Irish riders gear up for another busy weekend

Daniel Martin heads to Spain while Nicolas Roche will hope to improve on last year’s Paris-Nice performance.

Image: Inpho

IT IS ANOTHER busy week for Irish cyclists as seven of our riders prepare for races taking place in Spain, Belgium and France.

Daniel Martin makes his way to the Tour of Murcia, a three-day race in south-eastern Spain.

The race contains two hilly stages and concludes with a 12.4km time trial on Sunday. The hilly stages will give Martin an opportunity to test his form once more having netted a third place stage finish in the Tour of the Mediterranean. Unfortunately,  neither hilly stage contains a summit finish on which Martin tends to thrive.

The last two times that Martin has ridden a short stage race in Spain he managed 14th in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco last year and finished second in the Volta a Catalunya in 2009 (finishing behind Alejandro Valverde who has since been suspended for his involvement with Operation Puerto).

The Tour of Murcia is a good indicator of early season form and is often used by Tour de France favourites as a key preparation race. It has been won in the past by Tour winners Pedro Delgado, Miguel Indurain and Marco Pantani.

In Belgium, today sees the start of the Three Days of West Flanders. The An Post-Sean Kelly team will be present in Flanders with Mark Cassidy making up part of the eight-man squad. Cassidy’s form this early in the season has been particularly pleasing to team manager Kurt Bogaerts:

“I have been really impressed with Cassidy’s start to the season; he has been very consistent, which is usually his biggest problem! Last Saturday he was involved in all the big breakaways and I really think it was one of his best races for us. He has another opportunity in tomorrow’s race, so I really hope his fine form continues.”

Niko Eeckhout, who won this race overall in 2006 when he also won the final stage, will be road captain for the An Post-Sean Kelly Team as they search for their first win of the season.

Irish champion, Matt Brammeier (HTC-High Road) will also race in the Three Days of West Flanders as he continues his classics-centred race program. Brammeier’s finished an excellent 22nd place in last Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and followed that up midweek with an 82nd place at the GP Le Samyn.

The Three Days of West Flanders kicks off today with a prologue time trial and will be followed up with two hard stages around the narrow roads of Flanders which will be strewn with road furniture. The prologue has been re-instated in the race after an absence of six years. The short 7km test against the clock may suit Brammeier as he performed well in the prologue of the Tour of Qatar where he finished in 10th, albeit over the shorter distance of 2.5km.

What are they
really like?

Rare insights on sport's biggest names from the writers who know them best. Listen to Behind the Lines podcast.

Become a Member

Low hopes?

The An Post-Sean Kelly team will also be taking part in the Belgian one-day race Vlaamse Pijl on Saturday where a six-man team includes Ronan McLauglin, Sam Bennett and Philip Lavery. The race signals the first time that Ireland’s two young prospects Bennett and Lavery have competed together for the team.

Meanwhile Nicolas Roche is preparing for the first race of the year which is considered a genuine season goal for some riders – Paris-Nice. The eight-day stage race gets underway on Sunday as Roche will aim to improve on his performance in the same race last year. Roche finished the 2010 edition in 10th place having completed the race with a seventh, a fifth and two third place finishes. The traditional opening prologue time trial has been done away with and has been replaced with a much longer 27km time trial which comes on Stage Six.

This will be Roche’s first time trial of the season and will give him a chance to show an improvement after spending his first winter with access to a time trial bike for training sessions. A 17th place in the GP di Lugano over the weekend may indicate that he is coming into a bit of form.

Big names

Roche will be in illustrious company at Paris-Nice as there are plenty of heavy hitting G.C. riders due to take part. The likes of Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Tony Martin (HTC-High Road), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) and Frank Schleck (Leopard-Trek) will all be hoping to put one over on their rivals this early in the season.

Alberto Contador will be conspicuous in his absence. Contador has taken the unusual decision to ride the Tour of Murcia instead of Paris-Nice. The only other year that Contador did not ride Paris-Nice was 2008, when his Astana team were not invited by race organisers ASO due to the past doping misdemeanors of his team.

Of all the professional cycling races on the World Tour calendar, Paris-Nice is the one which has been most dominated by Irish riders in the past. Stephen Roche won it in 1981 in what was his first major race as a professional. Sean Kelly then followed up by winning the race on a remarkable seven consecutive occasions between 1982 and 1988. The Irish pair even managed a 1-2 in both 1984 and 1985. During these eight glorious years in Paris-Nice, Kelly and Roche won 18 stages of this historic race.

Nicolas Roche will be eager to add to that Irish stage tally, as he remains without a victory since his 2009 success in the Irish road race championships. British Eurosport will have live coverage of Paris-Nice starting this Sunday and continuing until its conclusion the following Sunday March 13th.

About the author:

Cillian Kelly  / Twitter: @irishpeloton

Read next: