So this was it. A hard year of training was complete. There had been many sacrifices along the way. I had cut back on the treats, eased off the sauce and succumbed to a diet of low intensity monster miles each weekend come rain, hail or shine. My family had suffered with me. Weekend family breakfasts were never gonna happen - "I’m off on the bike". No longer did I join them in the car for weekends away, "I’ll see you there, I’ll cycle down. Yes, I’ll cycle to Dingle". My dear wife was used to this madness- after all – George’s first words were "Daddy gone bike" – I kid you not.

The early season races had sharpened me up – Rás Mumhan had beaten me up – but now, just shy of my 40th year - Rider no 122 was ready to chew the handlebars. I had to ride in memory of my dad who unexpectedly passed away after stage 2 of An Post Rás last year. His last words to me, received by text while at dinner with the Orwell team of 2016 after stage 1 was simple – "ride through the pain" is all it said. I would and I did.

You know the team O’FLYNN, MCARDLE, BUSHER, MCNALLY, BARRY. Supported by the Orwell committee, our swanny Ronan Quigley, mechanic Killian Doyle, masseuse John Walsh and last our remarkably patient, selfless and very capable Directeur Sportif – Ken O’Neil. To each of you – thank you  - you allowed me to chase my dream – to become a Man of the Rás. Let the beasting commence.

We kicked off with sign on. Orwell taking on that challenge with ease. The army of support vehicles, team cars, high end bikes, remarkably youthful and fat free looking riders added to the sense of professionalism. What was I doing here?

 

The Team L-R: Quigley, Walsh, O'Neill, Barry, McArdle, Busher, McNally, O'Flynn, Doyle.

 

Stage 1 Dublin Castle - Longford 146km

After a quick farewell to family and friends we were off. The first 10km of the race was neutralised. Straight from the flag drop - riders where racing. A couple of pro teams hit the front and attacks were coming thick and fast. The pace was just off 54kph for the first hour. That’s damn fast and it hurt like heck.

Then the rain came. It had only started when I began to hear, with increasing concern, the sound of carbon scraping along the deck. Worse still, the recurring sound got closer and closer. By the time I heard the fifth crash I was concerned my time was up. I was right. Bang, over the bars I went. Fortunately I had a soft landing as the rider in front of me was a bit of a pudgy fella (in cycling terms). Words were exchanged. Keeping relatively calm, I hopped straight back on to the bike and began to pedal. It was working albeit awkwardly as my saddle was knocked sideway.. A quick blitz back up through the cars, taking out some shrubbery along the way and I was back in the security of the peloton. Happy days. Short lived. Puncture – fantastic. Neutral service were quick to fix my wheel but I was now in trouble. Despite frantically trying to get back on, I didn’t. Bye-bye peloton. Bye-bye Orwell team. Bye bye cavalcade, ambulance, broomwagon. Hello open countryside, hello block headwind, welcome negative thoughts. I thought I was out.

The next 40km was just me on my lonesome. Nothing else to do. I put the head down, on the drops. Push up the HR. One hour - churn it.

30km later I came across a fellow rider. A quick sizing up, he was a chunky fella – happy days - plenty to shelter behind from the headwind. The two of us worked until the line – and finished around 16’30 behind the leaders. Within the cut off time – relief.

ROF, Busher, McNally riding strong and surviving unscathed. McArdle and I on the wrong side of the spills, a bad day shared, but still smiling.

Result: 3hrs 30mins @41kph with 772M climbing. Average HR 163. Stage: 172/190 GC: 172.

 

Stage 2 Longford - Newport 142km

A meaty stage all the way from Longford to Newport in Mayo. The big chat amongst the team beforehand was the number of small towns we would be passing through. These are pinch points on the route, meaning that you are strung out on the way into the town and then you’ve got to rub off all the speed that you’ve worked hard to gain, only to have to ramp up the pace when exiting the town. The crosswind breeze was pretty strong. It began to wreak havoc with the group with large splits soon appearing. The main bunch chased and eventually regrouped but not before many riders were shelled out the back. Every smattering of rain meant crashes. In a short stretch of 5km with the rain on the road, I saw two. One was spectacular when the rider beside me pulled on his front brake, hard, only to go completely over the handlebars, performing a beautiful summersault that an Olympic diver would be proud of. The rest of the bunch didn’t even flinch. Business as usual.

The pace was constant, which meant that the racing was a whole lot safer than day one. O’Flynn had another strong ride and so too did McArdle, despite still suffering from some pretty bad road rash. McNally and I finished in the second main bunch with Jamie not too far off, having encountered some traffic obstacles en route and suffering a mechanical.

Onwards... towards Sligo and finishing in Bundoran. Surfs up!

Result: 3hrs 15mins @44kph with 681m climbing. Ave HR 151. Stage: 136/188 GC: 162.

