Rás offers a racing chance
Kilkenny City is used to seeing its traffic brought to a halt in early September in honour of sports stars. Today, instead of Brian Cody's hurlers, it will be the 100-plus riders of An Post Rás na mBan causing road closures.
This evening's criterium is the showpiece stage of the five-day international race. Yesterday's first ever summit finish at Mount Leinster - won by race leader Rikke Lonne of Denmark, ahead of Ireland's Lydia Boylan (pictured) - may prove the most decisive, but the organisers are hoping today's three laps around the town will help bring the race to the attention of a wider audience.
For those on the streets, it will be hard to miss the towering 6ft 3in frame of Magnus Backstedt, who will be keeping a close eye on the racing. The legendary Paris-Roubaix winner has brought his 'Backstedt' team of British and Swedish teenage girls to Co Kilkenny to help them learn the ropes of a large senior peloton.
The five-rider team, who are racing under an exemption due to their status as the top youth riders in the UK, includes his 14-year-old daughter Elynor.
"It's by far the biggest race they've ever done," says the 41-year-old Swede. "They've noticed the step up this week, no question about that, but there's so much race-craft to learn. This is so much about teaching them the trade."
On Thursday in Castlecomer, Backstedt could be seen squeezing into the back of a team car covered in the purple of gold colours of the Wexford Wheelers.
He followed the second stage at the business end, with three of his riders sticking with the reduced group that stayed together over two categorised climbs all the way to the finish. Elynor's drive to the front on the final bends before the finish was quietly predicted by her father. She finished 15th, but this is more about what she can learn.
Development is a common theme. The Rás started with a record number of over 120 riders on Wednesday from 25 different countries, which is a far cry from the 30-odd racers who took to the start line five years ago.
The influx of Belgian, Dutch and French teams will help raise the standard for the Irish riders too and give the likes of Irish junior champion Ciara Doogan the chance to race and learn on home soil.
Boylan, the current senior champion, is certainly comfortable in this company, as her impressive finish on Mount Leinster showed. She'll be one to watch in Kilkenny this evening.