"The Men Of The Rĺs"
Jul 12, 2012, 14:06
The Rás, or give it its full title An Rás Tailteann, was the brainchild of a Dublin barrister Joe Christle. He wasnt satisfied with a one day cycle race that lasted for just a few hours, he wanted to create a race that lasted for a whole week.
His dream was to create an event that would capture the imagination of the people at home and showcase the best of Irish athleticism to the world. On the 19th of September 1953, his dream became a reality.
The first Rás Tailteann was a two-day affair, from Dublin to Wexford and back, covering a little over two hundred miles.
In wet, miserable conditions, 52 cyclists set off from O'Connell Street, most of them having no idea of how they were going to cope with this new phenomenon of multi-stage racing.
During the 1940's and 1950's, the staple diet of the average racing cyclist was either short distance road races or out-and-back time trials against the clock. Indeed, for the majority of them, their weekly racing was at sports meetings where they raced on grass tracks over very short distances.
Christle had warned them (by Letter) to be sure to wear jerseys with pockets, telling them that they would need to bring enough food and drink to sustain them over the long distance. So, as they pedaled out of Dublin that day, they truly were a peculiar sight.
Wearing little white cloth caps, wollen jerseys, with pockets front and back, laden down with whatever food they could stuff in, aluminium drinking bottles, with long straws, fixed to the handlebars, they looked more like men that were attempting to reach the north pole rather than serious racing cyclists.
The country riders, whod travelled up the night before by train, tucked into a bed-and-breakfast style fry-up of sausages, rashers, black and white pudding, two fried eggs, bread and real full fat butter, all washed down with a pot or two of strong tea. Afterwards they might even have gone for a walk! Then they cycled to the start at the GPO on O'Connell Street.
There were no sponsors, no back-up team cars, indeed, unless a man was lucky enough to have inveigled a pal from work to come along, he had to look after himself.
Joe Christle had quietly warned his two brothers, Mick and Colm, that one of them had better win because there were little or no prizes. It worked and Colm Christle duly became winner of the first Rás!
From such a humble beginning, an icon of Irish sport, An Rás Tailteann, was born.
The following year, 1954, the race started on Sunday and finished the following Sunday, making it the 8-day by which it would become known to all cyclists in Ireland
As the 1950's melted into the 1960's, the race had established itself as one of the major sporting events of the year.
Dubliner Sé OHanlon won it four times and became a national hero.
Any serious racing cyclist had to ride the Rás at least once to prove himself to his peers.
During the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's it got bigger and bigger, attracting World and Olympic champions to Ireland to compete in it.
I have been race commentator since the late 70's and one wet and windy day in Killrush I coined the phrase lets hear it for the men of the Rás in an attempt to whip up some enthusiasm for the arrival of the riders.
It stuck and nowadays all competitors will boast proudly that, after completing the course, hey are not simply racing cyclists anymore, they are true warriors, they are men of the Rás.
Corporate sponsors became interested as companies viewed its popularity as an ideal way to promote their product. Under the directorship of former cyclist Dermot Dignam, the Rás developed, growing into a race of such stature that it is now an integral part of the international cycling calendar.
Nowadays the winner will often appear in a subsequent Tour de France as a major player. Its a long, long way from the men of the 1950s in their wollen jerseys and cloth caps. Sometimes youll see those old warriors standing quietly at the roadside watching the race go by.
Stephen Roche won it in 1979. In 1987, when he won the Giro dItalia, the Tour de France and the World Championship and he was being compared to the legendry Belgian Eddy Merckx, he replied Ah, yes, but did Merckx ever win the Rás!