 

Stage 3 Newport - Bundoran 149km

All the talk before this stage was a Category 3 climb at the 20km mark. It was possibly gonna split the peloton early - too early to be on the wrong side of the split. Everyone, bar the fatties, seemed to get up the hill OK. But what followed was a bit unexpected – riders were lined out for the bones of 40 mins on a very long descent on some narrow roads. The constant ups, downs, lefts and rights makes for some technical racing favouring the brave descender. With the weather being bone dry and no rain forecast, riders were pushing hard. We rocketed through the towns of Crossmolina, Ballina and Easkey. All Orwell were together for the first 60km holding position well. Jamie had the first bit of bad luck when he dropped a chain at around 60km, forcing him into the cavalcade. Some astute driving by Ken and a determined Busher and he was back into the peloton by kilometer 80. O’Flynn got a mechanical soon after and reappeared in the peloton looking like it didn't cause him too much bother at all. Strong like bull that fella.

After that, we knew that 100k - 120k was going to be tough. It was. Racing was lined out all the way from Ballysadare to Sligo for 20km. The Guards shut down the dual carriageway into Sligo and the pace was really up. Line out after line out ensued. I was in deep pain, trying to hold McArdle and McNally’s wheels. Again, all Orwell made it through Sligo unscathed and hearts pumping. We were trucking along nicely towards the line, the pace easing as the break was gone.  I got a chance to have a bit of banter with Conor Murnane - riding with UCD - he's was going well and credit to him. Hopefully he'll return to Orwell!

McArdle and O’Flynn being the cheeky chappies they are - pinged off the front with about 13km to go - hungry to get the 99's in for the rest of the team in Bundoran, no doubt. The Orwell car followed with Killian giving a big thumbs up to the lads as they bombed past. The rest of us made it home in a group of 50-60 to a big crowd in Bundoran a couple of minutes back. Our swannie Ronan unfortunately let down the team down a bit by failing to deliver five unmelted 99s at the line. McNally and I decided to chill our nuts with a dip off Mullaghmore pier.

Result: 3hrs 15 @46kph with 829m climbing. Ave HR 147. Stage: 122/188 GC: 162.

 

Not much room in the Rás Peloton.

 

Stage 4 Bundoran Buncrana 151km

This 151km stage was, quite simply, brutal. The pace for the opening 50km was about 50kph. Next 50km was at 48kph. Toasty.

The roads were good, smooth and wide dual carriageways which meant that the peloton was snaking from side to side using the full width of the road, climbing over the gradual gradients with ease and dropping down the descents like a stone. Balls out.

All was going "smoothly", at least until about 20km when I was forced into a pothole - front wheel puncture. URGGHhhhh... I pulled in – the wheel change only took about 10 to 15 seconds but those when you are not moving, creates a gap of about 200 to 300m to the back of the peloton – which is still rocketing ahead at 50km an hour. About twenty cars passed from the cavalcade. The one thing you don’t do in a situation like that is panic. Lower the head. On the drops, chase, chase, chase – ride your bike like you stole it. I regained contact however many matches had been burned in the process.

At about 5km raced O’FLYNN, BUSHER and I got caught on the wrong side of a gap and around twenty of us had to work our way back up through around ten cars in the cavalcade to get back on. Good times. Good craic. More matches burned.

Our super domestique O’Flynn earned his dinner that day. Swanning back to the team car to shove bottles down his top to dish out to his team mates. Kudos due. He can carry my bidons any day.

By kilometer 80 the break of around fifteen riders up the road had about 2.5 mins.The pace remained quick to the beginning of the first categorised climb at kilometer 110. As expected, there was a surge forward and carnage ensued. Riders were getting dropped left, right and centre. My legs burn. I taste bile. Snot flies. I tried to hang on as long as I could but - bang - my suffering was close to an end. A group of around fifteen of us formed, off the back of the peloton, and while a number of team cars overtook us, they also made sure that we were kept hydrated by passing out bottles and gels as they went by. ROF and I rode with this group. Busher was snaffled up a few km later. The two Brian's stayed up the road, wanting to hurt more. Savages.

We knew it was coming – Mamore. It will forever be etched in my memory. Supporting fans were lining the road on both sides, frantically waving flags and cheering you on all the way up. Overeager fans jumped out in front of you, cracking a can of Coke open in your face, offering you a drink to try and give you that bit of extra energy over the climb. You splurged Coke all over your face and down your top. I was hauled over the handlebars, stomping away on the lowest gear I had, desperately trying to just maintain some form of momentum. I swayed from side to side – paperboying up the gradient. If you stopped here and unclipped, there was no way you were going to get back in and regain momentum. The gradient was that steep. Cyclists should not be allowed race on that hill – goats should only be allowed remain there. Goats and Bernard English. Bernard English and John Busher made the early morning trip to support us. Legends. Roaring in our ears, giving a wee push, stuffing gels in our pockets. Top men.

