Our league winner for 2015, Brian McArdle, collected his trophy on Saturday night after 21 weeks of trying to fend off the Murnane brothers. Earlier this year he undertook his first Rás, and we finally published his account below, along with Strava links to show distance and speed, etc. (what a Fred!). Along with accounts from Neal Hudson and Tom Blennerhassett, you can experience the Orwell Rás from three different perspectives!


The Rás only lasted eight days, but it seems like it was a lifetime in the lead-up. As Dave Mc told me, "this race has been waiting for you for a while." And he should know, as the man who introduced me to racing through his off-season drills in early 2011, and then brought me to Wales that July.

Along with Declan Quigley and Pat O'Brien, I learned everything I needed to know about road racing over the five days of the Ras de Cymru. Six stages including individual and team time trial stages, it was a intensive training camp that bestowed on me a memorable nickname and a realisation that stage racing was horrible and fantastic. That Ras remained the longest stage race I'd ever done throughout my cycling career. Until this Rás.

An intended tilt at the An Post Rás was aborted in 2014 after I broke my collarbone just before Christmas 2013, leading to a frustrating 15 weeks off the bike. So last November when the call went out, I was determined to be on the team. With Aidan Hammond guiding us through training, the potential squad kept each other motivated and focussed throughout the early season.

Pat O’Brien came on board early, which was a great relief. Having a reliable and experienced manager is a huge asset to any team, particularly when Pat was available and willing to support us at races like Rás Mumhan and the Des Hanlon. Likewise when I learned the identities of the rest of the support team - all Orwell members I knew and trusted - Fionn Sheridan as mechanic, and super soigneurs Aishling O'Connor and Mary Brady.

Heading out to Dunboyne for the start on Saturday morning I kept telling myself, ‘it's just another stage race.’ It was bigger, it was longer, and it would be tougher, but it was just another stage race. That didn't make the An Post-CRC team any less intimidating though, and with scores of unknown foreign teams, I knew it would be a step up from anything I'd done yet.

The atmosphere in the start area was brilliant, a palpable buzz enhanced by the Orwell members who'd come out to see us off. My housemates were waving their banner madly in support, and the crowds were cheering as Cian Lynch talked them through the start.


Stage 1: Dunboyne to Carlow (Strava)

We took off into the neutralised zone, and I made a mad dash to the front as soon as we turned onto the wide bypass. A perfect start! By the time we turned off the bypass to go through the town I was almost at the back again. Doh! Once more past the crowds, and we were racing!


The bunch surged and slowed, and surged and slowed. Constantly feathering the brakes, then sprinting. One of the foreign riders looked like he was racing in a bunch for the first time, as he locked up his wheels and skidded into the back of an Orwell.

S**t, Neal's on the deck, but he's up on his feet as I pass him. There's nothing for me to do. Between neutral service, Pat and the rest of the cavalcade, he'll be fine. I hope.

Most of the stage is a blur. I remember saying hello to Paraic Morrissey by the canal in Sallins (I actually thought we were Kilcock! Shows how much attention I was paying...), right before it lined out in a horrible fashion as we ripped through Naas. Hanging on to the wheel in front, I suddenly remember - Naas, ‘wasn't that where Pat told us to be near the front?’ Bit late now.

I hear people screaming my name in Baltinglass - I later find out it was the Sheridan clan. This becomes a repeated theme of the week - "did you see such and such at the side of the road?" All I ever saw was the wheel in front of me!

I nearly get dropped in Tinahely. Lulled into a false sense of security, I'm chatting at the back of the bunch, as we take a sharp right onto the steep, narrow climb. I just about manage to get across to the back of the faster riders, and make a note not to make the same mistake again.

Later, as we approach Carlow on the N80, I skulk near the front as a few riders ping off. I debate internally whether it's worth going with them. “Don't!" Tom is behind me, reading my mind. "Three words: seven more days". He's right. I turn to share a joke with him, and nearly take out a Canadian rider in the process. No harm done!

