Race leader Conor McGoldrick survived some big scares on stage three of the Rás Tailteann from Ennis to Castlebar on Friday, being left on the back foot on at least three separate occasions when breakaway groups containing some of his main rivals opened dangerous gaps.
The British rider and his Richardsons Trek DAS team were ultimately able to get back on terms, finishing in a main bunch led in for the second day running by the Australian Matthew Fox (Wheelbase Castech Castelli).
Fox beat Cork man Dillon Corkery (Team Ireland), Briton Finn Crocket (Foyle CC) and 38 others to the finish line in Castlebar, with Richard Maes (All Human-VeloRevolution) best of the county riders in seventh.
Defending champion Daire Feeley (All Human-VeloRevolution) was caught up in a crash with approximately 3.8 kilometres remaining. Crucially, this was just outside the final three kilometres, a zone which permits all riders delayed by crashes or mechanical problems to be given the time of the group they had been in.
Those few hundred metres represent a heartbreak for Feeley, who eventually crossed the line cut, bruised, and eight and a half minutes back, losing any hope of winning a second consecutive Rás.
McGoldrick is now just two days away from winning the race overall, but admitted he was under pressure during the stage. He was caught out soon after leading the peloton over the first of two category three climbs, with 14 riders getting clear after a crash on that Carrowreagh hill. That group contained Feeley, ninth overall on Friday morning, as well as the riders in second, third, fourth and sixth overall at the start of the stage.
Dan Gardener (Embark Spirit BSS) was the rider in second overall and he became virtual race leader when the gap went out to more than four seconds. Indeed McGoldrick found himself 35 seconds behind at one point, but was fortunate that Conn McDunphy (Cycling Leinster) plus Team Ireland duo Aaron Wade and Dillon Corkery had also missed out, meaning that they and their teams aided the chase.
Things eventually came back together with approximately 97 kilometres covered, but McGoldrick found himself under pressure on two further occasions when groups containing dangerous rivals got clear again. Things finally regrouped with 10 kilometres to go and while Ben Chilton (Halesowen A&C Mapei) unleashed a big solo move with five kilometres remaining, he was caught with a kilometre to go.
Fox then timed things perfectly to win again for the second day in a row. “It felt pretty amazing,” he said. “I didn’t expect it, but I had some confidence after yesterday and you just got to be in it to win it, for sure.”
McGoldrick dodged several bullets but holds yellow. “I won the first mountains prime and then after that all hell broke loose. A big group containing Dan Gardner in second got away. They got about 30 seconds. We were quite confident it will come back, but I won’t lie ... in the back of my head I was a little bit nervous.
“We spent the rest of the day on the back foot, it felt like, lots of attacks. But we just worked really well as a team and together kept closing gaps. And it came together for a big sprint. I’m very happy.”
He remains four seconds clear of closest rival Gardner heading into Saturday’s 175.9 kilometres between Charlestown and Monaghan. This features three category three climbs plus other heavy roads, and will be a key test for his chances of winning overall.
As for Feeley, he may turn his attention to chasing a stage win, providing his injuries allow him to do so.