In late May, an Orwell Wheelers team of Tom Blennerhassett, Neal Hudson, Brian McArdle, Dick O'Brien and guest rider Michael Butler took to the start line of the 2015 An Post Rás. Ably assisted by soigneurs Mary Brady and Aishling Brady, mechanic Fionn Sheridan and managed by DS Pat O'Brien, they began an eight day trial that would test their physical and mental limits!

 

Lead-in

The buzz and atmosphere in Dunboyne was electric, and the riders signed on to the cheers of the crowd and supporters. A large group of Orwell members and friends and family had come out to wish them luck, while the introductions were made to the guest rider for the week - Michael Butler of VisitNenagh.ie Team DMG.

Fionn Sheridan was busy pumping tyres and attaching frame numbers, while the pair of physios were giving out the first rubs of the week. Pat O'Brien gathered the team for a quick pep talk ahead of the stage, outlining the key pinch points of the day, and then they were called to the startline.

 
On stage in Dunboyne


Before rolling out for the stage of Stage 1

 

Stage 1: Dunboyne-Carlow (154.4km, 4*Cat 3)

Two neutralised laps of the town, then the flag was dropped. Almost immediately Hudson fell victim to a spill as a foreign rider struck him from behind and brought him down. He was quickly back to his feet, but with rubbing brakes and a strict commissaire vetoing a draft back to the bunch, he was on his own for a long, hard solo ride.

Still suffering the after-effects of his crash in the league a few weeks previously, O'Brien later joined him after a line-out too far, and the pair finished behind the bunch in a small group. Butler was distanced on the final KOM, but Blennerhassett and McArdle came home with the main cohort of county riders.

It was a short drive to the B&B for the night, which was handily only about 200m from the start line for the next morning!

Stage result

1 Franceso Reda 3h 32'38"
70 Brian McArdle @12'38"
75 Tom Blennerhassett @s/t
134 Michael Butler @19'54"
152 Neal Hudson @48'32"
153 Dick O'Brien @s/t

 

Stage 2: Carlow-Tipperary (137.2km, 2*Cat 3)


Warming up outside the B&B


Just before roll-out from Carlow

The second stage was far more relaxed, with the bunch riding piano for most of the stage before the second and final categorised climb of the day with 10km to go blew things apart. An easy day to recover and build up the mental resilience, the finished in Tipperary town in sunshine despite constant showers throughout the day.

The team overnighted in Cashel, but only Pat O'Brien got out to sight-see at the Rock. Mary Brady and Aishling O'Connor had their hands full with the riders' legs - two long days already taking their toll on tired bodies.

Stage result

1 Aaron Gate 3h 29'26"
51 Brian McArdle @1'22"
99 Tom Blennerhassett @2'46"
115 Neal Hudson @3'58"
137 Michael Butler @7'06"
150 Dick O'Brien @10'54"

 

Stage 3: Tipperary-Barna (157.3km, 2*Cat 3)


Loading up in Cashel


Pre-race treatment for already tired legs

The third stage, from Tipperary to Barna, shook off any illusions of comfort, with the pace high from the off. There was a lot of activity up front from the pros and county riders alike, and the race fractured before hitting the climbs of the day. O'Brien was doubly unlucky - his left crank failed catastrophically after only 20km. A quick bike change courtesy of mechanic Sheridan saw him back on the road and riding hard in an ultimately fruitless effort to regain contact with the bunch. With the unrelenting pace, he had to dig deep to complete a solo time trial over the 160km course.

On the second descent, a touch of wheels among the leaders saw McArdle hit the deck, though relatively unscathed, while Blennerhassett was delayed by the incident. Both managed to put themselves into a strong chasing group, but as the race neared Galway, the crosswinds started to cause gaps in the lined out riders, and Blennerhassett was one of those caught out by the splits.

McArdle finished in the bunch sprint for first, with the others crossing the line in small groups. Ride of the day was O'Brien, who emptied himself to get home inside the cut, and only finished a few minutes down on the stragglers.


