The Cal McCarthy Cup is named after a fitter by trade and stalwart of Kilmallock Cycling Club who was a dedicated organiser of cycling events and races. He was a perfectionist who didn’t leave the slightest detail to chance.  His club honoured him proudly and organised the race as such a perfectionist would want. I was lucky and everything more or less went perfectly for me.  I had a feeling I was going to win. Then I didn’t win the race. Then I did win the race. But did I really win the race?

This time last year I was in A4 travelling south hunting for points in Charleville. Fast forward 11 months I needed a first or second place to move up to A2.  After a recent crash and loss of form the season wasn’t going so well.  A lot depended on Kilmallock and the last couple of races.

Cahir winning the Oldcastle GP in 2017, photo thanks to Adrian Crawley

Nothing really went right this season from the Gorey three day on.  I got hit with a fever a couple of days beforehand. The highlight of the race for me was hypothermia on the last stage.  In June a 6-week chest infection menacingly appeared.  I could not get the engine firing properly in races. In July the children were in the Gaeltacht and I did very little racing.  The aim became to give it a push in August at Oldcastle and the Wexford two day. I won in Oldcastle last year and the hills and TT in Wexford would suit me.  There were some reasons to be optimistic. I had a couple of minor results in the Eddie Tobin and Paddy Flanagan memorials, but then disaster struck.

Going at around 60 kph in London to Paris two riders came down in front of me and I did a bad stuntman impression by summersaulting and hitting the ground hard. I did a good bit of damage to my ribs, but more worryingly my bike and helmet were wrecked. I finished the event without being competitive, crawling painfully through a further three days of hot, 170km per day. I doubted I would be racing my target races with any level of form, if at all. It quickly became irrelevant both races were cancelled and it looked like the season was over.  I put on a couple of kilos and contemplated whether just to stick with leisure cycling and some gym work going forward or nothing.

Cahir's helmet after the London to Paris crash

I had a couple more races and no results to speak of but I felt some form coming back.  I was in a good position to sprint for honours in Banbridge and then my legs cramped up. If the cramps were not so bad I would have been kicking myself. Kilmallock was changed from Sunday to Saturday because of the All Ireland final and so I decided to give it a bash. Nicolas Appleby asked me why I was travelling so far when there was a race near Dublin.  I knew I had zero chance of points against the A1s in the Leinster race, but still had my doubts about the wisdom of traveling or racing anywhere.

I spoke with my coach Bryan McCrystal and told him I was sick of cycling and couldn’t be bothered, he told me to cop on and just race hard.  So the usual plan, race Thursday night club league but hold back a small bit to have something in the tank for Saturday.  Thursday night was the epic club hill champs.  I tried to ride at 90% but after half way gave it my all.  I had been riding with Shane Toman and Barry Green in the hills on the previous Sunday and knew there were a good few semi scratch riders who were better than me and 90% wouldn’t cut it - 5th place in Semi-Scratch was a great result on the night!  I expected to be tired on Friday, with heavy legs.  It was probably the shortness of the race on Thursday but for whatever reason my legs felt light and fresh and I had confidence that things would go well on Saturday.

I arrived in Kilmallock and got a perfect night’s sleep.  I checked my heart rate when I woke and it had gone down to 36 bpm during the night.  I generally have ok form when my HR is low at rest.  Breakfast followed and there were a few young English lads obviously not long in from the night before cracking paddy Irish man jokes in the breakfast room.  They meant no harm by it, I am sure, but I decided to hate them and muttered words of murderous vengeance and rage to myself.  It was time to invoke my inner John McEnroe so that I would be motivated and have an abundance of energy for the race.  I politely thanked the sons of perfidious Albion for their good natured humour, as you can imagine.  With a few mouthfuls of fairly decent eggs and toast and the fire in my belly of a conquered nation slighted once too often, I marched towards the amphitheatre and war that was to be the Cal McCarthy Cup. (I am at best indifferent to nationalism of any type, but was vaguely annoyed by their patronising jokes.)

The sun was shining and the banter was good.  A lad from Burren CC advised me they were told to keep an eye on me and that I would attack. (Oh the ego rush, but it gave me a little confidence.)  I replied that it would be wiser to watch the 15 juniors who would win after I was brought back when my attack failed.

The race was neutralized for the first kilometre. When the race began I was riding on the very front and slowed down and went slower and slower but no one came by me.  I didn’t have a great warm up, so I decided to fake an attack and do a quick effort just to make sure I was properly warmed up.  I jumped off the front at about 85% power.  Pandemonium ensued behind and the peloton came straight back but immediately slowed right down.  I don’t know why I did it , it wasn’t tactical genius but the second they came back, I put in as savage a kick as I could muster and attacked full throttle off the front.  The race was less than a kilometre old.  I could hear the shouts of “Up Up” but didn’t look back and rode on the limit for five or six minutes.