15km to go and the handling on my front wheel feels off. I realise the tub has punctured, and pull in to the left with my hand in the air. Neutral service comments that it's his first front fix of the day. The cavalcade are passing, but there's still time. I'm on a bumper, and then Pat is beside me in the Orwell car. He leads me up to within a few cars of the front, and I can easily tag back on.

The pair of myself and Tom finish safely in the bunch, tearing past the line I spy a small crowd of Orwells. I stop to catch my breath, as locals I don't know congratulate me, and ask about the race. It’s touch and go whether Dick and Neal will make the cut, but they’re given the all-clear by Gary McIlroy later.


Stage 2: Carlow to Tipperary (Strava)

Now with a yellow jersey and a GC to defend, there’s a few teams with responsibilities to control the race. This results in a piano day, relatively 'easy' going. I even stop to relieve myself with the pros, something I've never dared to do in a race before.

There's no problem getting back to the bunch, as there's a feeding frenzy happening at the top of the cavalcade, and nobody is pushing the pace. It eventually detonates on the (supposed) Cat 3 with 10km to go. Having let the break out to play for the day, the pros reeled them inevitably in, making the catch with pinpoint precision in the last few kilometres.

For the rest of us, there's a fall in the bunch about 25km to go that I narrowly avoid coming down in, and the lead-in to the climb is along narrow, potholed roads - 'distressed surfaces' according to the technical guide. The yellow and orange jerseys both puncture.

The yellow reappears quickly, the orange is not so swift. As we hit the base of the climb, the slope ramps up, gaps open up everywhere. I push on, finishing in a small chasing group with the orange jersey - not bad!

Again, Orwell appears - Bernard English's mother finds myself and Tom in the carpark to say hello. Our super soigneurs Mary and Aishling have sandwiches and recovery drinks at the ready. I force myself to spend a short stint on the rollers, before it's time to pile into the front seat of the van for the trip to our stately B&B.

Cooling down after stage two


Stage 3: Tipperary to Barna (Strava)

We have an earlier than usual start the next morning - the race has been moved forward by an hour, and we're staying in Cashel, so a small commute. Mary and Aishling put up the gazebo and start on the rubs, while Fionn is making last-minute adjustments to Neal's bike. He’s prepared a new tub on my wheel, and is waiting on the glue to dry.

We roll out from Tipp, and there's a natural break called earlier than usual - about 40km in. Straight afterwards, the pace ramps up, with attack upon attack. I'm near the front, feeling good and following wheels.

One of the French pros tries to pull in on top of me at one point, wanting to force me into the ditch or backwards, and I physically push him away with my hand on his hip. He seems surprised and somewhat put out that a lowly county rider refuses to cede.

I go back for bottles for myself and Tom when the pro teams start doing the same. Fionn tries to hand me a 750ml anchor, and I ask him to decant it into my 500ml bottle. Pat is yelling at me, but I can’t hear through the closed front window. (Apparently I was being a diva!) Suddenly up ahead, two team cars slow down and block the road - having a chat side-by-side. I skim between them at speed, then I sit up and wait for Pat to catch up, but he's already left. I call for another service, and calm as a cucumber, Pat reappears and I get Tom a bottle.

Having ridden over both climbs of the day steadily, and nobody taking any stupid risks on rain-slicked descents, a touch of wheels on a narrow stretch at the 100km mark blocks the road as riders come down like dominos. I come to a halt with a wheel in the ditch, but upright.

I take a moment to gather in the sight directly in front of me - two riders prone, entangled in their bikes. Then smack, someone ploughs into me from behind. I tumble over, but am only scraped. Riders are scrambling to get around or over their fallen colleagues, while a few shout for calm. I help one guy out from under his bike, then set off on my way. I realise my handlebars are completely askew, but push on, not knowing how far behind neutral or the team car were.

Myself and Tom find ourselves in a chasing group and Tom warns me again not to do too much work. I drift to the back, where I catch Gary McIlroy’s attention, and he directs neutral service to sort me out. A quick strong twist, and things are straight enough.

But there's no cavalcade! The cars have been held up - any team car that passes goes by at speed with two or three riders on the bumper. I'm cursing myself for stopping without checking where our car was, then Pat and Fionn swoop down like guardian angels. I'm on the bumper and they guide me back to the group with ease.

