18 April 2006

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The cycling enthusiasts of North Down CC have had plenty to keep them busy in the past week. The club's very active touring section had its first outing but the main event was, of course, the P&O Irish Sea Tour of the North, Northern Ireland's premier stage race.  Blessed with dry weather for the most part a full field of 135 riders battled it out over the four days of the Easter weekend. The prologue at Stormont was a close run thing and it was a Junior rider, Sam Webster of Team Kinesis who snatched the leader's jersey from Ards rider Martyn Irvine at the last minute on Friday evening, winning the tough hill sprint in a time of 2 mins 13secs, just one second ahead of Irvine.  Previous winners Tommy Evans and Ryan Connor were only a few seconds behind the leading two and most observers were predicting that it would be Evans and Connor who would be the men to watch, both having recently returned from the Commonwealth Games in good form.

After Saturday's stage at Ballymena, won by Scottish rider James McCallum at the head of a large bunch sprint, the lead switched to Greg Roche of West Pennine RC but Irvine and Evans were only two seconds behind and Connor a further five seconds back. The Sunday morning time trial in Bangor was expected to be an opportunity for opening some gaps among the riders and it proved to be a critical stage for Ryan Connor.  The young Ballymena man tore round the 7.2 mile circuit in a time of 14mins. 48secs. Roche's challenge evaporated  and it was Tommy Evans on 15.03 and Martyn Irvine on 15.08 who came closest to Connor on the day.  That ride put Connor in the leader's jersey with Evans and Irvine close behind.
 The afternoon's stage was a 60 mile circuit of the Ards peninsula.  The three leading riders were content to sit in the main bunch while a group of seven were allowed to build up a three minute lead, which was whittled down to 10 seconds as the riders hit the Groomsport Road roundabout. In the uphill sprint it was Frazer Duncan ( Northern/ Dave Kane ) who took the sprint from Willie Hamilton ( Terry Dolan.com ) and Greg Roche ( West Pennine ). None of these riders gained enough time to threaten the leaders and as the race headed for the final stage it was still Connor, Evans and Irvine occupying the first three places.
 The race organisers had planned the stages so that the final road stage would be the one that would decide the race and that is precisely what happened. The stage took in some of county Down's hardest climbs at Slieve Croob and the Windy Gap and on both of these climbs small groups got away but they were chased down as the riders approached the final miles. Then, former Tour winner Andy Proffitt ( Arctic Shorter Rochford ) launched an attack with former British Under 23 champion Neil Swithenbank ( MK Cycles ) and Jonathon Dempsey ( Classic Walls ) and although Proffitt went on to take the victory it was not enough to displace Connor from the top spot.  However, Proffitt's time bonus for winning the stage pushed him ahead of Martn Irvine and into joint second place with Tommy Evans.
 Ryan Connor's second win in three years at the age of 21 suggests that he could rewrite the records for the event.  Only one rider has ever won the race three times and that was back in the Fifties when Stan Brittain won the first three Tours.
Of the local riders Ards CC's Martyn Irvine finished fourth overall to further enhance his reputation as one of the most talented young riders in the country. His performance will boost his confidence a s he heads off to Belgium for a season's racing at the Sean Kelly academy.
Bangor's David Watson ( Northern/ Dave Kane ) former winner of the Kerry International Youth Tour has also been showing a return to form and the 19 year old will be well pleased with his 13th place in the general classification, a ride that helped the young Northern/ Dave Kane squad win the team trophy.
North Down's riders had mixed fortunes throughout the race. Philip Marshall, back racing after a one year lay off was the club's most consistent performer, finally finishing in 31st place, only 4 minutes behind the winner. This was an excellent performance considering Philip's lack of recent racing and it was good enough to rank him as second NICF rider behind Ryan Connor. Paul Ferguson was showing decent form too until a bad crash at Portaferry on Sunday's road stage put him out of the race. Ferguson fell heavily and was knocked out, necessitating a precautionary visit to hospital.  No serious injuries were identified and he was sent home. There was an encouraging ride from Tommy Simmons, a talented triathlete who has decided to focus on cycling this year.  Tommy was a late entry to the Tour but he performed well, finishing about halfway down the rankings and only losing 16 minutes overall.
North Down CC's season of club events got under way last Wednesday with a 5.5 mile circuit time trial, run off in windy conditions on the Kylestone Road circuit. In an attempt to encourage participation from the club's many new members with little or no experience of competitive cycling, a Novices' competition has been introduced.  Target times have been set for 1km, 5 miles, 10 miles and a circuit time trial, with bronze, silver and gold standards for each distance. Quite a few took up the challenge along with club regulars and there were some very impressive performances from the new riders. It was also good to see Liam Curran back on the bike in a club event for the first time in two or three seasons. The results are on the Results Page 
This week's club event is a 10 mile time trial. The standard times for novices are; gold under 28 mins., silver under 29.30 and bronze under 31mins.
The touring season got under way on Easter Tuesday with North Down CC's annual 100 mile ramble through county Down to Newcastle, returning via Strangford and the ferry crossing to Portaferry.  Congratulations are due to Amanda McCullough and Myles Geddis for completing their first century , especially in the case of Amanda who has only taken up cycling in the past year, having begun to cycle regularly last summer in North Down's mid week leisure rides.
The annual club trip to Majorca leaves in the early hours of Friday morning, the group consisting of the usual mixture of racing and cyclosportive riders. The racing group may be looking forward to a week of recovery riding in the sun, after the Tour of the North and the cyclosportive group will be seeking to build up some stamina for the season's series of long distance challenges that begin within two days of the return from Majorca with the 200km Tour of the Glens, one of the hardest rides in the whole of Ireland, taking place this year on Sunday April 3oth.
For those staying at home there is a choice of events this weekend. On Saturday the East Tyrone Spring Classic starts in Cookstown at noon, while on Sunday there are three races to choose from.  Road men can choose between the third round of the NICF time trial league at Glenshane, over 10 miles, or the Bann Valley Classic road race atClady, which gets under way at 2pm. The third option is the opening round of the National MTB Points Series competition at Castlewellan. Racing there starts at noon.
North Down CC once again will be organising a weekly leisure ride for those cyclists seeking to ride at a more modest speed and enjoy the company of fellow cyclists. The first outing will be Thursday May 4th, departing from the Groomsport Road roundabout at 7pm.  The distance is 22 miles, covered at around 12mph, on average. These runs will continue
right throughout the summer, every Thursday until September and are open to everyone. The North Down club strongly advises riders to wear a helmet and, in the event of a puncture riders should bring a pump and a spare tube.

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