Teams and officials have begun arriving in Kerry ahead of Sunday’s first stage of An Post Rás na mBan, the flagship women’s stage race on the Cycling Ireland calendar.

A 40% increase in entries representing a significant number of new overseas teams, an exciting new ‘Queen’ stage and an increase in the prize fund means there is plenty for riders and spectators to get excited about over the five days and 400km of racing.

Reigning champion Olivia Dillon is absent this year as she completes her taper ahead of the World Championships in Limburg next week so the field is wide open for the event which celebrates 26 years of international women’s stage racing in Ireland.

Dillon’s absence leaves the door open for a new rider to take the crown though the presence of former double winner Louise Moriarty in the field offers the opportunity for the Dubliner riding with the Look Mum No Hands team to add to her 2004 and 2008 titles.

Two teams from the Netherlands, a squad of strong juniors from Denmark and some very strong UK squads will make it difficult for the Irish team to defend Dillon’s title though Lydia Boylan has been in fine form in UK and Irish road and track racing this year and is sure to feature.

This year’s event benefits for a second year from title sponsorship by An Post as well as continued backing from long-time supporter Sneem Hotel which backs the expanded County Rider Classification for locally based riders.

Renewed backing from the Irish Veteran’s Cycling Association sees the long time race supporters take over as title sponsors of the Queen of the Mountains Classification, a jersey that will be hard won on the testing roads on the Ring of Kerry.

The development of the event to its current status as the longest and most challenging women’s stage race in these islands has been made possible by the continuing vital support of Cycling Ireland and the Women’s Commission headed by Orla McEvoy.

Last year’s move from three days to five was well received and the event retains the same structure with the novel change to a Sunday start and Thursday finish.

The 66km stage one road race is followed by the stage two three kilometre time trial on Sunday afternoon, a new challenge for the riders.

Stage 3 on Monday morning is the 80km Star Sailing Healy Pass stage over the Knockanoughanish, Caha and Healy Passes that went a long way to deciding the final outcome of last year’s general classification.

Tuesday’s Fixx Coffee House supported Valentia Island stage is the joint longest at 95km and includes the climbs of Coomaciste and Geokaun Mountain  offering an opportunity for the ‘rouleurs’ to get in the mix for stage honours.

The penultimate stage on Wednesday is the An Post ‘Queen Stage’ over 95km and three first category climbs of Ballaghabearna, Ballaghasheen and Coomaciste.

Thursday’s Bracken Clinic Moll’s Gap sixth stage is 57km long with the climbs of Moll’s Gap and Carraig na Gaoithe presenting the final opportunity for a change to the final classification order.