Veteran of two Rás campaigns, Brian Mc, recounts his third Rás in a row. Tight for training time and an early crash seek to thwart his aims of finishing. He also has one eye on the A2 Classification.

 

It wasn't my greatest start to the season - work was stressful and busy with a major project underway, and I was working late nights on a weekly basis. Less time for training, but crucially less time and headspace for recovery. Rás Mumhan saw me dropped on stage 1 and not even make it to the final circuit on stage 4. On the bright side, no hypothermia this year!

A green jumper in Rás Mhaigh Eo courtesy of some smart and targeted racing was a nice bonus, but didn't inspire much confidence. I trusted in Aidan Hammond's coaching abilities though, and come May a climber's prime at the Deenside Cup and first A2 in the Shay Elliot Memorial were signs that I was peaking at just the right time.

The other preparations fell into place, thanks to those who organised the fundraising table quiz (and all those who donated!) and those in Joe Daly's who gave the bike a superb traditional pre-Rás service.

 

Stage 1 - 146km Dublin – Longford

The Dublin Castle send-off was as big a buzz as last year. Family and friends crammed into the courtyard, a roar from the Orwell-thronged crowd as we were presented on stage, and then a squeeze through the gates as we got underway. A neutralised rollout to near Liffey Valley, it was fast and furious from the gun.

Not everyone wants to be seen with Brian at Dublin Castle

The first crash was only 6km in. We'd passed through Leixlip and out the other side, zipping along at 45-50kph. A couple of riders hit the deck ahead of me, a touch of wheels probably - I watch to see where they'd land so as not to be taken down myself. Instead I find my wheels flush with a long, narrow traffic island that snakes across the road. I wobble uncertainly before my bike pitches over and I slide for a few metres on my right side. There's a split-second of horror - it's not even been ten minutes, and my Rás might be over. Then the bike shudders to a halt down the road a bit, and then I'm on my feet and hopping back on before I can properly process what happened. My Garmin didn't even register that I stopped!

I was close enough to the front of the peloton that I'm still in the bunch as I get underway again. I know my right side is shredded, but the bike is thankfully in perfect working order, only I can't clip in properly with my right foot - the back of the cleat has been sheared off. As tough as a stage of the Rás is, I didn't fancy the prospect of making it twice as hard by only doing it with one leg! I'm pedalling hard, trying to hang on to the tail-end of the bunch as I rack my brains about what to do about the cleat. My right foot keeps flying out whenever I try to accelerate. My spare shoes are in the van on the way to Longford, the lads are unlikely to have extras in the car. Cable ties are the first thing I think of.

I call the car up and scream "cable ties!" at Ken. I neglect to actually explain what happened, so it takes a couple of goes before Kilian straps me in. It keeps me going until there's a stall later in the day, and I have to put my foot down. Stupidly I clip out, and have to return to the car for another fix. In the meantime race doctor Julian Dalby gives my wounds the once over, and I even get back to the bunch for awhile. After the second cable tying however, I end up on the wrong side of a split, and lose twelve minutes.

Getting treated at the end of the stage (photo thanks to Ken O'Neill)

Nonetheless, thanks to Ken and Kilian's cool professionalism during a baptism of fire, I finished well within the time limit on a day where I thought for a moment that my Rás was disappearing up the road. They also looked after Stephen and McNally who suffered tumbles and punctures, while Ronan takes 35th on the stage and 8th county rider!

 

Stage 2 – 143km Longford – Newport

Today would've been ear-marked as an easy day, but as I woke up with my bedsheets stuck to various parts of me, I wasn't so sure. It took a while for the ambulance to arrive at sign-on, and I cleaned them out of various dressing and bandages. The cylindrical mesh-net things are very useful for protecting the road rash while still letting it breathe.

As we roll out, the leg is sore for the first thirty minutes or so, but fades into the background as there's plenty of other things to be worrying about during the race.

It doesn't look like there's too many shelled as we approach Westport. My subconscious is poking at my conscious with some important information though, and I realise that the Newport road out of Wesport is a serious enough climb at race pace. I've done it a couple of times in the Rás Mhaigh Eo, and in the Rás back in 2015. I make a proper effort to move up and get nice and close to the front.

Sure enough, as we exit Westport we're climbing. The oncoming lane is bumper to bumper, so there's not a lot of room to overtake and gaps yawn open. Myself and Ronan are on the right side as we crest and descend toward the finish in Newport. It was here that Lukas Pöstlberger overshot the final bend in 2015, but nobody makes that mistake today - everyone home safe and sound!

 

Stage 3 – 149km Newport – Bundoran

With another "flat" stage, the bunch is mostly well behaved until a lump at about 20km where I'm positioned well and hope that I'm taking advantages of plenty of splits behind me.

