The last time that I lined out for the Rás was in 2005 and it ended with me lying on a table in A&E getting a nice row of stitches added to my kneecap, the injury would prevent me from riding for more than an hour without pain for the next few years so the thoughts of doing another Rás were not on the cards.

I decided to give racing a go again in 2010 when I heard about the new A3 category so off I went to the physio to see what he could do and soon enough I was off racing again. By the time September had come around I had a full Rás training plan mapped out for 2011. It seemed like a good idea at the time...

After a long hard winter and some even harder racing I rolled out of Dunboyne on May 22nd for stage one. With 175 riders raring to go, everyone wanted to win the neutralised lap and no one wanted to give an inch. Half way around the lap I heard the customary warning of “ON THE RIGHT” and, as expected, some idiot thought that this would be a good time to move up on the right hand side.

I was hit hard on the thigh by a brake lever and heard the familiar sound of metal scraping against tar but luckily I didn’t come down. Maybe that would be my close call out of the way for the day?

I quickly realised I needed to move up the field to avoid potential spills and used some pathways to move up near the front of the group. Another rider had the same idea and followed me up the outside of the field and ploughed straight into a bush much to the amusement of the peloton.

The race hadn’t even started yet and there had been two crashes beside me. I started to feel like maybe this would be my lucky day and that while everyone else was crashing I would remain unharmed.  The flag dropped the rain started the speed shot up and the adrenalin surged we were on our way at last.

Stage 1 Dunboyne to – Portumna  (148k)

Stage one was a strange day. We raced into a block headwind for most of the time which for a county rider is great news. You can bury yourself into the middle of the bunch and get maximum protection while the pros slog it out at the front.

The pace was up and down for most of the day and when I saw half the bunch taking a nature break after 60k I was wondering when we were going to get started?  Before I knew it we were rolling into the outskirts of Portumna the hammer had still not gone down for any sustained period. This was the complete opposite of ’05 when we averaged 30miles an hour for 80 miles. This Rás was going to be a doddle!

With six km to go I was moving up the field to try to get a descent position for the gallop. The speed was still not anything to worry about and then ‘BANG’ - half the field came down right in front of me.

I grabbed the brakes and stopped just in time and braced myself for the smack from behind but nothing came my luck was definitely in today. There was no way around the two metre pile of bodies and the commissaries decided to neutralise the race.

I took the opportunity to gather myself but without warning they opened up the road again and we were off.

Gaps opened up all over the place and coming into the finish I found myself in a group 40 seconds down. Little did I know that this would be the smallest deficit of the entire week! I was glad to get the first stage over with and avoid any of the spills and happy enough with how the legs felt.

Stage 2 Portumna - Kilrush 164 kms

I woke up on Monday morning to the sound of howling wind and rain lashing off the window. I had studied the route the night before and checked the wind direction so I knew what was in store. It would be a day of gale force crosswinds.

After a hectic start 60 riders made split. The rest were left to a long day of riding in the gutter, the lowest point of the day for me was when we passed the 25K to go sign after four and a half hours and a guy beside me sarcastically said “well that should only take us an hour at this speed”. And he was right.

Five and a half hours after we started we reached Kilrush.  There were a lot of tired bodies that evening and any hope of a high GC finish was gone for many. And it was only day two. To give you an idea of how strong the winds were the easiest part of the stage was the second cat climb of the Corkscrew Hill as it was sheltered from the wind. It was the only rest from the wind all day.

Stage 3 Kilrush – Castleisland 175kms

This was the longest stage of the race and with the wind dropping only moderately it would be one of the hardest of the week.  For the first 40k we had a 45km/h tailwind which meant 53x11 for 45 minutes lined out.

We turned right in Ennis and started hitting the crosswinds on open roads. The bunch quickly began to split to bits, wheels were being let go all over the place and I was caught out in an 80 man group trying to chase back on to the main bunch. I thought that that was it for the day but then in Limerick we turned into a strong headwind and there was a regrouping of the main field.

There was a general lull until we reached Adare when all hell broke loose. The pro teams decided that break-time was over and the hammering of the county boys began in earnest. In the last 65k most of the county riders lost half an hour to the front group. The gulf between the pros and the rest was made clear.

Stage 4 Castleisland - Castletownbere 142 kms

This was the Queen stage of this year’s Rás with five categorised climbs including Molls gap and the dreaded Cat 1 Healy Pass. After the display of power by the pros on Tuesday I feared a total wipe-out today.

The rain was lashing down at the start, the temperature had dropped a few degrees and, of course, the winds were still blowing hard...perfect.

This stage was a mental hurdle as well as a physical one. Studying the route a few months back I thought to myself if you can get over stage four, you can get to the finish. It was the halfway point of the race and a big test.

The stage began just like all of the others: flat out fast but surprisingly I felt more comfortable that I had over the last three days. The line outs were becoming a common part of the day and when they happened you just got on with it.

You learn to spot a lineout coming very quickly. The key is to move up the field fast and get onto the wheel of the biggest looking foreign guy and hold on for as long as you can and when you feel yourself losing the wheel, hold on a bit longer.

When someone in front of you starts losing the wheel there is no point in shouting at him to “HOLD THE WHEEL” he is already trying and failing and you shouting at him will not make any difference, get around him as fast as you can.

The effort you use doing this is nothing compared to the effort required to close a 10 metre gap travelling at 50 Km/h in a crosswind.
After 70km to my delight the pace eased as we hit the first two climbs of the day, Ladies view and Molls Gap. Once we were over the top the hammer went down again as the An Post boys hit the front.

It was lined out again until we hit the Cat 2 climb of Knockanoughanish. This is where the race exploded and gaps started to open up, I rode steady and tried to save the legs. I knew if you blew up here, the Healy pass would make you pay.

