An Post deliver second stage win as Irvine and Mullen make moves
Lithuanian fastman Aidis Kruopis of the An Post Chain Reaction team led home an eight-strong front group to claim victory at the end of stage four of the An Post Rás in Newport.
While Austrian race leader Lukas Postlberger retained his yellow jersey for another day, the flattest day on this year's Rás saw many of his rivals lose their place in the top 10, while Irish duo Martyn Irvine (Madison Genesis) and Ryan Mullen (An Post Chain Reaction) moved up to third and fourth place overall.
The absence of any categorised climbs en route from Bearna to Newport saw some very aggressive racing from the start of the 155km stage with the race fracturing and regrouping several times.
Last year's winner Clemens Fankhauser (Hrinkow Advarics) was part of a nine-man group that went clear when the race turned into a strong crosswind after 20km.
The group also included Irish trio Stephen Murray (Cork Strata3/Velorevolution) and Chris Reilly and David Watson of Down Graham Powerhouse Sport.
When this group's lead grew to a minute and a half, race leader Postlberger of the Austrian Tirol team took up the chase behind and after 41 kilometres there was a new 22-strong group at the head of affairs.
Ronan McLaughlin of the Cork Aquablue team attacked this new group a few times as the race headed towards Spiddal and managed to drag himself clear with Belgian Jimmy Janssens for company.
With 45km left to go, the duo had a minute and a half lead as the yellow jersey group split under pressure of the chase behind them.
With the entire An Post Chain Reaction team in the chase group, the postmen were keen to open a gap between themselves and some of their nearest rivals, who had been stranded back in the bunch, and reeled in former team-mate McLaughlin and Janssens with around 30km remaining.
"We let the breaks go early on, knowing we'd reel them in in the crosswinds," said Mullen. "That's when the race just blew apart. We went to the right-hand side of the road and just whacked it as a team. We looked aback after about 20km and there were about six groups on the road, so we kept going until some more damage was done."
Constant attacking saw the composition of the lead group continue to change until eight riders jumped clear outside Westport and opened a 47-second advantage on the rest by the finish in Newport.
Sprinter Kruopis had team-mates Josh Edmondson and Mullen alongside him in the lead group and when defending champion Clemens Fankhauser of Austria took the wrong turn out of the last corner, the Lithuanian had no trouble delivering another stage win.
"We had a plan today. Everything worked really well and we got another stage victory," said Kruopis. "We knew it would a hard day with the winds and we tried to stay in the front all day."
The An Post Chain Reaction squad have Edmondson, another former Sky rider, in second place overall at a minute and five seconds, with Mullen leading the U-23 classification in fifth overall at 1min 49secs.
"I've got a three-minute advantage in the U-23 jersey now but it's still only halfway through the race so I've just got to take it day by day. I came here to win stages and thought the GC would be out the window for me, but it's going well."
Behind Kruopis, former Sky rider Davide Vigano (Team IDEA CONAD) outsprinted British pro Ian Bibby of NFTO for second while former track world champion Irvine took fourth ahead of race leader Postlberger, Edmondson and Mullen.
"Today went as I thought it would go," said Irvine, who is now best-placed Irish rider in third overall. "Our group split away coming in the road and I messed up the finish. With 200 metres to go we turned right and Fankhauser went the wrong way, so there was a bit of confusion. I was fourth into the corner and that's where I finished."