An Post Rás na mBan starts this evening in Ennis, County Clare with a 56km road stage starting at 5pm.
Ireland’s top international stage race for women is set for its biggest ever edition this year with 21 teams and 105 riders set to do battle on the roads of one Ireland’s most picturesque counties.
Reigning champion Kamilla Sofie Vallin is back with her Team Rytger squad from Denmark. Since last year’s success in Ireland, Vallin has taken victory in the Danish national road race championship and returns to Munster full of confidence and with a team packed with talent.
Last year’s runner-up Lydia Boylan is a late call up to an Ireland team that is perhaps the strongest ever fielded in the history of the event.
US-based professional Olivia Dillon, the 2010 and 2011 winner, returns to the event she missed last year with lots of tough European stage racing in her legs. Having ridden strongly in Tour de l’Ardeche in France last week, Dillon will hope to be well recovered for her final preparation race before the world championships in Italy.
National Road Race champion Mel Späth is, like Dillon, selected for the world championships in Florence later this month and, having taken victory in the County Classification of An Post Rás na mBan, will be looking forward to challenging for overall honours as a member of the Irish team.
Luxembourg have sent a national team to Ireland for the first time and the undoubted star is Christine Majerus, the London Olympian who won the Sparkassen Giro in Germany this year.
France and Norway are also represented with full teams for the first time. The DN Bretagne squad from Brittany has a strong line up while France also has an overall contender on the Trek Norway team in the form of Roxane Fournier, fresh from her stage placing in the Tour Feminin in France, one of the Grand Tours of women’s racing.
Two squads have travelled from the US for the event for the first time. Peanut Butter & Co Human Zoom from Philadelphia and the Ritte Women’s Cycle team from California both have overall race contenders, including Kathryn Donovan guesting with Ritte this week.
The aforementioned Trek Norway team includes Latvian world championship rider Vita Heine in a strong lineup.
The UK is, as ever, strongly represented with crack squads from England, Scotland and Wales. Hannah Barnes, the reigning British Circuit Race champion is guesting with the Irish-based DID Electrical team and is sure to feature.
The domestic Irish entry is of a hitherto unseen quantity and quality.
Two squads are entered from Munster with Sonia O’Sullivan the stand out name for the southern province. Ireland’s Sydney Olympic athletics heroine is the official race ambassador and is starting her first stage cycle race with the stated ambition of enjoying herself and finding out what international bike racing is about.
Her team mate Fiona Meade is a former stage and county winner who is sure to be in the hunt for the Clare County Council supported County Jersey.
A separate points competition has been added this year and the distinctive National Dairy Council blue points jersey is another coveted award.
Long-time Rás na mBan backers, the Irish Veteran Cyclists Association, support the Queen of the Hills competition to be decided over 14 classified climbs on the four road stages.
Meanwhile stage winners will this year receive further recognition with the Stena Line Stage winners jersey.
With at total of 410km of racing in six stages over the five days including, for the first time, a team time trial on Friday morning and a one-hour circuit race on a testing 4km circuit later that evening, there is plenty of variety in what will an arduous challenge.