The AmberGreen Energy Tour of Ulster had a face lift for 2015, with new race Management and a range of new sponsors on board all hoping to elevate the standard of the race and ensure its place in Irish Cycling’s top tier of events for the years ahead.
Belgium, England and Scotland, together with our national competitors the standard of competition was beyond what Northern Ireland had seen since last May when the Giro D’Italia visted our roads, leaving a legacy the AmberGreen Energy Tour of Ulster was fully embracing.
Banbridge CC’s interests in the race came from Mark Downey who was selected to ride for the Irish National Team and Roger Aiken who is riding this year in the colours of Team Asea.
Stage 1 was a short but vicious time trial, starting at the gates of Stormont Buildings and tackling the climb with one sharp effort. The very best would be completed in less than 2 minutes. It was easy to see on the start line that young Downey was ready for the challenge – focused and determined, his goal was clear.
Indeed he impressed with a blistering time of 1.48, enough to finish in the top 5 and the top under 23 rider on the night, earning him a podium presentation for the red jersey. Roger’s team mate Damien Shaw was fastest on the night with a time of 1.46 and would claim the first Pink jersey of race leader.
Stage 2 would see the race depart Belfast and ride to the Mournes for what many has seen as the queen stage of the race. Spelga Dam would be the highest road covered by the race over its 4 days. Both Roger and Mark were very active in the lead groups on what turned out to be a horrendous day due to the weather – heavy rain, strong winds and temperatures dropping to freezing on higher ground.Due to a string of incidents in the stage which had utilised the multiple race ambulances, leaving limited cover and with a number of riders starting to show signs of hyperthermia the race Commissaires were forced to abandon the stage on grounds of rider safety.
Stage 3 left Newry, with stories of how bad the previous day had been circulating the peloton. The road started to rise almost immediately and the low fog made for some astonishing scenes as the 150 strong bunch of cyclist sped over Keady and down into Armagh reaching speeds of almost 50mph on the fast descents. A select group of riders broke clear, and with the Irish National team well represented in it Mark was left to team duties in the main bunch. Asea had a single rider in Brian McCrystal, and Roger would be left with new team leader Shaw to try and defend the pink jersey. Eion Morton of Dublin proved too strong on the day however and had earned enough time to take over the race lead by the time the stage finished in Cookstown.
The final day of the race had a party atmosphere with the 4th stage consisting of 6 laps of a 12 mile circuit, passing through the town’s main street where points were on offer towards the green points jersey. It was a hard circuit however with three stinging climbs to test the legs of the competitors after almost 250 miles of hard racing over the weekend. A number of attacks were made with groups going clear, Downey was active and could be heard over the race radio regularly as groups moved clear. Morton was determined to keep the race together however in an attempt to defend his race lead and chased everything down.
As the race approached its final lap 5 riders broke clear – with the overall race win seemingly out of site for Team Asea they were determined to end the race on a high with a stage win in front of the large crowds; Roger had made the final cut with team mate and former race leader Shaw and the plan was set.
Ireland were also well represented with Sean McKenna and Mark Downey. The collection of Banbridge CC fans were overjoyed at the sight of their two men as they passed through the town to enter the final lap with a 30 second advantage of the main field.
The group worked well together until the last 2 miles as they crested the final hill. Always a man for the big occasions Roger Aiken had distanced his four breakaway companions, entering the final corner and onto the high street with a slender advantage the crowd erupted. He was able to celebrate as he crossed the line the winner of the final stage.
Astonishingly the celebrating wasn’t over for the Banbridge fans, as the 4 chasers emerged from the final corner it was Downey that would be fastest to the line to make it a remarkable 1, 2 for the Banbridge men.