I had a good day – not so Busher - Busher's rear mech mashed into his wheel on Mamore. Shocking luck as he was motoring well all day. Navan RC gave him a spare bike to get him going again but the time damage was done. The descent off Mamore was also outrageous. It is a dead straight tiny road. Riders were clocking over 105kph on the descent. A small group of 10 to 15 of us reformed over the top of Mamore and we rode it in towards the line. McArdle came in with the yellow jersey in a select group and McNally not too far behind him. ROF and I following suit.

Spirits were high.

Result: 3hrs 35mins @43kmh with 1500m climbing. Ave HR 148. Stage 155/184 GC: 147/184.

 

Stage 5 Buncrana - Dungloe 180k

A long day. I narrowly missed being taken out in a crash. I cannot recall much of this day. McNally and O’Flynn also hitting the deck today.

Result: 4hrs 37mins @40kph with 1500m climbing. Ave HR 142. Stage: 123/178 GC: 139/178.

 

The grounded rider was straight back up and chasing on.

 

Stage 6 Dungloe - Donegal Town 132km

Having got little sleep the night before, I knew today was going to be a struggle even with now depleted peloton of circa 177 riders signing on.

So far there has been a crash at the neutral roll out pretty much each day. Today was no different, with a couple of riders hitting the deck. Ahhh ...the sound of carbon frames scraping along along the hot and dry tarmac. The loose chippings shredding some poor lads hips and butt cheeks. Only for the rider to have his directeur sportif berate him for not remounting quickly enough.

The flag dropped, the motorbikes roared away and the racing was on. Attacks kicked off straight away and very soon, a break was allowed to get away by the pro teams. Nobody in that break was a threat to GC. Relief. That meant that we cruised up the first Category 3 climb that was only 15km into the stage. We had a chance to see how our legs were and to ease into the stage. The descent to the Category 3 was pretty handy until we got to the bottom hairpin. After that, a cross wind across the valley meant the riders were lined out. The Rás line out is something I’ll never forget. What you have is all riders riding directly behind each other one by one on the right hand side of the road, trying to get the maximum shelter from the rider in front. It's lined out out for about 400 meters - as long as the eye can see. They are brutal. You are doing around 55kph on the flat in your maximum gear, gritting your teeth, trying desperately to hold onto the wheel in front. You are no more than 2-3 inches from the wheel in front - it's a test of both bike handling and pain tolerance. Heart pumping, legs burning. This lasts around 10 mins. It is then repeated and repeated again. When a rider drops the wheel in front, - a crime in a race - he gets a volley of abuse from the rider behind as the rider behind is then forced to overtake him. There is also a huge risk of getting dropped. The gaps inevitably appear and it meant that there were four separate large groups on the road. Following the descent of the first climb, I was in the third group. The next categorised climb kicked in just after the line out stopped. It is never great going into a Category 1 climb - let alone when you are already at max heart rate. Today was no different and the climb at Glengesh was savage. Not least as McNally and I crested the top of the Glengesh climb in the lead group.

I got into a rhythm and got up the climb, catching the other groups on the way up. The crowd support was phenomenal. We then descended the Glengesh again in top gear, hitting speeds of 80km. Epic. It was not epic, however, for the rider that was on Brian McNally’s wheel on the descent. That rider ended up going off the road, into a ditch and landing in a fence. Ah well – that’s racing.

 

Glengesh painface.

 

At this stage, I dropped the wheel (received my volley of abuse) and ended up cycling with around twelve riders for the next 30km to 40km. McNally stayed up the road in a group of forty-five. Beast.

Today’s parcours was all up or down with a number of small groups in the road. As a result, a number of the riders who had been dropped on the climbs, wanted to get back into some of the big groups.

McArdle punctured at the bottom of a preceding climb and Busher was in a group behind. Our group worked well and eventually we caught them main peloton with about 25km to go to the line. The peloton had eased up and we cruised into the finish in Donegal Town.

Six stages down, two more to go. Four lads didn't make the time cut today - ouch. All Orwell did. 173 out of 195 starters left.

Result: 3hrs 44mins @35kph with 1666m climbing. Ave HR 144. Stage: 95/173 GC: 137/173.

 

Stage 7 Across Ireland 167km

That’s likely to be my fastest ever coast to coast. We motored through the lashing rain. Visibility was dire. The racing was most certainly on. I stayed on the right side of the breaks.

Result: 3hrs 33mins @47kph with 412m climbing. Ave HR 141. Stage: 83/171 GC: 118/171.

 

Best fan in the land.

 

Stage 8 Ardee - Skerries 129km

Result: 3hrs 0mins @43kmh with 871m climbing. Ave HR 143. Stage: 145/171 GC: 121/171.

 

All good. Big thanks to my wife for tolerating me this year. Next year will be easier as we know what to expect...

Thanks to all at Orwell, Joe Daly’s, the Committee, the Members, the winter training buddies, all in the winter red group… you all made my Ras possible.

 

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