English sprinter Dean Downing took the first yellow jersey in this year's An Post Ras when he took his second career Ras stage victory in a mass bunch sprint finish in Portumna yesterday.
Downing benefited from a perfect lead-out by his Rapha Condor Sharp professional team to outsprint 20-year-old An Post rider Sam Bennett and Erwan Brenterch of the France Aix-en-Provence team at the end of the opening stage.
"I was designated sprinter today, so I had an easy day," smiled the 36-year-old afterwards. "Our guys kind of gambled on me to go for the sprint but we had other guys still following moves and we had guys in all the main splits.
"I just sat in the peloton while all the other guys were in everything that moved. I couldn't ask for more.
"I had two guys sat on the front for me with one kilometre to go. Jimmy Mac (James McCallum) led out Dean Windsor, who led out myself. Dean went with about 400m to go and that made the Kiwi (Shane Archbold) go early.
"I just sat on his wheel and thought, 'this is great'. I put my hands up, so I must have had enough time to do it." The stage was not without its controversy. After the buffeting headwind nullified numerous attacks throughout the day, a crash inside the final 10km almost ruined the whole day's proceedings.
"It was a funny old day," said the race leader. "Something strange happened with five kilometres to go. There were three guys up the road with 20 seconds' lead and then there was a big crash in the bunch and the chief commissaire stopped the race.
"I'm not sure why. There were a lot of guys complaining and then he gave the four leaders 30 seconds' head start when they only had 20 seconds."
Although the stage was restarted, with leaders Sean Downey (Ireland), Pete Williams (Motorpoint) and Yuri Agarkov of the Italy ISD Lampre team allowed their previous advantage, second-placed Bennett was another rider not impressed with the decision to stop the stage so close to the finish.
"Stopping the race because of the crash was just stupid," said a disappointed Bennett afterwards.
"There was a crash at the back of the bunch and they stopped the whole race. My legs were kind of dead after stopping. I was on Downing's wheel in the sprint, but I didn't have anything to come around him. I want to thank the whole team for really helping me and putting everything they had out there for me and getting me up there today."
Bennett consoled himself with the white jersey of best U-23 rider on the podium and now lies second, just four seconds behind Downing in the overall standings, with Brenterch a further two seconds back in third. The Frenchman will wear Downing's green points jersey for his troubles today.
"I am a sprinter," said the 24-year-old. "When the 17-man breakaway group went away earlier on, we had nobody in it, so we had to chase very hard to bring it back. For me, the aim is to win a stage on this race."
Former winner David McCann took 10th on the stage with Frazer Duncan of the Dublin Eurocycles team taking the best county rider award in 11th. "I was hoping for a better place but I got switched with about 600m to go," said Duncan afterwards.
"It was easy in the headwind today, but then when we hit sections of crosswind they were hard and the bunch was splitting an awful lot. You had to be wary and there were a couple of times the bunch split in two or three, but it all seemed to come back together again."
Duncan avoided the mass crash towards the end and didn't know why the race was stopped. "The last 20km were pretty dangerous. There were a lot of crashes. I saw two guys falling beside me but it was maybe four kilometres later that the race was stopped.
"I only saw two going down because I had gotten past it, but the group had definitely split and there were only maybe 45 riders left and the three riders in front of us."
Thanks to time bonuses won in the first An Post sprint in Allenwood, McCann is currently seven seconds down in sixth overall with Mark Cassidy (An Post) tied on time in seventh. Martyn Irvine is next of the Irish contingent in ninth overall, nine seconds behind Downing.