The descent was hairy to say the least. It was still raining heavily and there was gravel on every corner so inevitably the crashes began. Every corner had its casualty but luckily I remained upright. As soon as we reached the bottom we swung left and went straight up the Healy Pass. I rode hard on the climb and began to catch the groups ahead. By the top I was in a nice group of about 12 riders. The descent off the pass was dramatic to say the least. It was still raining heavily and the wind had picked up to almost gale force.

I went to the front to minimize the chance of crashing, taking my own line around the hairpin bends. By the time I reached the bottom I could see another group of riders up ahead. I turned around for help but there was no one behind so I rode hard to catch the group quickly before I found myself in no man’s land. We rode flat out to the finish to limit the losses as much as possible and we ended up about 15 minutes behind stage winner. It was by far my best stage. I was really starting to enjoy this race!

Stage 5 Castletownbere - Blarney 156 kms

Morale was high as we set off for Blarney there were four Cat 3 climbs in the first 50km and two Cat 2 climbs near the end of the stage. This was always going to be a tough one.  As expected we set off at breakneck speed and the bunch was strung out over the first few climbs. Position was going to be crucial today and I stayed up in the top 20 to avoid splits and crashes.

Everything was going well until we hit Bantry. I had managed to weather the first three climbs easily enough and with the final one coming just the other side of the town I was confident that I would hold on to the main lead bunch at least until we hit the cat 2’s at 120k.

But, alas, no. When we hit the harbour in Bantry there was a wicked crosswind and one of the Giant Asia riders almost lost it when a gust of wind hit him from the side. Unfortunately I was on his wheel and I could see the gap opening up ahead of him.  I rode hard over the climb but the gaps were opening and I found myself in a group of five at the top. There was no way we were going to get back on. Dean Downing had been disqualified during the stage for drafting and holding on to a team car so that meant that no team cars were risking getting penalised so there was no assistance given to dropped riders.

We were gone for the day. 100k to the finish meant we would lose a lot of time. I was disappointed as I felt that I had the legs but I positioned myself poorly at a crucial time. Anything can happen in this race and luck has a lot to do with it.

Stage 6 Blarney - Tramore 172 kms

This was the second longest stage of the race and there were 6 cat 3 ascents and a leg breaker of a finish in Tramore.  We had a tail wind for a change but this just meant that the stage would be fast, VERY fast. We covered the first 50km in less than an hour and the field barely slowed as they crossed over the Cat 3 climbs.

Dave McCann attacked on the climb in Kilmore after 70km and dragged most of the lead riders away in a 30 man group. The remaining bunch eased off and as we hit Dungarvan with 50km to go I thought it would be a good time to have a go. Sure enough the attacks started from the county riders as the remaining pros were having a day off so off I went.

I jumped onto the next wheel that was going up the road and then I was hit with a sharp pain in my right leg just above my achilles I eased up straight away and went back to the bunch.  I ended up riding the rest of the stage sitting in the saddle using the smallest gear possible,  luckily the field were happy to take it relatively easy into the finish but I feared that this could be the end of my Rás.

Stage 7 Tramore - Kildare 161 kms

After a lot of icing and massage therapy I lined up for the next stage not sure of what would happen. I knew that if the same pain hit me early on into the stage I would be lucky to limp in under the time limit.  There was a Cat 2 climb 35k into the stage and the bunch hit it at breakneck speed.

The climb went on and on and on and then the gaps started to open up, bodies were everywhere the injury would be thoroughly tested here.  But surprisingly the pain never came back so I put it behind me and hammered on. There was a regrouping after the climb and the field had split into two bunches one full of pros and one full of county riders. That would be it for the day. We rode hard to limit the time gaps and as I came into Kildare town it hit me that there was just one stage remaining and barring a serious crash I was going to get to the finish in Skerries.

Stage 8 Kildare – Skerries 133 kms

The sun was shining on the final day as we rolled out of Kildare town. I was hoping for a nice steady ride into Skerries as the body was now feeling the efforts of the last seven days but the yellow jersey only held a slender 32 second lead on his rivals and they were going to attack him from the gun.

The rule on the final day is that if you have lost contact with the peleton before reaching the circuit in Skerries you would be stopped and would roll into town after the racing had completed.  I did not want this to happen to me I wanted to finish this race and with friends and family waiting at the finish I didn’t want to disappoint.

The customary line outs began early in the stage but today I knew the roads well. We would be passing through Dunsany and Dunshauglin so I knew every twist and turn and hump in the road so I hung on in there.  After 100k we hit the climb at Cross of the Cage just before Skerries the legs were screaming now but I held on just long enough to reach the finishing circuit I had made it. I finished the last two laps and crossed the line exhausted but happy.

It was a great experience and I enjoyed every painful minute of it, I would recommend it to anyone in the club toying with the idea of giving it a go, a club with the pedigree of Orwell should have a team representing them in the Rás so hopefully the new up and coming riders with take on the challange.

Big thanks to my wife and kids for putting up with the five hour training sessions and moaning about lack of form coming up to the race it can’t have been easy, and thanks to Scott McDonald and my brother Colum and family for the training advice and motivation.

Thanks to Dave Mc for sorting out a team for me and the all the Stamullen lads who made sure we had a laugh along the way and a big thanks to Dave Tansey for his generous donation of Powerbar paraphernalia. I didn’t even get half way through it all.

Before the start of every stage my wife would send me on a text message it was usually the last thing I looked at before I lined up, this was the one she sent before stage 8 and it sums up a lot of what the Rás is about for the average county rider.

“To dream anything that you want to dream. That is the beauty of the human mind.  To do anything that you want to do.  That is the strength of the human will.  To trust yourself to test your limits.  That is the courage to succeed.”