Each year during the third week in May several towns in Ireland reverberate to the sound of Paddy Fitzsimons voice encouraging the people of the town to ‘ Give a big Templemore ( or eight other town names each year ) welcome to the Men of The Rás ‘.
‘ The Rás ‘ holds a mythical place in the hearts of all Irish cyclists along with much of the general public . It gets daily TV and radio coverage along with plenty of column inches of print and even has had an excellent book published about it .
So , what does it take for an ordinary cyclist to become ‘ a man of The Rás ?’
Well , two years ago I completed my first Rás and here is my story .
Having raced as a first cat for two years after turning senior I fell away from the sport as do many others at that age when travel and skirts and beer appear out of nowhere . Cycling , however is a bug which never leaves the system , as can be seen by the number of people who return to the sport in their thirties and forties . When we opened the shop in 1999 I would be tuned in every hour on the hour to Roy Willoughby to see how Ray and the lads were getting on , and that pattern continued for a number of years . Also there is a huge amount of ‘cycling chat ‘ each day in the shop . Even though I had competed in some good races I still felt a pang when the ‘Rás’ talk began . It was as if the Rás is what it takes for a boy cyclist to become a man cyclist . It is akin to a soldier who has been to war . No matter how much training or manoeuvres you take part in , it is only when you experience the battle for real that a deeper understanding sets in and you are never the same again . That for me is The Rás .
I still have a piece of paper which is dated 29/11/03 on which I listed a top ten finish on a stage of the Rás and to win the ‘b’ category overall as my goals for 2005 . I knew that it would take two years to get to the level of being able to do it and so I set about getting it done . I went back racing in 2004 and steadily build myself back up to race fitness . Then in November 2004 my Rás training began in earnest . Twice a week I would go into work at 6.00 am in order to finish at 3.00 pm to be on the bike by 3.30 . Then with lights already on I would head down towards Carrick and have the lights on full and be lit up like a Christmas tree as I headed up past the golf club and on towards Dungarvan before arriving back in Clonmel between 6.30 and 7.00 depending on how my fitness was coming along . Then every second Saturday another 4 hour spin with Sundays building up to 5 hours . In January I began doing a few laps of the by-pass at 5.30 or 6.00 am before work and the training progressed like that up to the race itself with Sunday races also being a means to an end . In November I weighed 89 kg and on the morning of the first stage I was 77 kg .
For the race itself we had a good team of Andy Roche , a former winner , John Mason , Keith Griffen and myself . Our manager was Padhric Quinn and our mechanic was Colm Cashin . We got very lucky with our masseur as a chat with Morgan Fox one day resulted in his brother Keith , a physio with Coventry soccer team coming on board . He was probably the best physio on the race and this made a huge difference to our recovery rates .
The first stage was savage . I felt very nervous as we paraded along O’Connell street in Dublin and stopped outside the GPO for the start . It was cold and began to rain just as we set off . The bunch as whole felt very nervous and within five miles there was a massive pile up with some riders having their race cut short after only 10 minutes of official racing . Then the hailstones began and I thought that this must be it , a typical Rás day . As we arrived at the finish in Emyvale I was trying to stay out of trouble and sprinted along just to hold my position only to discover that evening I was first B rider and as such even though there were about twenty others on the same time I was on target for my goal .
The next morning before the stage I was over and back to the car trying to decide on whether to wear a rain cape or not . It was raining heavily so I decided to put one on which would prove costly later that day .
Lining up each day I remembered what Ray had told me , to start each stage with your front wheel up against the lead car . The reason being that every stage starts as if it is the final two miles with the speed usually up to 40 mph within the first mile . By starting at the front you have some sliding room so that when it eventually settles down a little you are still up near the front of the bunch . This worked well for me during the race .
As the stage went on I began to heat up with the cape still on . I told myself that I would take it off as soon as it settled down a little . But the Rás never really settles down and so I found myself totally dehydrated with 20 k to go . I yo-yo-ed up and down the bunch for 15 k moving up with each stall and then sliding back with each following attack . I also broke my saddle when I hit a pot hole and could not stand for fear of not having a saddle to sit back down onto . With 5 k to go to the finish in Tubbercurry I lost contact and lost 3 minutes from there to the finish . I also thought that the B prize was gone so I was not a happy camper that evening .
The next stage finished in Lisdoonvarna with the climb up corkscrew hill just 10 k from the finish . I buried myself going over the climb and by stage end I had regained most of the time lost the previous day to find myself third b at only eight seconds . That evening Keith Griffin said that every cyclist watches the Tour de France and would like to be in it but that The Rás was as close an experience most of us would get . This is true , the changing venue each day , different hotels and people . The camaraderie among the riders , it’s all there . There’s also the feeling you get when passing a school with all of the children cheering you on which reminded me of when I was in school watching The Nissan pass by cheering them on .
Templemore was the next stage finish and with this being the closest to home this was where I wanted to get a top ten placing . Sadly I only managed top thirty but I was delighted to see my wife and four month old baby daughter there at the finish . I had seen them earlier as they cheered us on passing through O’Briens bridge along with my father and brother in law and managed to give them a shout even though we were in a famous Rás line out at the time travelling at over forty mph in the lashing rain holding on for grim death to the wheel in front
There is a great sense of pride at moments like that when you are achieving something which most guys on the street will not . The driving rain , the gusting wind , the suffering and the pain . It is a test of your mental and physical strength and it is all part of The Rás .
The next day into Abbeyleix I tried to make up my eight second deficit but to no avail , however in the uphill sprint the following day in Rathdrum the bunch split and now I was back leading the B classification by just 3 seconds going into the penultimate stage through the Wicklow mountains .
More suffering and pain , until going over the final climb I found myself in a group of three with Bill Moore and Ryan Connor . I was riding hard down the other side when Bill asked me why I was driving it on and not waiting for a group to come up from behind . I told him that I was going for the beenior classification and fair play to himself and Ryan they rode with me into the finish in Wicklow Town . That evening when I checked the G.C. sheet I was now leading my classification by over eighteen minutes so with only a one hour circuit race around The Phoenix Park to go I had achieved my main objective .
The next day I was delighted to see Bill Moore win the stage as was most of the race . He had ridden over 100 Rás stages up to that and this was his first stage win so fair play to him for persisting . A true man of the Rás .
That evening as I packed up the van and said goodbye to the lads there was a really anti-climatic feeling . The race itself was very very hard , the time away from family was hard but the buzz , the camaraderie , the crack would all be missed . As I was driving down past Naas with just my thoughts for company I looked back and thought of the week gone by . The adrenaline of the racing , the roar of the crowd in Gorey as they had closed every business and even the courthouse to come and watch the race , the fact that I was now a ‘ Man of The Rás ‘ . I asked myself if I would come back and do it all again . The answer was ……………………………………