Ahead of this evening’s first stage of An Post Rás na mBan, three-time winner and defending champion Olivia Dillon has been speaking about the plans for her title defence and her season to date.

Dillon leads a crack national squad getting set to face the challenge of riders from a record 14 nations. 20 teams from across Ireland, Britain, USA, the Netherlands, Denmark, Luxembourg, Germany and France are preparing for Ireland’s top international stage race which is based for the second successive year in the Clare county town of Ennis.

Dillon returns to defend her title following another successful season on the US professional racing circuit. The former volleyball international and triathlete came to cycling relatively late but she’s certainly made up for it with a string of national titles and world championship representation to go with her Rás na mBan successes.

The Kiltimagh, Co Mayo native will lead the Irish national team in Clare but it’s the green colours of her professional team Colavita that she has paraded to glory throughout the US season, taking a string of top results in the vibrant US racing scene.

Last week she added another participation in the Tour de l’Ardeche in France and can look forward to the national road race championships and the world championships after Rás na mBan

Olivia Dillon:

“I’ve had a good year. I’ve got some good results. I’ve done all the major stage races and criteriums winning classification jerseys and podiums along the way. Earlier in the year we did the Joe Martin Stage Race which is part of the National Racing Calendar and I was second on one of the stages, the long road stage, and I ended up ninth overall in that. From there we went to the Tour of the Gila. I got fifth in the criterium there and at the Air Force cycling classic on the east coast I wore the mountains jersey after being off the front half the day and ending up fourth on the stage.”

Looking forward to Clare?

“Yes, I am really excited about it. It was really good last year and Cycling Ireland has put together a good (Irish National) team.”

What does An Post Rás na mBan mean to you?

“Stage racing really is my thing and to have a race in Ireland of that quality is kind of special. Last year my family was able to come out and watch most of the stages. I race in the US all year long and they’re not a part of that and that means a lot to me that they’re able to see me race. So many people saw the TV highlights on Eurosport a lot of people got in touch with me about it and I think that it kind of hit the main stream a bit.”

Since 2010 how has the race changed?

“The quality of the riders and the overall organisation has really improved. It’s really well put together. It’s really professionally done and well organised and I think it’s thought through in terms of how the overall race comes together. I think it’s really good for the organisers that have put so much effort and thought into it that it has gone from strength to strength. So, for me, I want to continue to support it because I’ve always just enjoyed racing it and it’s always been one of the highlights of my year.”

Obviously you’re going for the win?

“Yep [laughs]. I’ve read all the announcements and there’s some additional stages which look exciting. That’s the nice thing about Rás na mBan – it does change every year. The stages aren’t the same and people don’t necessarily know what to expect.”

What’s your abiding memory from your three Rás na mBan wins?

“Obviously that second stage last year where we [Olivia and Ireland team-mate Mel Späth] got in the break and that really sealed the victory in wet and wild conditions. We got away and gained a lot of time on top competitors like Christine Majerus, a phenomenal racer, Veronique Fortin, Hannah Barnes and others.”

This year Dillon faces stiff competition from several squads, including a strong British presence led by last year’s sixth place finisher Laura Massey. The DN Bretagne squad from France include strong stage racer Coralie Demay while the DID-Cycle 4 Life team assembled for the week include crack US pro racer Tayler Wiles.

Wednesday’s first stage is a 60km circuit from the race start at the Inn at Dromoland to Ennis with one Category 2 IVCA Wicklow 200 Queen of the Mountains ascent coming at the half way point. A similar route last year resulted in a bunch sprint won by Britain’s Hannah Barnes.

The winner of the first stage is certain to take the first An Post race leader’s jersey of the race and will also take the lead in the National Dairy Council Points competition. Munster sprinter Fiona Meade leads the home-based challenge and the former County Rider classification winner will be favourite for honours in the same category this year under its new guise as the Clare County Council Best Irish Rider Competition.

Thirty riders from across Europe and the US are eligible for the Cycling Ireland Womenscycling.ie Best Young Rider category while the winner of each stage will be awarded the Leinster Cycling Stage winner’s jersey. Stage 1 gets under way at 5pm on Wednesday.