Normally nerves play a huge role leading into a cyclist’s first participation in the Rás, but for me, there was no time to be nervous. With a heavy college schedule building up to exams that finished just 2 days before stage 1, the Rás was just a date on my calendar.
2018 marked the first year of Team-Gerard DHL but also the first Rás for 80% of our Rás squad. To help us through 8 days of chaos was Paidi O’Brien. A man with huge experience and success in the sport, most of which I am still unaware of.
Stage 1: Drogheda – Athlone (136km)
Standing on the start line beside one of the world’s most famous cyclists, Kenny De Ketele, I was surprisingly calm. We started at a furious pace through Donore village, a place that has seen me develop from a stick thin weak junior, to a still fairly skinny but stronger A1.
The plan today was to keep Paidi our sprinter, safe and well positioned so he could contest the stage finish. It is always easier to hold a team formation in the Rás and it can make life easier later in the week.
The pace was just 5km/hr faster than our normal Sunday races but your body seems to adjust to it and it becomes the norm. Stage 1 was the fastest of the 2018 Rás, covered at 45.8km/hr. However as we came onto the N6 on the run into Athlone, the speed headed into the 50’s and stayed there. This is the part you never see on Eurosport. The pushing and shoving at high speed and how closely packed everyone is. It’s the part of sprinting that I admittedly never did well in. Unfortunately the breakaway just held on but Paidi did what he does best and was 3rd in the bunch sprint missing out on the county rider jersey by just one position. Looking back, this was an excellent team effort for our first ever outing as a unit and against such high level opposition.
Stage 2: Athlone – Tipperary (153km)
After great weather yesterday, stage 2 could not be more different. When it’s cold and raining, you have to switch on and get into an aggressive mood. There’s no sugar-coating it; racing in the rain is dangerous. The same nervousness normally reserved for the final few kilometres of a sprint stage is felt from kilometre 1 to the chequered flag.
My stage started with a puncture just 2km in. The rain was so heavy that our team car almost drove past me on the side of the road – my black rain jacket making me anonymous as I looked the same as every one of the 150 riders. On a new wheel, I was onto the back of the team car and was in the chase to catch the back of the speeding bunch. This flat stretch of road saw me hit 82km/hr behind the car. Boy was it a dangerous journey back to the bunch. One corner taken at speed saw us on the wrong side of the road faced with a tractor. With the rear wheel locked up I was lucky not to get a true feel for the Tipperary roads!
The peloton was whittled down over a hard climb in the last 40km, but it was all set for a sprint finish. It was a strange feeling climbing surrounded by 150 riders with the only sound being heavy breathing. There was no noise or talking, just each rider in their own world focusing on the wheel in front. It was a sketchy run in with the rain, and our lead out was somewhat hampered by Adam Stenson trying to Valentino Rossi a corner in the wet. He took a detour straight on and was lucky to bounce off a shop window instead of going through it. Fortunately our luck changed when Paidi sprinted to 8th place securing the County Rider jersey.
Stage 3: Tipperary – Listowel (140km)
Stage 3 was an aggressive affair early on and I tried my hand in a few moves. One containing riders from all the strongest teams along with some of the best county riders looked like it could easily stay away for the day. Unfortunately after spending a lot of energy getting in it, the move was neutralised like so many before it. This stage followed the plan of so many others: aggressive first hour, break goes, the pace drops giving a chance to reorganise the team and get some nutrition on board, before the chase being taken up and the breakaway slowly being reeled in.
This time the breakaway didn’t want to follow the script. So it was time for myself and Sean Moore to help chase it down to ensure another bunch sprint. Coming into to Ballybunion saw the speed skyrocket, with Moreno De Pauw of the Belgian National Team doing a monstrous turn exiting the town. With the speed up at 60km/hr thanks to a strong cross tailwind, the break finally came within sight. One final pull by Kenny De Ketele on a slight incline acted as the final nail in the coffin. Spent from my efforts I pulled off and the bunch screamed in the final few kilometres on a downhill tailwind run. With just a 90 degree left hander at 300m to go, the stage was done. Paidi and Dillon finished side by side to seal another day in the County Riders Jersey for the team.
Stage 4: Listowel – Glengariff (153km)
Stage 4 marked the start of the real climbing in the 2018 Rás with 8 categorised climbs including the well-known Ladies View, Moll’s Gap and the mighty Healy Pass.
The Swiss steam train was rolling non-stop and despite being big men, they had the power to eat up these inclines without any issues. The descent off Moll’s gap saw a sheep at the side of the road panic some foreign riders, and as they moved left like an accordion, a Jelly-Belly rider was pushed off the road into a rocky ditch. He took a bad fall but seemed he finished the stage in one piece.
A crash at a pinch point near the base of Healy Pass saw Dillon on the deck and myself caught behind. We both got going as quickly as we could but I paid for my efforts and poor positioning by being tailed off at around 2km from the summit.