There was one rider who stayed on my wheel - a Burren CC rider called Enda Murray.  He was ready for work and rode through.  “If we bury ourselves for the next 10k we will get a good gap.” He said and I agreed. We rode on the absolute rivet and got a margin of 30 seconds, then 40, then back down to 30.  It went up and down like that for most of the day.  At one point I saw the peloton and remembered the advice Dave McLoughlin had given me recently, “if you are in the break, commit to it and give it everything.” I thought of what Dave said and with aching ribs, but fresh legs, decided that this was my chance.  Given my lack of talent, and age also being a major factor, opportunities were not going to come around that often.  So I absolutely drove it for another 30 minutes, as I would in a TT.  Enda from the Burren did the same.  There would be no surrender today. This guy reminded me of Dimitri Griffin, an absolutely honest rider who would give it a lash and great to be in a break with.  Also like Dimitri he was a little stronger than me, which was ideal.  The cunning plan was coming together.

The temperature was a throwback to July days when we borrowed the Algarve’s weather for the craic. I knew that the heat would suit me as riders got tired.  The hills apparently had split the peloton to bits.  I found out after the race that there was a chasing group of only 25 riders out of 110 or so left in contention after the first couple of climbs.  My co-conspirator gave it his absolute all and was as tough and focused a rider as you could find, an ideal companion. I had been in a break in Charleville with his club mate, so was not surprised.  I had also been on a training camp with another Burren lad and knew they are a serious racing club.  I hoped his team would disrupt or slow things behind us.  I was the only Scott Orwell entrant, I was on my own.

At around 50k I saw a rider coming like an absolute freight train behind us.  He was Shane O’Connell from Blarney.  He is a kind of Brian McNally type with a touch of Gary Somer’s power, with a bit of Valdis Andersons and Balazs Galambos thrown in for good measure - a Beast as they say. So much for winning the race or going up to A2.  I thought for certain the peloton would be fast on his heels. They weren’t.  I thought he was going to go straight by us. He didn’t.  Had he done so he would probably have dropped us and won.  Instead he did a very quick turn and agreed to work.  The club league team trial training really came in handy and I relied again on Dave Mc’s advice and deliberately rode carefully and smoothly to keep us working together as a team against the chasing pack.

We agreed to cooperate and there was no messing around.  I dropped off slightly to snatch a water bottle.  I gulped as much as I could and then gave the bottle to Enda Murray who had been without water for a while. 15k to go, the gap was at a minute.   I said to the lads I would not attack until there was 1km left and to underscore my commitment I did a little extra on the front.  They were smashing it and so was I.  I barely noticed the ribs and was just focused on taking my turns fairly and finishing strongly.  I needed to finish in the top 2 or it was a waste of a day. Shane O’Connell did an almighty pull on the front and I wondered how this guy could be A3, he has the engine of a pro athlete. After the race I found out he was last year’s u23 world rowing champion and hoped to go to the Tokyo Olympics as a rower.  He took up cycling to cross train and recover from an injury.

I knew by the guys that they would stick to the agreement and there would be no dissenters.  I saved absolutely nothing.  The Corinthian spirit and camaraderie was of itself rocket fuel.  I put in a decent turn to try and respect and match Shane’s effort. Enda Murray began to fade a little so I knocked off the pace a fraction.  We had been up the road all day; a sprint was the only way to decide it. He wasn’t getting dropped for this interloper and late arrival to the party now. 

I suspected Shane would attack first and Enda would try to counter.  The attack came with 500 meters to go. I sat on Enda’s wheel. He didn’t really respond.  Shane pushed on hard for the line and distanced us.  Second is ok, I thought.  No it’s not, panic sprint time, I blasted the power into the pedals. I sprinted as hard as I could.  Shane was fading; he didn’t know I had him in my sights.  The line was there I was going to win, I was on Shane’s hip. He let go of the handlebars.  “What are you doing, you are going to take us both out” I thought.  Winning he thought!  “You cannot be serious.” McEnroe was still channelling.  He drifted a little right, I feathered the breaks I wasn’t crashing again now and moved right and threw the bike at the line.

Did I get it; I wasn’t sure? 2nd and off up to A2 that would be ok, not great, but ok.  The race was over my head flooded with thoughts, regrets and uncertainty. I should have mugged him on the line.  Maybe I did get it, I wasn’t sure. I should have got it, I should have sprinted harder, I should have gone a little earlier etc etc. Shoulda shoulda but didn’t, you gobshite O’Higgins, another race for the winning left after you, I thought. Jesus my ribs are sore.  I’m hungry and thirsty, I better get out of here and down to Terryglass to bring the kids to water sports. Did I get it? Ahhhhh I wasn’t sure. A lot of competing ideas were buzzing.  A cool down was needed.  Clarity could wait. A2 that was the plan who cares if it was second or first. 

Besides I had a dark secret that I dared not reveal to the locals in Limerick when they thanked me for coming all the way down from Dublin.  I’m not from Dublin, I am from Galway.  It would be nice to have at least one Galway man win a McCarthy cup this weekend. It could be a little insurance policy.  Surely all of my fellow Galwegians would be greatly concerned about these events.  The trivial affair of any potential disappointment in the All Ireland final later that afternoon would now surely be tempered by what could only be greeted as the most important news for the county since the three in a row.  They would probably be ecstatic even with second. I owed it to them to smite these Treaty folk. In 1691 the Limerick Treaty was signed and now revenge was at last afoot. (I remembered I don’t care about these things.) I knew it was a close call but reckoned I had lost; it was probably second place.