There are plenty of well surfaced wide roads today, and outside Sligo some crosswinds and inattention in the bunch let a big group go up the road. There's some frensied chasing on a dual carriageway outside Sligo, but eventually the bunch sit up with about 20km to go.

We're cruising along at a Sunday spin pace, which always seems wrong in the Rás, but it's a much needed chance to recovery for a lot of riders. I'm feeling good though, and when I see Adam Greally from St. Tiernan's attack off the front I go across to him. Together with some Waterford lads we trade turns on the way into Bundoran to take some time and move up in the rankings. I qualify for the A2 classification this year, so it's good to take some time on my rivals in that too.

The accommodation isn't always luxurious...

 

Stage 4 – 151km Bundoran – Buncrana

I'm still pretty raw from hitting the tarmac on day one, but healing well. Between the ambo crew giving me dressings, Kilian supplying me with drugs, and Ronan Q fetching me other bits from the pharmacy, I'm being well looked after. It's pretty painful at times when walking around, but on the bike it doesn't seem to bother me too much - there's far too many other things to be worrying about!

Everyone was a bit intimidated at the amount of climbing at the tail end of this stage, and that includes me. The horror stories of Mamore Gap - Dave T's advice was "give it everything on the way up, but save something for the end". Before we ever got near it though, the stage start was hectic - lined out through Ballyshannon at only the 3km mark, pulse thumping in my eyeballs before we'd even warmed up fully.

On the wider roads it was a little easier to get shelter in the line-outs, and descending toward Letterkenny at 80-90kph on a dual carriageway to the soundtrack of screaming school children was an awesome experience.

Coming into Buncrana at 110km to start the mountainous loop felt like riding to a sprint finish. Team trains forming at the head of the peloton, elbows out, guys battling to be on the front. We were through the town like a flash and straight onto a Cat 3 climb. Lined out, wheels being dropped, straight from the Cat 3 to a Cat 2 without respite, before a brief descent.

A breather, and a small group forms and we struggle up to the next small group as we climb the second Cat 2. A wonderful lull then, catch the breath, rest the legs, some of the team cars come past and we manage to get up to the next group just in time to start Mamore.

Up and up, little ring, 28 sprocket. Just as I find a rhythm, there's a brief downhill section. Push, push, push. The climb was only 1.7km in total, but it could've been the whole race. The final section is a wall, but lined with screaming support. It feels like the Tour has come to town!

I get a can of coke and a shove from Bernard English as I crest the summit, about two bike lengths off a small group. Down a straight and narrow descent, where my lightness does me no favours, and I know I won't be catching anyone. The group behind sweeps me up and using the cavalcade, we tag onto the back of the next group.

I'm in good company - the yellow and blue jerseys amongst others - the kind of company who aren't that bothered about sprinting for minor placings it seems. For me it's a relief to find I still have legs to do one final effort across the finish line, and find John and Ronan waiting with welcome food and water. Thankfully I didn't see Ken nor Killian the whole day, bike and legs performing in unison!

 

Stage 5 – 180km Buncrana – Dungloe

Today is the longest day, and it turns out to be the hottest May day on record in Donegal! The parcours was usually described as "lumpy", and the roads were constantly up and down all day. And when the sun wasn't baking you, the wind was battering you! The plan for me for the day was to conserve energy, hide in the bunch, don't lose time as there could well be massive gaps.

That plan went out the window when I saw an opportunity to get in the break early on. At about the 60km mark, the pros fanned across the front of the peloton, decreeing the break gone and time to relax. Race off! I was third row with a clear view as one of the Dutch riders decided he was having none of it, barged through the front row with shoulders and elbows and took off, quickly followed by two county riders. Race on!

Attack after attack, and when I could, I went too. The aggressive racer's greed threw the calculated plan out the window, and I put in a big effort to bridge across to four lads. A Danish guy came with me, and we were clear for a short while (ten seconds? two minutes?) while we powered away before being gradually reeled back in. I take a moment to recover in the bunch, before to my horror I see the "KOH Start" sign. Where did the last 20km go!?

I'm already on my limit, but I've plenty of slippage room at least. Up over the KOH, still comfortably in the bunch, I know I have the descent to recover... which is all of 2km before we're straight into another Cat 3. uh oh, big trouble here. I see the top A2 rider pass me, and I know I have to hang on, but the legs are gone. I'm off the back of the bunch, and the cars are slipping by.

I spend a long time on my own waiting for the next group to catch me, and grab a bottle from John and Ronan at the side of the road, and a can of coke from a random bystander as well. Ken and Kilian swoop in shortly later with supplies and fill me in on how the lads are doing - ROF and Stephen are just behind me, so I ease up further to let their group gather me up, and we make our way home over the lumpy roads of Donegal. Brian and Jamie come in about ten minutes after us, well within the time cut.

