FORMER Tour de France points champion, Aussie Baden Cooke and British sprint finish specialist Jeremy Hunt lead the Unibet team in the new Tour of Ireland this month (August 22-26).

The pair are just two of several handy sprint merchants in the 16-team, 112-rider line up. T-Mobile bring Bernard Eisel, the 28-year-old Austrian who won the Triple Crown series in the USA this year.

Also in their team is three times former World time trial champion Michael Rogers, who crashed out of this year?s Tour de France in the Alps, when he hit a chevron on a descent.
Belgian classic winner Nico Matten (Ghent Wevelgem 2005) leads the British DFL team.

Argentine?s Maximiliano Richeze is Ceramica-Panario?s sprint hope. The 24-year-old made six podium appearances in the Tour of Langkawi this year. He?s also made the podium in the last two editions of the Giro d?Italia.

New kids on the block include two from the Maxbo Bianchi team from Norway. Edvald Boasson, 19, won three stages of the 2006 Tour de l?Avenir while his team-mate Alexander Kristoff outsprinted former Tour de France points winner Thor Hushovd for the national championship.

Dutch squad Rabobank also ride, led by elder statesman, Belgian Sven Nys, 31, the 2005 World Cyclo-Cross Champion.

Home fans pin their hopes on Ciaran Power of Navigators Insurance, winner of the former the FBD Milk Ras, and team-mate David O?Loughlin.

British hopes rest with Hunt, Chris Newton (Recycling.co.uk), Kristian House (Navigators Insurance), Tony Gibb (Plowman Craven), who also field New Zealander Gordon McCauley, third in last Sunday?s national road championships in Wales.

The five-day UCI 2.1 ranked Tour of Ireland covers 864 kilometres and is sponsored by the Irish Tourist Board.

The race starts from Killarney Castle and finishes in Dublin. The longest day, stage four, covers 212 kilometres from Galway to Galway, climbing the Cong, Westport, Luisburgh and Leenaun.

However, the 167-kilometre stage two from Clonakilty to Killarney which takes in the seven-mile long Healey Pass may prove tougher.