field. Astana has Armstrong, Jani Brajkovic and Haimar Zubeldia. Saxo Bank has O’Grady, Kolobnev, Breschel, Jakob Fuglsang and Karsten Kroon. Columbia-HTC has 2008 race winner Marco Pinotti and American Craig Lewis. And Cervélo TestTeam has Philip Deignan in fourth, 10 seconds out of the jersey, plus Daniel Lloyd and Gabriel Rasch.