With fans after the finish in Barna

A cramped B&B just outside Salthill was the site for the night, with furniture pushed aside in one of the bedrooms to erect the massage plinths. Sheridan got to work making sure O'Brien's spare bike was up to par, and straightening out McArdle's steed after the fall.

Stage result

1 Matteo Malucelli 3h 58'50"
55 Brian McArdle @s/t
120 Tom Blennerhassett @10'31"
143 Neal Hudson @26'32"
148 Michael Butler @s/t
149 Dick O'Brien @28'18"

 

Stage 4: Barna-Newport (155.0km)


Before riding out to the stage start in Barna

This was the first stage with no categorised climbs, but wound out along the Galway-Mayo coast, and the crosswinds and exposed roads would play a huge factor in how the race played out. When the race turned north at 25km, Hudson was the best positioned, but the winds shredded everything, and four Orwell riders (all bar O'Brien) came together in a large laughing group.

After his epic ride on Stage 3, there was little room for recovery or a gentle ride on Stage 4, and O'Brien ended in a group of five who came home with the broomwagon. That would be his last outing, and his unlucky Rás finished with a necessary abandon half way through. After enjoying a good start to the season, a crash in the club league severely disrupted his preparations and he faced a race against time to make it to the start line. "I wasn't 100 percent after the crash, but as long as I could ride a bike I was going to start".

After stage four he came down with a fever overnight and couldn't start the next day. "I probably ran myself down over the first few days, which could have led to me picking up the bug," he said. "It was disappointing not to finish, but nevertheless a great experience and good preparation for next year. It's unlike any other race I've done in terms of the support you get. I got a real lift from hearing the kids outside the schools cheering us on every day."


Exhausted riders - including O'Brien - after stage 4

Stage result

1 Aidis Kruopis 3h 45'29"
101 Brian McArdle @23'08"
111 Neal Hudson @s/t
118 Tom Blennerhassett @s/t
141 Michael Butler @s/t
147 Dick O'Brien @39'50"

 

Stage 5: Newport-Ballina (142.4km, 2*Cat 3)

The rest of the team travelled from the accommodation in Castlebar to the start in Newport, where they were greeted with a light but constant drizzle. The crosswinds kicked in before even 20km are covered, and once again the race was blown apart. Blennerhassett, Butler and McArdle were again together in a large group, while Hudson was really feeling the effects of his crash from stage one, with back pain making riding a painful experience.

With Aidan Collins coaxing and cajoling in the car along with the manager and the mechanic, Hudson dug in. A brave effort saw him finish lanterne rouge on the stage, but safely within the time cut for one more day. Whether he welcomed that at the time is debatable. One relief was a return to the same rooms in Castlebar, with no unpacking to be done for at least one night!


The Mayo roads - beautiful scenery if you remember to look around


Signing autographs for fans in Ballina

Stage result

1 Aaron Gate 3h 7'32"
74 Brian McArdle @21'18"
105 Michael Butler @21'22"
124 Tom Blennerhassett @s/t
145 Neal Hudson @36'40"
DNS Dick O'Brien

 

Stage 6: Ballina-Ballinamore (160.1km, 1*Cat 2, 2*Cat 3)

Leaving Ballina, the race was straight into a climb, and Hudson's back pain meant he was out the back immediately. His mental grit and determination never faltered though, and he completed another gruelling day, including a Cat 2 climb, safely. Butler wasn't that far ahead, fatigue from the long nights days taking hold of his body, while Blennerhassett and McArdle hit the base of the climb with the front group.

The race split to bits on the climb as the chasers raised the pace in pursuit of the break, and McArdle sprinted home with the white jersey, with Blennerhassett in another chasing group behind.


Aishling after her day in the car

Dinner that evening was some wholesome home-cooked grub in the B&B in Carrick-on-Shannon, where a threatened "ice bath" in the river never materialised.

Stage result

1 Ian Bibby 3h 35'47"
58 Brian McArdle @2'49"
108 Tom Blennerhassett @10'52"
129 Michael Butler @22'13"
134 Neal Hudson @28'36"

 

Stage 7: Ballinamore-Drogheda (142.4km, 1*Cat 2, 2*Cat 3)


Warming up in Ballinamore

The penultimate stage, and Butler resigned himself to the back of the race, knowing he'd finish the day safely. There was some confusion at the opening of the race, as while attacks were pinging off the front, the yellow jersey had crashed somewhere in the middle of the bunch. He rejoined the race, and his team brought everything back together after a GC contender got in the initial break.