The Ronans are taking it in turns it seems to supply us with post-race ice creams, this time it's Ronan Q who produces some cones (the best thing I have tasted all week, and that includes the porridge in Westport) while Ronan O'F is getting stitched up by the ambulance.

The longest day was indeed a long day, but we managed to get a dip in the sea in before dinner! Roll on the weekend!

Well earned!
A recuperative evening dip, good for the mind and the muscles!

 

Stage 6 – 132km Dungloe – Donegal

After a great feed last night (despite Ken spilling beer all over me), followed by a gorgeous sunset over the Atlantic and a great night’s sleep, I was looking forward to today’s stage. It was all about Glengesh at the 60km mark, and I’ve got some good memories of that climb. Time to show those pros who’s boss!

The pros had other ideas however, and after a hairpin turn at 20km we came into a valley with a raging crosswind and they blew the race apart. Stephen describes the line-outs pretty well, I won’t go into any more detail, but it hurt. There was a lot of shouting as a couple of echelons snaked away from us.

A bunch of mostly county riders forms, and we drill it along, 70kph down descents, 50-55kph on the flat. I’m thinking this group will whittle down once we hit the climb, but then - the dreaded sensation of a flat front wheel… feck! 45km in, I pull in to the left, stick the hand up, but the bunch is so strung out I can’t even see the cavalcade yet. Comms car passes, no neutral service. Team car after team car pass, impassive to my fate while I stand there helplessly with my front wheel in the air. Ken and Kilian are back at car 34, neutral arrive by about car 20, and I feel the race slipping away as the mechanic runs toward me, and then stops to go back to the car to get a front wheel instead of a back one.

Today was to be the day I danced up Glengesh to glory again, but alas and alack, I’ll be happy to get home within the time cut. Ken makes sure I get to a group just beyond Ardara, but I push on, hoping to mop up some stragglers on Glengesh. The cars are being cautious with their clutches on the steep slopes, some lessons learnt on Mamore, and the crowds are out in force again.

I know how it must look to them: the struggling amateur dropped by the big boys. I want to tell everyone, I won a stage of the Donegal 3 Day here, don’t you know who I am!? But mostly I puff and pant and gasp for water and swing out my handlebars and try not to beg for pushes. Descending then, and on to the bottom of the next climb. I start seeing riders again, and pass Ronan and my A2 rival. Up and over, and yet another climb. I find Stephen here, and pour what water I can spare over his back. He gives what I think is a groan of relief. I go on a bit, but realise there’s nobody in sight, and get in with the group that forms.

Suffering on Glengesh (photo thanks to Adrian Crawley photography)

We go about 100m in the wrong direction at one point, and have to double back, losing precious time. Ronan bridges to us, along with the A2 title holder. Feck! No point in working now. It seems we’re so far behind the bunch at this point that civilian traffic is getting in our way. I’m on the right side as the group splits entering Killybegs, as we try make our way up the outside of a slow moving traffic jam.

It’s a relief to discover the jam is behind the bunch, who have sat up and are tootling along at what feels like 30kph. I honestly did not expect to see so many riders again today. McNally’s here too, sitting comfortably.

When one of the pros drifts off the front with 20km to go, I see a chance to steal some time and follow a wheel across to him. He pushes on through Dunkineely, but as soon as he realises there’s three county riders on his wheel, he sits up. We keep going, dropping the Velo Cafe rider on the final Cat 3 of the day. Myself and John Hodge drill it to the line, taking back nearly four precious minutes on the bunch. All I need now are another 18…

A glorious Donegal sunset

 

Stage 7 – 170km Donegal - Ardee

It seems like every day of the Rás is the hardest day yet. After two scorching hot stages, this morning we were greeted by lashing rain at sign-on, with not much prospect of relief during the stage. We were scarce on space in the van and rollers were a no-go to bring to the start. The choice: stay dry and don't warm up, or get wet and warm up. I went for a ten-minute spin, and was glad I did because the race was hot from the gun!

We were pretty much straight into an uncategorised climb, and there was no let-up over the top and down the far side. Eyeballs out stuff, and then I start feeling that dreaded sensation of the road on my rims. Front looks okay, must be the back. I ask the guy next to me, he says "yeah, looks flat". Feck! The tubs are still rolling though. This time I wait until I see neutral service before I pull in, and it's a quick change. I'm the cars, up and down like a yo-yo. I stick my rainjacket down my front to get more aero and save watts.

Eventually I get back on, 30km later. Stephen's here, the other lads must be behind. My A2 rivals are here too, ah well. The pace is high, but it eases off in places. My Garmin has gone on the blink, and has stuck at 50km. I have to ask people how far we've done. 85km in, still nearly 100km to go. I put my jacket back on to stop myself getting cold, as the rain is still pouring down.