I had a few chats with some of the racers around and then went off for a twenty-minute cool down.  I came back for the prize giving.  Shane O’Connell approached me with a big smile plastered across his face, (smug git I mused uncharitably.) “Congrats, well done, great racing with you,” he chirped.  I assumed this was confirmation of my second place, he seemed so chilled and happy, less cocky now and just a decent and pleasant sort.

“Well done, you are a worthy champion” I replied. (Privately and strictly confidentially between us I was completely resentful of his success and a bit guilty because he seemed sound enough.)

Darn it… No you are the winner.  Booom what? Really. Cooooool. Deadly, must have snatched it on the line.  Rightly so, how did this pup ever think he was a match for the tribesmen.  Alas no, the joy was short lived. The officials had demoted him for the incident at the very end of the race. I was as disappointed as if I had pulled up with a mechanical after a kilometre. Any joy with first, second or third was gone. I was grumpy and unhappy with the race now. I did not want to win a race this way and felt it was unfair.  I spoke with the officials and said I was unhappy and did not wish to be declared the winner of the race.  They were clear and stated that the race rules had been broken and the outcome could have been different had the incident not occurred.  They said when analysing the footage to see who hit the line first there was a clear infringement. So the second question of which wheel crossed first was no longer relevant. They demoted him to 3rd and last place in the sprint.

Cahir with second place finisher Shane O'Connell

Shane told me he saw the footage and he accepted the infringement but his wheel had crossed first.  In my heart of hearts, I kind of knew that.  There was not even an ounce of satisfaction with the “the win,” or second or any place. He was gracious and also accepted their argument that I had to touch the breaks and vary my line.  I thought the demotion was harsh and have my doubts that the outcome would have been much different, had the incident not occurred.  Had he not pitched in, he could have won the race solo. Had he put his head down and sprinted properly he would have taken it. I said a few words at the prize giving of thanks to the organisers and acknowledged his strength. As he is a young student I reckoned that he would get more use out of the prize money than I would, I suggested we swap envelopes.  He was thrilled by the gesture. I did win the race but only sort of.  I would have preferred it to be a different way.  I suppose though he is going to the Olympics (albeit as a rower) and I am going to seed, so in the best tradition of Munster Rugby you will take the ugly win occasionally. He will have plenty of big days out.

Michael Hanley took the time to find out a little bit about Ken Duff when he wrote about the Ken Duff memorial, I thought that was a classy thing to do.  So after the prize giving I chatted to Cal McCarthy’s widow and friends, for a while.  They told me about his love of the sport and how great he was with fixing anything, be it a bicycle or DIY.  They missed him terribly and spoke about their shock when he passed away at 60 after a brief illness. It put things into perspective and I was grateful that I can race at this or any level. I feel and look every one of my 43 years.  I have had a tough paper round, you might say.  Back fractures in football, concussions in boxing and karate, a snapped ankle running, shoulder surgery after a crash in Triathlon etc etc.  My chassis has been well tested.  My sense of humour tests the patience of others and is on a par with my eight years olds (hmmmm probably more like an annoying teenagers) and in my head I think I am in my twenties. It was nice to race and feel like a youngster at the business end of this race.  First, second, third who cares.  I am lucky and blessed to be in a great club with great people and have a family that supports me. 

After the prize giving I skipped out of the place with a grin on my face (with the cup) still feeling I kind of robbed it.  I hopped into the car and set off to bring the kids to the lake.

BANG WHAM SMASH.  What the hell was that? A few kilometres down the road I had hit a curb or rock or something that shook the car and me. My ribs reminded me that they hadn’t gone away you know… that was lucky no crash, I was relieved.  I better get a lotto ticket. Ten minutes later on the M7 there was a big pop and the car swerved. A puncture, (thank god that didn’t happen in the race.)  I was driving slowly so was lucky and blessed (again.) I pulled up on the roadside and waited for Axa Motor assist.  I eventually got a €100 taxi to Terryglass and was relentlessly teased by my kids.

Oops!

Normal service resumes.  Did Cuchulainn have to put up with this grief in the evenings after his incredible feats of bravery, I wondered? I ignored the detractors and pressed on to regale all present with my tremendous tales of daring, barely mentioning the fact that I was a winner by default.  Then the gut punch, “That A3 on the Cup Dad? What’s that about? “Err em, that's what they call all the good guys, the great guys, to be sure.”  “This is like the time you told me you were born part dolphin and used to live in the sheds with dogs until you were ten, Dad isn’t it.” Dang rumbled. Oh well, I think I saw a glint of pride in Ultan’s eye when he was using the cup as a coke glass or maybe it was just a reflection from the Nintendo Switch. Sadhbh, Iseult, Fiachra and Ultan are great kids. Hopefully they will see that there is a lot of sport and things you can do even when you are “like a million years old Dad” as they frequently remind me.

Roll on A2 I’m looking forward to being pack fill.

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