Madison Genesis have been caught out, and are working hard to bring us back to the front. Crosswinds are causing gaps, and I'm moving up the line, moving up, and then safely ensconced in the lead bunch again. Phew!

Roundabout after roundabout ticks by, until we're tearing toward Barna. It's a big bunch sprint, and everyone thinks they can win it. I try to stay with the pace and out of trouble, and am first Orwell home. Dick has done a storming ride to get in after an early mechanical, and a group of young fans ask for a souvenir bottle or two.

A quick dip in the sea at Blackrock pier on the way back to the B&B feels fantastic for my legs. The B&B tonight is less luxurious, as they try to squeeze two of us into a double bed. Our protective swannies don't stand for it though, so I get to sleep like a starfish.

Dinner before that, and I'm so bloated and sore that I can barely finish. I try some jelly and ice cream in the hope that it will go down easy, but Pat has to finish that for me too. Hopefully this doesn't become an ongoing problem.


Stage 4: Barna to Newport (Strava)

The first of the crosswind stages. Stupidly, I neglect to mark the important points on my stem - after all, there are no climbs, so it must be one of those flat, easy stages of this flat, easy Rás. As we approach the 25km mark, there's a ripple of excitement in the bunch. I can smell something coming - the pros are racing up the outside at a frantic pace, and I hitch a ride on a wheel. We turn ninety degrees right, from a strong westerly headwind into a crosswind.

The race gets torn apart as the wind rages from the Atlantic across the flat open terrain. It's lined out in the right-hand gutter. A lack of concentration or some desperate acceleration sees a few riders tumbling down. Wheels are being let go all along the line, and there's only so many gaps I can close. An NTFO rider passes me, with Mark Dowling on his wheel, but I'm too gassed to hold on.

The front of the race gradually slips away, and I'm in a small group who are trying to work together. A Canadian calls, "we need to form an echelon", and the Irish response is, "shut up about your echelon and f**king ride!"

Inevitably, we go nowhere, and after mopping up a few pairs and stragglers over the next 15km, I realise we've become a sizeable bunch and sit in. After another 50km or so, I notice a couple of groups up the road. There's a gang of 10 or 12 at about 20", and three in between, trying to bridge. I go to the front, and across to the three, whereupon two of them promptly sit up and drift back. I push on with the Bikeworx rider, and we're joined by the Lucan rider who’s been doing a lot of the work so far.

For about 10km as we skirt around Killary Fjord, the three of us try to get away, but to no avail. As soon as we're caught again, Damien Shaw counters and away he goes with a few companions. I resign myself to the bunch once more. As we head into Westport the sun comes out, and there are a few skirmishes at the front before some of the Mayo.ie lads are let away to attack through the town as solo leaders.

After the stage we head to our accommodation in Castlebar. It takes us a short while to figure out where the rooms are in the sprawling complex, so us riders lie prostrate on the grass and let the others work it out. It's why having a support crew is so valuable - we don’t have to waste a single watt on non-cycling activites. What's more, we're staying two nights here, so no need to repack everything in the morning!

Flaking out after stage four


Stage 5: Newport to Ballina (Strava)

I'm rooming with Dick, and I don't hear him up for breakfast at all, so knock on his door. He's spent the night alternating between shivering and sweating, with feverish dreams, and doesn't think he can race today.

I persuade him to come down to breakfast, where I know Pat can help make a definitive call, but Dick's a non-starter. It's sad to lose one of the team - especially given his form before the crash a few weeks back, but it was a wise move given his condition. Wise also given the condition of the race, which was wet for the first 80km or so. The bunch are anticipating similar crosswinds to yesterday, and the pace is high. With the wet roads and rain gathering on the rims, my brakes don't have much stopping power.

It's terrifying in the bunch, so I take advantage of a footpath to speed to the front of the bunch and take off. Far less chance of crashing, though I’m stuck in no man's land again. The bunch swallow me up as we hit the right-hand turn, but there's no shredding by the wind at first. Instead, we have a winding, wet, slippery descent, and still my brakes feel ineffective. Cat's eyes line the continuous centre line,everyone's on edge.

