Nicolas Baldo stamped his authority on the An Post Ras yesterday as he soloed away from a select front group with 3km to go to take stage six into Killybegs.
The Frenchman from the Swiss Atlas Personal team finished 10 seconds clear of second-placed Norwegian Krister Hagen (Oneco Mesterhus), with Adam Armstrong of the Dublin Eurocycles team taking a fantastic third.
While Baldo was delighted to take time out of his nearest rivals and pick up a stage win, Armstrong was equally pleased just to be able to mix it with the professionals.
The Belfast man works full-time on the night shift at his local Tesco, training on the way home in the mornings. Despite his sleep patterns being thrown out of synch every weekend when he races on the domestic scene, he has won a host of races this year, including the Tour of Ulster and the Ben McKenna Memorial, but this result ranks higher than anything he has achieved before.
"I'm really pleased," he said. "I picked today out. I was up here last week and had a look at this stage in the morning after work without going to bed. I was so tired I slept for 16 hours that night as I had the night off to get ready for the Ras.
"The night shift plays havoc with your body. I woke up at 4.0am for the first stage of the Tour of Ulster and couldn't go back to sleep, then I conked out at 7.0pm. You're totally out of whack."
But yesterday, Armstrong was wide awake and almost snatched second on the line.
"I kind of rode Glengesh at my own pace and got over it in the lead group, which was the main thing," he said. "I knew if I blew my legs there, I wouldn't have anything left in the run-in. In the last 10km there was a lot of attacking. I was trying to save it a bit and thought I had a chance. Unluckily, the jersey attacked, otherwise I might have got second, but third on a stage... I can't believe it."
Baldo survived a scare when he punctured 4km from the bottom of the main climb, the first-category Glengesh Pass.
"I was worried as you never know where the team car is," he said. "Even if it's No 1 car, there are 35 cars behind the race and you worry. It was a big effort to rejoin the bunch, but thanks to my team-mates I made it back to the front."
As Baldo danced back up through the bunch on the tight switchbacks of Glengesh, his team-mate Jonathon Fumeaux was going clear in a small group containing Belfast's Connor McConvey (An Post), Dane Lasse Hansen (Blue Water Cycling) and new mountains leader Dave Clarke (Node4 Giordana).
This quartet, however, were reeled in by the next climb of Bogagh, where Belfast's David McCann (RTS Racing) launched his second unsuccessful bid for stage glory.
McCann had already been clear in an earlier move, but despite opening a lead of over a minute, the two-time Ras winner had opted out by the time the group reached Ardara, after 93km of racing.
"I just looked at the combination and they didn't look too strong," said McCann of his first attempt to go clear.
"There were a lot of guys behind and it would have been a waste of energy, so I decided to wait for later. I had a few good goes in the end, but there was such a headwind it was hard to do anything."
On the run-in to Killybegs, a 30-strong group merged at the front. The surprise of the day was that it was race leader Baldo who attacked with 3km left to take the stage win.
He also gained another 10 seconds, much to the chagrin of last year's winner Gediminas Bagdonas of An Post, who flung his bike to the ground in anger afterwards.
"It's not easy," said the Lithuanian. "All the guys are watching me. It was unbelievable for me to try to get away. I tried to attack but they always chased me and when I did go with one or two guys they wouldn't work with me. I don't understand why."
Baldo now leads the race by 13 seconds from Frenchman Thomas Rostollan, with Czech rider Martin Hunal third at 17 seconds. McConvey remains best of the Irish, seventh overall at 24 seconds.
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