As always, the treacherous descent from Healy Pass would take some prisoners. I saw stage 2 winner Robert-Jon McCarthy 10ft down an embankment as I took on just the second turn off the descent. As I looked further on down the road I could see a Gerard-DHL rider on his own. When we caught up I could make out Adam with some dirt on his jersey. He had taken a fall and didn’t seem too comfortable. Fortunately Dillon had a better day finishing 29th in a group just 2 minutes down on the winner.
Stage 5: Glengarrif – Mitchelstown (150km)
Today was a quiet day with only a few categorised climbs to be taken on early in the stage. The peloton came onto a main road and a stiff crosswind blew. Although it was not harsh enough to cause major splits and we were still over 100km from the finish, there was a sense of panic in the peloton. Suddenly everyone dived into the right hand gutter. Fortunately we turned soon after and the quick flurry amounted to nothing.
On the run into Mitchelstown the roads became narrow and it became important to stay at the front. Unfortunately my legs started to fail a bit earlier than I’d hoped and I rode in towards the rear of the peloton. Then just coming into the last 3km there was a huge crash at high speed which sent Sean Moore flying. I managed to get around it by a matter of inches and luckily Sean wasn’t too banged up. The team’s best result was Adam getting 20th in the final sprint.
Stage 6: Mitchelstown – Carlow (155km)
Stage 6 saw the peloton hit well known roads as we took on a lot of the Des Hanlon route. It was a flat start with not much to speak about but that changed with 5 short sharp climbs in succession all in the final 40km -a shock to the system after riding a flat road all day. The bunch began to disintegrate. Next we climbed up to Bilboa, a well-known climb featured in “the Des”. Strangely riding this climb in the Rás was easier than riding in the breakaway of the Des Hanlon! We flew in the main road to Carlow in a much reduced peloton of 55 riders. It seemed the roads of Carlow are very kind to Sean McKenna as like in March when he won the Des Hanlon, he escaped the bunch in the final 2km and managed to hold off the bunch for another victory.
Stage 7: Carlow – Naas (141km)
At this stage in the race the body starts to break down. Eating becomes a chore and unappetising hotel breakfasts become grey slob. A riders body is under so much strain you become overtired and despite being exhausted, the only sleep you get is broken 30 minute blocks. This morning I felt the lack of sleep particularly badly and needed an emergency dose of properly brewed coffee before we left the hotel to start the stage.
Today marked the queen’s stage in many people’s minds. With over 1900m of climbing and 8 categorised climbs it was always going to be a day for those who could go uphill well. Three climbs back to back in the early part of the stage were ridden at a fierce tempo, so much so it felt a lot like the final climb of most other stages. It was single file through Arklow and fast into the base of Glenmalure. Unfortunately on a replacement tyre from my puncture in Stage 2, I punctured on the narrow road into the “Shay Elliott” which saw me say goodbye to the peloton. This was frustrating but as I saw the bunch explode in front of me on the slopes the Glenmalure I couldn’t help but wonder how long I would have lasted. The strong rhythm proved too mucch for us today and all of us lost 11+ minutes of a very strong group of 17 riders.
Stage 8: Naas – Skerries (145km)
Finally the last push to Skerries and again we had the advantage of riding on home roads. The rain belted down and to keep things safe the Swiss team upped the speed to keep things lined out. Today we used local knowledge to avoid any potholes and be up towards the front for any key turns. Being the last day, it was the final chance for anyone high up on GC to shake the iron grip that the Swiss had on the overall standings. The draggy road up out of Balrothery saw Damien Shaw do just that. This lineout for me was the single hardest effort of the Rás. It took every ounce of my energy to not drop the wheel. It was made even more miserable as I was like a hoover trying to suck in oxygen but taking a huge amount of spray off the wheel in front instead. When I looked up and saw Robbe Ghys the best young rider, moving all over the bike struggling to hold the wheel, it finally sunk in that these guys were human after all!
We entered Skerries and started of our laps up the Blackhills. A nasty 1km sharp incline to be taken on twice. As the fatigue set in for the riders, the weaving on the climb became more pronounced. A bit of a swerve in the reduced group meant I had to veer onto the grass verge to avoid clipping a wheel. Being close to my limit, being forced to unclip on an incline was the final straw and I lost contact with the front group. I rode the rest of the lap with my ex-teammate Sean Hahessy and rolled across the line with a bigger group who had been dropped earlier.
So that’s a wrap for my first Rás! I learned so much about racing and enjoyed every moment of it. I definitely have the Rás bug and am dying for my next one!
I was so fortunate to do my first Rás with a team as well organised as Gerard-DHL. We had our bikes washed and maintained by Ciaran Cassidy and Derek Stenson, and the best feeding on the road from the one and only Ken Blanche who always kept us laughing and made sure we never got the Rás blues I had heard about. A huge thanks to all the people who helped us throughout the week and the Corkery clan who gave us unbelievable support. Last but definitely not least is the hardest working manager around. Thanks to Tim Cassidy for spending months acquiring sponsors and doing virtually every job possible from driver, director sportif, cleaner and PR agent. To all the staff who helped Gerard-DHL turn into the team it is now and with huge potential for the future. Ciao for now.