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No Irish Down Under for the first time in a decade

FOR the first time in a decade, the opening event on the Union Cycliste International calendar, the Tour Down Under in Australia, will have no Irish competitor.

The season rolls out with six stages of the Tour Down Under next Tuesday. It's also the first Protour event of the year.

Still, the cycling world will be focused on this opener as none other than Lance Armstrong will be on the start line.

The American caused a big stir last year when he came out of retirement after just over three years. He also nominated the Australian event as his first venture back in the peloton.

The course is very favourable with none of the stages exceeding 150 km in distance, and no time trial stages are included. The toughest thing the riders are likely to encounter is the hot weather. There is no shortage of stars. World champion Cadel Evans, Armstrong, George Hincapie, Robbie McEwen, Stuart O'Grady, Jens Voigt, Alejandro Valverde and Andre Greipel will be sought out by the fans for autographs.

Last year's race winner Allan Davis heads up his new Astana team having made the move from QuickStep at the close of the 2009 season.

It will be interesting to see how the British, who have three riders in the race, perform. All are from the new British-based Team Sky. Russell Downing, who won the Failte Ireland Tour last season, is sure to give it a good blast. Russell, more than anybody else, will be keen to make people sit up and take notice of the Sky boys.

Along with Sky, Armstrong's RadioShack team make their debut on the world stage.

At this stage in the season, it's hard to pick out a winner -- hardly anyone has any racing miles in their legs -- but the heat and the humidity will play their part over the six-day event.