In the absence of any Irish competitors, Britain's Chris Boardman has been adopted as the local favorite in the Tour de France. And he's giving the fans plenty to cheer about.
Boardman, whose English home is located about 200 miles east of Dublin, was to start today's second stage still donning the leader's yellow jersey after a last-minute tumble cost his chief opponent a chance at victory.Mario Cipollini of Italy posed the major threat to Boardman's points lead as Sunday's opening stage reached a tense, furious conclusion in Dublin's Phoenix Park.
But one of Cipollini's Saeco teammates collided with another rider right in front of him as the bulk of 189 cyclists cleared the park's broad entrance and began sprinting for the finish line. Six riders fell, but Cipollini was the one who lost the most.
Cipollini, a flamboyant sprinter who had hoped to reproduce his 1997 stage-one victory, sustained multiple bruises but expected to race today.
"His crash was a stroke of luck for me," said Boardman, who remained No. 1 for the French Gan team thanks to his victory Saturday in the opening short time trial. "I'm really sorry he fell, but it meant I could hold onto the yellow jersey."
Today, the race heads 128 miles along Ireland's southern coast to the port of Cork. It will mark the end of the Tour's first sojourn into Ireland in its 95-year existence.
The race resumes Tuesday in France's Brittany region and concludes Aug. 2 in Paris.
"I'm reluctant to leave Dublin, because the public here has given me such outstanding support," Board-man said.
Sunday's stage winner, Belgium national champion Tom Steels, said his victory felt "something like revenge." Steels, riding for the Italian team Mapei-Bricobi, was expelled from the 1997 tour after throwing his water bottle at another rider during the closing sprint of stage six.
"It's a great relief to win the first stage, because last year I grew more nervous each day without a win. . . . That's why I blew a fuse," Steels said.
"The tour sprints are always difficult because the best sprinters are here. And there are some other guys who try their luck - and they're dangerous."
Another 174 riders shared Steels' winning time of 4 hours, 29 minutes and 58 seconds, reflecting the professional cycling world's policy of not recording split-second differences in packed groups.
Germany's star sprinter Erik Zabel missed a good shot of winning his first-ever tour stage victory, falling behind Steels in the final 100 yards.