If there were any doubts that this An Post Rás could go right down to the wire on Sunday, stage five to Clonakilty indicated that the next three days will most likely be nail biting.
Dutchman Wouter Mol (Netherlands Join-S De Rijke) won the uphill sprint to the line ahead of Troels Ronning Vinther (Denmark Riwal Platform) and Irish trio Eoin Morton (Dublin UCD Fitzcycles), Conor Dunne (Britain JLT Condor p/b Mavic) and Damien Shaw (Ireland An Post Chain Reaction).
But perhaps the bigger picture is the loosening of the grip on the yellow jersey of Clemens Fankhauser, the 2014 race winner. In the race lead since Tuesday, the Austrian appeared to have lost some confidence.
“It was a pretty tough day,” he said, sounding deflated. “On the first long climb I lost some team-mates and I had to control it first on my own… The others realised I was running out of steam so they continued to attack.”
As a result he was left isolated when attacks materialised. Irish hope Eddie Dunbar was very aggressive and while his forays off the front were ultimately hauled back, a dangerous move went 85 kilometres after the start in Sneem.
Dunne and Ike Groen (Netherlands Join-S De Rijke) knuckled down together and were later joined by Mol, Ronning Vinther, Morton, Shaw, Marc Potts (Britain Neon Velo Cycling Team), Sean Lacey and Sean McKenna (both Cork Aquablue), Ronan McLaughlin (Ireland National Team) and Matthew Holmes (Britain Madison Genesis).
Building a lead approaching two minutes, this caused panic for Fankhauser. Both Holmes and Shaw had started the day just 29 seconds back and despite hard chasing by the race leader, his team and the Australian squad, the gap dropped very slowly.
Fankhauser’s bunch eventually finished 27 seconds after Mol win the stage; as a result, he ended the day a mere two seconds ahead of Holmes and Irish national champion Shaw. There are five others within ten seconds of him, and he knows he will face an onslaught of attacks between now and Sunday.
“I’m lucky to be still in yellow. It’s hard to control this race as I only have four guys. We have to be happy if we stay on the podium but I’m afraid that we can lose everything.”
Riders like Holmes and Shaw will hope to take advantage of this, and so too the Irish national development team of Dunbar. He is just 19 seconds back and is likely to ramp up his aggression in the final three days.
Team manager David McCann said that the team will continue to attack, and believes that if others had not been so passive Dunbar could be a lot closer to yellow now.
“It would have been ideal if some guys had gone with Eddie, but they sat back,” he said.
He will hope that changes on today’s stage to Dungarvan – as will the likes of challangers like Shaw.