Prestige stage set for tenth birthday

by Gazette Reporter

SUNDAY, May 24 will see Skerries host the final stage of the An Post Ras for an unprecedented 10th consecutive year, on the event’s 63rd edition.

Ireland’s most significant international cycling race takes place over eight stages, setting off from Dunboyne, Co Meath, on Sunday, May 17.

It subsequently takes in 14 counties, with stops including Carlow, Tipperary, Ballina and Drogheda along the route.

Organiser Michael O’Donoghue is the sportsman on the race committee, but sees the event in a far wider context than simply as a cycling event, focusing instead on the street party that the Ras brings to the town.

“I’m one of very few people on the committee who’s into cycling”, O’Donoghue explains.

“The focus is very much on being part of the Skerries social calendar, so most of the committee are local community organisers.

“It’s built around the cycling, but we’ll be focusing on the atmosphere, not the race. It’s become Skerries’ largest street festival.”

The theme of the festival for 2015 will be Fitness and Fun for All, with static bikes, fitness testing and healthy eating stalls added to the festival’s annual attractions.

“There are over 50 community groups involved, and we try to lay on a lot of attractions.

“This year those will include a farmers’ market, street entertainers, bouncy castles, magic performers and craft stalls.

“We’ll be spending more on it than we ever have before, with loads of community involvement. There will be a lot to do.”

That expansive final-stage party has drawn between 3,000 and 4,000 spectators to the sprint finish over the past few years. However, O’Donoghue hopes the extra planning efforts for the 10th anniversary may lead to a still greater turn out this year.

“We hope it will be the best-attended final stage yet”, O’Donoghue says. “Fingal County Council has been great in their funding and support. There’s strong community support.

“The route really shows off Skerries. It’s a beautiful route taking in the castle, the town centre and the coast.

“It’s fantastic for Skerries to be able to bring an influx of international visitors. The teams come complete with doctors, mechanics and managers, so it’s a significant tourism boost for the town.”

Among cycling fanatics, the Ras has developed a reputation as a proving ground for world class athletes, with previous winners including three-time world time trial champion and Olympic silver medallist Tony Martin, and winner of this year’s notorious Paris-Roubaix race John Degenkolb, both of Germany.

The final stage is spectator friendly, looping three times through the Black Hills and back into the city to enable plenty of access to all the action for spectators. The third loop has been added this year as a special spectator-friendly 10th anniversary extra. The racers are expected to arrive in Skerries shortly after 2pm, with the winner crowned at a trophy presentation at 4pm.

Things should be competitive. The final “prestige” stage is “generally the one people want to win”, O’Donogue says. “It’s the homecoming stage, so even if the winner of the event is already clear, riders want to take the cheers of the crowd. It’s the best attended stage and the one people remember.”

Major teams competing this year include the Team Novo Nordisk development squad, who will feature only type 1 diabetic riders, who are aiming to prove that sportsmen can compete alongside controlled type 1 diabetes. The Canadian and New Zealand national teams will attend, while the previously successful Azerbaijan Synergy Baku Team will return to chase further stage wins.

“The Ras coming to the same town for a 10th consecutive year is unprecedented. Obviously, it’s a huge boost for the local area.” O’Donoghue concludes. “We’re hoping it will be huge.”

This year’s full route of 1,200kms omits many of the previous year’s tougher climbs, featuring no category one and just two category two ascents. This is expected to open up the 2015 circuit to attacks over windy routes providing little shelter, so hopes for a thrilling festival finish are high.

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