With six stages over a week in County Clare, the Junior Tour of Ireland attracted a field of 126 riders this year, with two thirds of them from abroad – lots from North America, as well as Portugal, the Netherlands, the Isle of Man and various regions of Britain. Orwell Wheelers was the only Irish club to field its own team, and we were proud to be represented by club members David Harrington, Patrick O’Sullivan, Daniel Roberts and guests Chris Marshall (an Orwell member until recently) and Mark Agent (who guested with us last year as well). Two Orwell members were selected for other teams, with Joe-Nathan Matar riding for the Leinster A selection and Killian O’Brien on a strong Ireland team.

Mark, Daniel, David, Chris, Patrick and Ivan (DS): Team Orwell. Photo Eamonn Byrne.

Everyone stayed in the one hotel, which created a real buzz: it didn’t seem at all strange to see people in sandals and shorts carrying wheels around, or huddled groups watching the Tour on the phones at all hours of the day! A lot of the riders wore team casual kit to the restaurant (note to self for next year!) too. As Daniel says: “Team spirit was good with pre race analysis, having meals together and sharing a room”

The first stage, on Tuesday evening, was short, fast and furious, leading up to an inevitable bunch sprint … which didn’t materialise, as Liam O’Brien (Ireland) and Hudson Lubbers (Ignite Canada) held a small advantage for the last 20km to finish 10 seconds up on the bunch.

Joe-Nathan warming up in Leinster colours. Don't be fooled by the brief appearance of the sun! Photo: Ivan O'Brien

Stage 2 started and finished in Ennis, with the first third into a block headwind as the race headed for the coast. Killian punched hard for the Cliffs of Moher KOM but went a little early and was passed just before the line to miss out on points. A group of 12 (including the two leaders) finished 29 seconds up on a bunch of 50, including Chris, Killian, Mark and Joe-Nathan, with Patrick one bunch back.

Patrick driving up the Cliffs of Moher climb on stage 2. Photo: Sean Rowe.

A very focussed Chris on Stage 2. Photo: Stephen McMahon

With the challenging weather continuing, Stage 3 was nearly all into the wind but a bad crash after 9km took down a lot of riders, including Patrick, Daniel and Joe-Nathan: none of them managed to get back to the peloton, unfortunately. Mark and Killian were riding right at the front of the remaining bunch when they were forced to stop by two punctures immediately in front of them with 10km to go, just before the main climb of the day. Despite absolutely blasting up it, picking up a bunch of dropped riders in their wake, they finished in the second group and lost 30 seconds on the leaders. Chris had a great day: “I continued to improve managing to conserve my energy all day to make it over the final Cat 2 climb in the front split and managing to sprint to 8th place which I was very happy with.”

Daniel after being held up badly by the early crash on stage 3. Photo Sean Rowe

Chris sprinting to 8th place on Stage 3. Photo: Sean Rowe.

Stage 4, starting and finishing at the Ailwee Caves, is the queen stage of the tour, with the climbs sharp enough to split the group and the roads hard enough to prevent it all coming back together, so we were all looking nervously at the weather forecast as we drove to the start. Unfortunately, the torrential rain just didn’t stop and the organisers were forced to cancel the whole stage half an hour before the start. A real shame, as it changed to complexion of the whole race completely! Back to the hotel to watch the Tour de France on the big screens in the bar …

Team Ireland warming up: there's a yellow jersey to defend! Photo: Sean Rowe.

Killian powers around a corner on Stage 5. Photo: Sean Rowe.

Stage 5 took the riders to East Clare, with the first 30km on flat roads with a strong tailwind and covered at well over 55km/h, with riders getting continually spat out the back: Daniel was last to lose the wheel before the race turned left for the climbs. The group was nervous, with several crashes. The peloton split and reformed over the climbs and descents, and David lost contact at the start of the last category 2 climb. Patrick was comfortably in the main bunch before puncturing with 10km to go. As we were pacing him back to the group we heard that Mark had made a solo break for glory with 6km to go and it seemed to be going well … until we caught up to the bunch 1km later just as a very nasty crash took place. To quote Chris “This stage was going really well for me I had made it over all the climbs into a selected front group of riders contesting the stage win. Unfortunately, with 5km to go I was involved in a horrible crash which took down a few riders, I was left with bad road rash and bad concussion which meant I had to abandon the stage and the end of my Junior tour.” Mark was caught inside the last kilometre, so Orwell missed out on stage glory, but we were all focussed on Chris at that stage: the lads were all so good, checking in on him regularly and helping to keep his spirits up despite the huge disappointment. 

David working hard on one of the drags on stage 6. Photo: Sean Rowe

The mood before the final stage was different: everyone was tired and some riders just wanted it to be over, but we regathered energy and took one last look over the bikes before setting out to race. It was windy yet again, though more showers than the solid rain we had previously experienced! The course was eight laps of a 10km circuit with two nasty drags on it. Quite a few tired riders couldn’t handle the relentless attrition (including Daniel and Joe-Nathan), while Killian was on team duty for race leader Liam O’Brien, driving the bunch and closing down and infiltrating breaks. 500m before the finish, Liam was jostled off his teammates wheel and into a ditch! That teammate (Oisin Ferrity) went on to win the stage and points jersey, but Hudson Lubbers (remember him from stage 1!?) finished second on the stage: the bonus seconds brought him level with Liam, winning him the yellow jersey on countback! Cruel.

Killian driving the bunch on the wet roads on the final stage. Photo: Sean Rowe

Looking at the tour as a whole from an Orwell perspective: for all the difficulties, challenges, accidents and misfortune, the guys were brilliant. In pure racing terms, we were 16th out of 27 in the team classification, ahead of ALL the provincial and other Irish teams, except Ireland, who finished second in the team classification. Mark finished 30th on GC, Killian was 33rd (and 9th first year rider, despite being on team duties throughout), while David (65th) and Patrick (89th) were both in the middle third of that classification. Joe-Nathan (102nd) and Daniel (108th) lost so much time due to crashes and mechanicals that their position doesn’t reflect effort at all, and it’s really all about the experience. As Daniel puts it: “disappointed with how the racing played out but glad to have finished race with body and bike in one piece. Tough week overall and quite demoralised after stage 2 and 3. Hopefully have a better week next year.”

We were all absolutely gutted for Chris, who had been on flying form, and are happy that he is on the mend. Three of our riders (plus Killian) are first years so will have another shot at it in 2024.

It was my first Junior Tour as a DS and it was quite the experience! Alice Sherratt and her team run a brilliant race, Gearóid Campbell organised results superbly. Thanks to Stephen O’Shea and Niall Doggett (Leinster) for their support and experience, and to Lyndsay Gamble for keeping the bikes in good working order. Thanks to all the mammies and daddies for letting their kids speed through Co Clare at crazy speeds in the company of lots of mad teenagers on bikes -- it can be nerve-wracking, but they are making friends for life. And of course huge thanks to the Orwell Wheelers and Pinergy for the financial (and moral!) support: a fantastic experience for all the kids, and one they will remember for a very long time.