We hit an exposed patch, and boom, the lineout in the right-hand gutter appears again, and the gaps are yawning open. The echelons are passing, and I try to force myself in, but they are disintegrating and reforming every few hundred metres, and only the strongest survive.

I find myself in a group of twenty, which splits in two. I end up with six others, as one pro from Neon Velo puts the hammer down at the front, and one of the French pros sits in and does nothing. We echelon when we need to, and keep a steady pace, but a bunch gradually reels us in, with three men from Subaru Albion driving it on. I find Tom here, and we sit in for the journey home. One of those in the bunch is Eoin Morton, who relates his bike trouble from yesterday's stage - he ended up finishing on a bike several sizes too small, and in runners!

I stop for a call of nature later on, and nearly get myself dropped, saved only by a UCD van. I get some jellies from Pat in the car on the way back. On the run-in to Ballina, I move to the front to stay out of trouble. We come into the town, and the road turns, and then turns again. Home stretch? Another turn, we're going back the way came, it feels. Lots of road furniture at a final turn, before a final ramp up to the line!

Another stage done, and the team is being asked for autographs as we refuel. Siobhán O'Connor and Alan Duggan are out to show their support!


Stage 6: Ballina to Ballinamore (Strava)

At last, we are leaving the coast! And a Cat 2 climb, the first of two. A break goes early, and the pace is steady enough after that. The race stays together, and it seems like a piano day. We hit the 50km mark for allowing feeding, but there doesn't seem to be anyone taking a leak, and I need one.

I get to 80km before I spy a pro stopping at the side of the road. I seize my chance, but realise that nobody else is stopping. It's fine, I can just get on though the cavalcade. I finish, and slot in behind the Mego car.

There's a Mego rider in the cars - perfect, I can piggyback on them when they bring him up. Only the Mego rider is having a problem with his gears, and has slowed right down. The Mego car has likewise slowed, and now there's a chasm between them and the next car. Ugh.

I catch a bumper as the race route turns right... and up. A climb?! Not a categorised one, but a severe ascent. The race is strung out, with small groups scattered along the road, and the cars stuck and scrambling for position. I may have just gotten myself dropped - go, go, go!

The DID car is on the right-hand side of the road, I aim for the left. A rider ahead of me goes on the outside, so the car veers left. I have to swing right, scraping the knuckles of my left hand off the back-right corner of the car as I squeeze by. It takes me seven painful kilometres of drafting and sprinting before I am back where I was before my ill-timed break.

We crest the Cat 2 climb at a horrendous pace - someone obviously drilling it at the front. The descent is tremendous fun, and I get onto the back of the white jersey group. Despite the yellow jersey being up the road and extending his lead, nobody takes on the pace-setting responsibilities, and we coast through the town a few minutes down.


Stage 7: Ballinamore to Drogheda (Strava)

The last Cat 2, the last chance for a climber like me to make an impact. I'm at the front of the race at the start line. I've got ambition, I've got intention, but the pace is absolutely furious from the gun. I'm following the moves, but barely hanging on. Later we learn the yellow jersey crashed. Some of the pros are critical of the county riders for attacking, but I don't think anybody at the front had a clue what had happened. I miss the break, but try to stay in the front 30 riders for the whole race.

I realise after some distance that I'm running low on fluids, and will have to get back to the car. Almost by magic, I spy Tom slide up the outside of the bunch, and then drift back and across to me. "Bottle?" He offers me welcome relief, and takes my gilet from where I'd stowed it down my back. Perfectly timed service.

We hit the bottom of the Cat 2, and I slip to the front. The yellow jersey team are riding tempo, and I jump off solo. A chorus of abuse follows. I sit up, confused. There are several unwritten conventions of cycling etiquette - don't attack when an opponent has a mechanical or crash, don't push the pace during a nature break, nor in a feed zone. Had I done something verboten?

