When former Tour de France rider and current double world track champion Cameron Meyer vaulted up 18 places to third overall on Thursday's fifth stage, some suggested he could go all the way and take the final overall An Post Rás victory on Sunday.
Others disagreed, pointing out that the talented rider was still a full two minutes and 35 seconds behind the new leader James Gullen. On Friday morning Australian team manager James Victor insisted things were difficult enough to make up the difference. "Today's stage is very hard," he told the Irish Times at the start in Dungloe. "We are going to go for it."
Indeed it certainly did seem to offer many opportunities, with seven categorised climbs including the feared category one Glengesh Pass. Exposed terrain also added a further difficulty in terms of wind. Anticipation was high that some very big battles were in store.
In the end, those expectations were confounded. The attacks did indeed rain down in the early part of the stage, splintering the peloton into several groups, and others tried to get clear after Glengesh. However at the end of the 132.1 kilometre race to Donegal town, a large group of 28 riders sprinted for the victory.
Yannis Yssaad (France Armée de Terre) was quickest to the line, beating stage one winner Nicolai Brochner Nielsen (Denmark Riwal Plaform) and the others to grab the win. Stage three winner Matthew Teggart (An Post Chain Reaction) was best of the Irish in seventh.
As for the overall classification, the tactical battle neutered the course difficulties and the positions and timegaps for the top 14 overall were completely unchanged. Gullen maintains his one minute five second lead over Ike Groen (Netherlands Delta Cycling Rotterdam), while Irishman Damien Shaw (An Post Chain Reaction) is fifth, four minutes 32 back.
“The stage was probably the worst-looking, profile-wise,” said Irishman Michael O’Loughlin, who sits ninth overall and is the leader of the best young rider competition. “I think everyone knew that early on…you could tell that everybody was apprehensive in the first few kilometres. It was probably the windiest day too, so those two factors were always going to play a big part.”
Early on Yssaad clipped away with five others, including Irishmen Christopher McGlinchey, Cormac McGeough (Cycling Ulster), Philip Lavery (Tipperary Panduit) and Eoin Morton (Ireland National Team), plus William Bjergfelt (Britain Neon Velo Cycling Team). They got over two minutes clear, and when the hammer went down behind the peloton shattered into three.
However after about an hour of racing the first two groups in that peloton had merged and the leaders had been caught. A subsequent attack by Przemyslaw Kasperkiewicz (Ireland An Post Chain Reaction) earned him maximum points on Glengesh and saw him join up with Thómas Rostollon (France Armée de Terre) in vying for the stage win. Yet, after Glencolumbkille and the category two climb of Maeenavaghran, a large chase group got up to them.
Despite more attacks, Gullen’s JLT Condor team was able to control things and ensure that big group sprint.
“This is the hardest stage of the An Post Rás, and I am very happy to take it,” said a surprised Yssaad who, like many others, expected things to be much more broken up. “I didn’t imagine this morning that I could win, and now I am very happy.”
So too Gullen, who is now just two stages away from taking overall victory and is gaining in confidence.
As for riders like Shaw and O’Loughlin, maintaining their top ten places overall is important, but chasing a stage win is more attractive again. The race continues Saturday with a flat 167.3 kilometre stage from Donegal to Ardee.
On paper it might not change much but, as the unexpectedly decisive fifth stage on Thursday and the peculiarly indecisive sixth stage on Friday showed, nothing is predictable about this race. If the crosswinds are blowing, anything could happen.