IT’S BEEN ANOTHER busy week for Irish cyclists as the An Post-Sean Kelly team continue their sojourn in the Middle East at the Tour of Oman while Nicolas Roche finally got his season underway at the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal.
For the An Post-Sean Kelly team, the six stage Tour of Oman provides another opportunity to race against some of the best riders in the world. Having shown themselves at the front of the race repeatedly in Qatar last week, team manager Kurt Bogaerts was hoping for more of the same in Oman:
“Last week we showed that we are capable of racing with the top teams against the top guys, so it has given everyone a massive boost. We were involved in many big breaks and the main action almost every day. I really believe all we need is a little more luck to get the big result we deserve.”
Thus far in Oman, the team is still waiting for that big result, but once more there has been no lack of action from them at the front of the peloton which will again please Bogaerts. On the first stage last Tuesday, Mark McNally made it into the break of the day along with Pieter Serry (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator) and Tanel Kangert (Astana). Although the break was caught with 10km to go in the stage, the Liverpudlian McNally managed to pick up three bonus seconds in the intermediate sprints. Subsequently riding in as part of the peloton behind eventual stage winner Theo Bos (Rabobank). McNally’s efforts throughout the day left him in fifth place overall.
On Stage Two the following day, another An Post-Sean Kelly rider attacked and formed part of a breakaway early in the stage, this time it was the Irish rider Mark Cassidy. He was joined by four other riders, Dymtro Krivtsov (Lampre-ISD), Stijn Neirynck (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator), Daniele Ratto (Geox-TMC) and Ronan Van Zandbeek (Skil-Shimano).
The group established a lead of almost four minutes at one point, but were eventually swallowed by a large group of riders which had split from the peloton. The subsequent sprint finish was won by Matthew Goss (HTC-High Road), his sixth victory already this year.
Unfortunately, Mark McNally, well-placed before the second stage, didn’t make the front split in the peloton and ended the stage more than ten minutes back, thus losing his fifth place overall. But Cassidy managed to stay with the resulting front group of 70, and due to two bonus seconds he managed in an intermediate sprint, he ended the day in 14th place overall.
Impressively, on Stage Three yesterday, An Post-Sean Kelly made it a hat-trick of breakaways, this time it was the turn of Kevin Claeys to spend the day off the front of the peloton. The young Belgian made it into a breakway containing Marcus Burghardt (BMC Racing), Vitaliy Kondrut (Lampre-ISD), Mark Kumpo (Geox-TMC) and Patrik Sinkewitz (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli).
The quintet gained a maximum advantage of five minutes before the peloton reeled them in with 10km to go. Theo Bos won his second stage of the race by winning the resulting bunch sprint. Niko Eeckhout finished eighth for the An Post-Sean Kelly team on the stage and Cassidy remains the team’s best placed rider on G.C. in 13th place, 15 seconds behind current leader Matt Goss.
Sam Bennett, who finished 69th, 99th and 101st on the first three stages respectively and sits 104th overall, talked about his impressions of the Tour of Oman in a recent interview with cyclingnews.com:
I never experienced anything like this, the mixture of the level of the riders and the wind and the roads.
You can see how experienced lads are in the field. They have so much power, you can tell they’re at it for years, they’re just hardened pros. They just know what they’re doing. Everything is so cool. In an amateur race, it’s panic and chaos. Here, it’s more ‘this is what’s happening, and here’s how we counteract it.
Five of the eight riders that make up the An Post-Sean Kelly team in Oman are eligible for the young rider competition (for under-25s). These Middle Eastern Tours are providing these young riders with fantastic experience for the team’s major goals for the season, the Belgian semi-classics and the An Post Rás. They have also provided the team and An Post itself with massive media exposure over the last couple of weeks.
The Tour of Oman continues today with Stage Four, which culminates with a summit finish. Consequently, in a race that has thus far been dominated by the sprinters, there should be a major shakeup in the general classification.
Nicolas Roche has began his season at the Volta ao Algarve, after recovering from a knee problem which delayed his return to racing. Philippe Gilbert, won the opening stage on Wednesday in a style befitting of his moniker as the most consistent classics rider in world cycling, by attacking out of the bunch in the final 500 metres to surprise the sprinters. Yesterday’s stage was won by the first-year pro John Degenkolb, who won two stages and the points classification in last year’s Rás.
Roche has performed modestly, finishing 1’14″ back on Stage One and 1’15″ behind on Stage Two. He will be using the race as training for his first major goal of the season, Paris-Nice, which starts on March 6th. The last time Roche raced in Portugal was in 2008 at the GP Paredes Rota dos Moveis when he won the first stage and held the race lead for two days. For such a strong and talented rider as Roche, surprisingly, this is one of only five victories throughout his professional career.
Alberto Contador also returned to racing in the Algarve after the Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) decided not to sanction him after testing positive for Clenbuterol during last year’s Tour de France. Either the International Cycling Union (UCI) or the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) are expected to appeal this decision in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, cycling fans are left with the farcical scenario that Contador is free to race until the matter is resolved. Should Contador subsequently be sanctioned, any results which he achieves in the meantime will be expunged.
The five-day Volta ao Algarve continues with Stage Three tomorrow which concludes with an uphill finish. Contador won the corresponding stage last year on his way to overall victory.