Blennerhassett, Hudson and McArdle were safely ensconced in the bunch, surviving every line-out until the Cat 2 climb. A steady pace over the summit meant the race stayed mostly together, but further line-outs put every rider under pressure, and only McArdle was far forward enough not to be disadvantaged when a split occurred.

The team got a headstart on the bunch when it was revealed they'd be staying in Skerries for the night. Pat O'Brien marked the last supper with a series of speeches thanking each of the support crew individually, and paying tribute to the efforts of all five riders.


Dinner in Skerries - not pictured are the flowers presented by Pat to the two women

Stage result

1 Andreas Mueller 3h 09'35"
45 Brian McArdle @3'16"
110 Neal Hudson @7'49"
116 Tom Blennerhassett @s/t
135 Michael Butler @29'25"

 

Stage 8: Drogheda-Skerries (132.6km, 5*Cat 3)


At the start line in Drogheda

For the final stage, the team was joined by Stephen Rowan in the team car. It opened in a relaxed fashion, with an extended neutralised zone. Racing along familiar roads around Meath and north county Dublin, the four lads were comfortable in the bunch until a small spill caused the race to break in two. Butler and McArdle were ahead of the break, and hit the finishing circuit with the front chasers.

The four of them made it to the finish line in Skerries in one piece, completing an incredible journey of nearly 1,200km in eight days.

Stage result

1 Aidis Kruopis 2h 53'27"
62 Brian McArdle @47"
120 Michael Butler @17'16"
128 Tom Blennerhassett @23'29'
131 Neal Hudson @24'37"

 

Wrap-up

The week saw fantastic acheivements by each rider - including Dick O'Brien. Every one of them displayed dedication throughout the training, and complete commitment during the week. They can be sincerely proud of every ride, the good days and the bad, and will reflect on it for many weeks and months to come.

It wouldn't have been possible without the club behind them, and the team wish to thank each and every club member - for the support displayed on the roadside throughout the race, and the messages that arrived via phone and email, forum and Facebook.

The team has already posted a thank you on the forum, but we'll name-check them here again - the encouraging Dave Mc and the club committee, coach Aidan Hammond, helpers David Hendron and Aidan Collins, fundraisers Ann and Helen Horan and quizmaster Eddie Lynch.

The sponsors were fantastic - the customised van from Ship My TriBike was invaluable, while Joe Daly Cycles kept us fed and watered every day. Dave Tansey is continually generous to members of the club, but let us never take it for granted and stop being thankful!

           

Every day the riders only experienced the very best of most professional of care from the soigneurs, mechanic and manager. Mary Brady and Aishling O'Connor's physio skills were inestimable, and made them an immense part of the team. From rubs before stages to treatments afterwards, bag moving, sandwich making, recovery drink mixing, van driving... nothing was too great or too small for these two very capable women.

Mechanic Fionn Sheridan was equally capable and quietly calm and proficient the whole race long. Again, whether it was a battery replacement or a brake cable change, he was always dedicated and efficient. And last but not least, manager and Man of the Rás Pat O'Brien was ever-organised and able, he made sure the riders knew where and when to eat, sleep and ride every day, with words of advice and encouragement at every turn.

For further insight into the race, have a read of these gripping Rás diaries:

 


After the final finish!

 

Final GC

1 Lukas Postlberger 27h 38'19"
78 Brian McArdle @59'43"
114 Tom Blennerhassett @1h 47' 00"
127 Michael Butler @2h 41' 20"
133 Neal Hudson @3h 14' 17"

157 starters, 136 finishers.

County GC

1 Ian Richardson 27h 48'20"
31 Brian McArdle @49'42"
58 Tom Blennerhassett @1h36'59"
70 Michael Butler @2h31'19"
76 Neal Hudson @3h04'16"

87 starters, 79 finishers

 

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