Two teams took me to task for daring to race on the climb, and browbeaten and not wanting the hassle, I slinked back into the bunch, where a veteran county rider advised me to save my legs. Looking back, I should have pushed on. The aggression of the county riders is what the Rás is all about - gung-ho moves that make life difficult for the pros, and spice things up. I might have been reeled in before the summit, or I might have gotten away and joined by a few riders to gain a few minutes on the bunch. My one big regret of the Rás.

Then again, given the line-outs we experienced in the second half of the stage, it was probably good advice. I managed to make the splits, and finished in the front bunch, 45th - my best single result of the week!

Dinner and bed in Skerries tonight, where some semblance of enjoyment has returned to eating. I go wild with half a glass of red wine. Pat surprises the ladies with flowers, and makes a series of toasts to all five team members, and for each of the support crew. We're all caught by surprise, and fail to match his eloquence, but I presume he knows we're all supremely grateful to him.

The last supper


Stage 8: Drogheda to Skerries (Strava)

Final breakfast. I can't wait until I don't *have* to shovel three courses into me every morning. It's the last day, so presumably no racing? According to Hammond, there's no racing at all at the weekend on the Rás!

It's a promising start with two neutralised zones, as Daragh Campbell parades through his hometown of Donore - no doubt a joyous occasion for everyone as he shows off his Novo Nordisk kit.

At some point the flag is dropped and we're racing. Has a break gone? An Post are on the front, driving along. The roads twist and turn, and we chicane through a few junctions.

Just before Dunsany someone ahead hits a jarring bump in the road, and loses control. He fishtails, staying upright for just a moment - the illusion of saving it, then comes down hard, taking another rider with him. I manage to skirt around the edges of it, one of the bikes flying high in the air for an instant. I close the gap that's opened, and a few come with me.

A few kilometres ahead, Michael bids me good luck - he's going to drift back to the back of the bunch, take it handy. A minute later, he's beside me again. Turns out we're already at the back of a depleted bunch - the crash has held up a lot of the race.

We come into Balrothery, and up Cross of the Cage. This is my usual watching spot, and at last it feels like I might actually finish this Rás! Down the descent with the all the big guns on GC, and through the town. I get to the front before we climb Black Hills for the first time, ouch! I'm just off the back of the big front group, and tag back on before Skerries.

Through the town I realise I'm at the very back, too far back for racing, but so far back that my friends and family can pick me out, and I hear the shouts and supportive cries.

This time up the climb, the pace is harder, and I'm chewing tape. I’m weaving my way up, and now there's so few riders around me and I'm going so slowly that I can easily pick out Lucy Soden cheering in the verge (thanks for the tubs!). Martyn Irvine jumps across a gap like he was going downhill. Over the top, and I give the marshal on the corner and some familiar spectators and marshals a shout-out. After watching the Rás pass through for the last five years, you get to know the regulars.

Less regular, but easy to spot are the crazy women in a ditch on the side of the road on the way into Skerries - the Horans have found an isolated spot to cheer us on! A group of us chase back on through the cars, but there's no staying with the leaders on the final ascent. A group of us gather together and hit the town for the final time.

Across the line, and done!

Hugs, cheers, pats on the back. Neal appears, then Michael, and lastly Tom, who is soaking it all up and savouring every moment. The right way to do it!

We've come a long way baby!



It was, in a couple of ways, easier than expected - a bunch of 150 makes it easy to shelter and draft in most situations, and our support team made our lives out of the saddle a near luxury. That allowed us as a whole team to stay in good humour during the race. The crosswinds were unlike anything I'd ever experienced before though, and the constant creeping fatigue that accumulated over the week was draining and turned us into pseudo-zombies. It takes a while to adjust to the speeds at which the pros tackle the climbs when they're really racing, and the physicality of their racing. Having said that, if I'm able at all, I'll be back next year for more!

Getting up on stage to claim my finisher's medal was one of the highlights of my cycling career. While the achievement was mine in that moment, there's a whole host of family and friends who have supported me in getting to this point (Rachel Glendon literally drove me to the race), and a rake of clubmates and sponsors who pitched in and did a pile of work in the backrooms. They've all been thanked via my official role, but let me reiterate my gratitude - thank you to everyone who has helped me along this path! Now bring on 2016!