This feels like a proper Rás stage. The pace is high, line-outs are frequent, and there's water and muck getting into every nook and cranny. There's no laughing in this group, we must be chasing the break.

The last 30km are pedal to the metal stuff, and I ditch the jacket again. 10km sign passes, I'm feeling good, going fast, sitting in the wheels. 5km to go, I know the finish is three right-handers, I should definitely go for the sprint.

We're on the outskirts of Ardee, though a roundabout, through another, 2.5km to go... I'm on the outside line when two guys hit the deck in front of me. One goes left with his bike, I see another bike go left, where's the second faller? Feck, he's standing right in front of me, I throw the bike left around him which means my body shifts to the right, and I manage to headbutt him in the ribs but don't end up on the ground myself. Meanwhile the inside line has powered on and there's a gap to the front group.

The stragglers try to close it, but the crash has held us up for too long, and we lose thirty seconds to the front of the group. Stephen comes over the line as well, and the three lads with a big bunch. I drop by the ambulance to get some disinfectant - the rain has turned my wounds to mush, and who knows what got in there from the road surface during the race. Still though, it's all smiles at this point!

Kilian hard at work (NB the weather was not like this on Saturday)

 

Stage 8 – 130km Ardee – Skerries

Sunday morning the spirits were high and the mood was good. Martin Kearney was on hand to help with logistics, and he must think the Rás is great fun from the atmosphere. If only he’d been in Donegal in the lashing rain!

Last day, last chance to get on the radio. The wounds feel rawer than ever this morning, and I drop by the ambulance for a fresher dressing. A marching band escorts us to the start line in Ardee, and we were off! Fast tarmac through Nobber, road furniture in Navan, familiar roads around Drogheda. A French army rider tries a rough overtake at one point, his arm hooked in under mine. Our bikes tangle, I roar at him and smack him on the back, I don’t want to fall at the final hurdle. He’s managed to open the cuts on my arm, I hope he got blood on his jersey.

The Bellewstown climb comes sooner than expected, a sharp right but I’m nicely positioned about twentieth wheel. My climbing legs are nowhere to be found though, and I fall steadily back through the bunch. Everything hurts, but a look around tells me that everyone is suffering. Out the back at the top of the climb, we descend through a chicane on the far side and straight up Snowtown, well trodden by the Stamullen GP. Left turn at Naul and as we reach Balrothery the group I’m in catches the cavalcade.

Back in the bunch just in time to climb to the circuit. This is the corner I always spectate from, and I have an eye out for some regulars, but they’re noticeably absent. Descend to Skerries, through a tunnel of green cheers and roars, and then the first of three horrible climbs up Black Hills. Again, I start at the front but am nearly out the back by the summit, the second time I fare a little better, but on the final climb the pace is civilised and the lone rider who goes on the attack gets a volley of abuse. 

Final time over the line, a sense of relief and accomplishment, congratulations all round and John is already wiping my face with a towel. Plenty of Orwells and families out to support the team along with Conor Murnane, all now Men of the Rás. Ronan’s picked up some beers and we pop some champagne. Done!

John does one last clean up

 

Wrap Up 

It’s been emotional, the ups (Mamore Gap), the downs (Leixlip tarmac), but it's been brilliant. Getting back to reality has been a downer, in part because it hurts to stand and work sent me to Austria the following week, so no chance to snooze in the office. Life in the bubble of the Rás involves a lot of pain and hardship on the bike, but good opportunities for ice cream and dips in the sea outside of that! I was very happy to finish 3rd in the A2 classification, as well as just finishing!

Big thanks from me personally to all the support crew - John Walsh came in from Carlow with strong hands and an innate knowledge of just what a rider wants and needs on the line - a Mammy to wash your face, and a Daddy to buy you a coke, and he was both in one!

Ronan, who’s not even a member of the club, stepped up when we were short-handed and was just the man for the job - van-driving, bag-hauling, ice-fetching, no job too big or too small. Spent a week’s holidays catering to the whims of five man-babies. Fair play!

Kilian "I'm not a mechanic" Doyle earned his stripes in the first 10km of racing, and will forever have my gratitude for not only making sure my bike was pitch perfect every day, but making me appear a beast to family and friends reading the Irish Times.

And Kilian shared that baptism of fire with Ken, though you wouldn't have thought it was Ken's first Rás by the end of the week. Even by stage two he was already cool, calm and collected! On the last day he was talking about what he’s going to do differently next year… dangerous words!

Thanks also to all who sent messages of support or turned out at Dublin Castle and in Skerries! Really helps the mind and body keep going during the week, thanks a lot! And well done to the rest of the team - hardy men one and all!

Proud to see everyone make it from start to finish in (mostly) one piece

 

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