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The An Post Rás Tailteann, or simply ‘The Rás’, as it is known, is a race to be enjoyed many years after it has been completed, when the pain and suffering of the event has been turned by time into a happy memory of the toughest of times.
The Rás, an eight-day pro-am stage race that takes place in Ireland each May, has been held annually without interruption since 1953, and is considered by many to be Ireland’s most important stage race. The Rás is in many ways unique, its UCI status, and Ireland’s close proximity to the UK, means that the race attracts a number of British and European Continental teams. But its strong Irish heritage also means that the field is made up of a mixture of professional teams and Irish county teams.
The county teams (who have their own overall classification to race for) are made up of perhaps the most determined club level riders on the planet, whose approach to finding themselves up against full time professionals is not to lay down but instead to attack, whenever and wherever they can. It's the inclusion of these county riders that makes the Rás what it is. It’s these riders, not the professionals, that change the bike race from just another tough European stage race with the tiresome routine of doomed, two-man breakaways slowly being reeled in. Instead, the inclusion of the county riders acts to democratise the race, make it unpredictable, and much, much harder.
From the county riders perspective too, the race is difficult, but perhaps in a different way to the many professional riders. Ultan Coyle, long-time designer for Rapha and also the current British 24 hour Time Trial Champion, is one such rider who, despite little experience on the road, has leapt at the opportunity to take part in this year's Rás. His story is one of many happily unconventional ones that make this great race what it is.
“When I was back in Ireland at the start of the year I went for a ride with a guy called Rooster, who I met in a pub a few months previous. He mentioned that he and a few others were looking for another team member to do the Rás this year, and two miles into our first ride together he asked if I’d like to do it. Despite me pointing out that I’d never ridden a stage race in my life, he replied in the best Irish way, ‘you’ll be grand.’”
Explaining how he then managed to find his way onto the start sheet, Coyle reveals how the charmingly relaxed rules of the Rás are as accommodating as possible toward riders like him.
“The 24hr TT win last year stood me well, and people were convinced that I would have what it takes for the race. So with the help of a fella called Myles, who lobbied Cycling Ireland on my behalf, I got my license upgraded to an A2 - the minimum level to enter the Rás.”
Despite holding down a full time job, Coyle set about preparing for the event, and two weeks ago, took part in his first ever stage race, the four day Rás Mumhan, riding for Team Louth. There he got a taste of exactly what he, and the other riders who will also be racing the Rás for the first time, can expect.
“The start line was frantic, people milling around everywhere. Riders bouncing down footpaths, bunny-hopping curbs with circus-like skill, filling the slightest of gap, flinging excess layers to the roadside and squeezing the last dregs of urine from their bladders. Needless to say I was shitting myself.”
While Coyle may well have been apprehensive, as the National 24 Hour Time Trial Champion, there is no doubt that he is a strong bike rider, and his motivation to be part of the race, will make him a tough prospect to deal with, despite his relative inexperience.
There is indeed an air of the unpredictability at the Rás, and many reasons for a rider, novice or otherwise to be ‘shitting themselves’, but this is what makes the Rás so special. The structure of the race, and the willingness of the local riders to race as hard as they can from start to finish of each stage (and to get up and do it all over again), as well as varied terrain and unpredictable weather, make the Rás one of the toughest stage races for Continental level riders. It is also, through its unique Irish charm, one of those special races that everyone who rides feels they somehow become a part of.
The feat of finishing the Rás is no small thing, and the riders that do so are forever known as the ‘Men of the Rás’, a tag that each rider enjoys as much as the relief of making it back each night to the homely B&B’s that provide most of the accommodation for riders (as well as the odd caravan).
While for many riders just completing the event will be a success, the Continental team’s that go to the race, go there with serious ambitions. One such team of course is Rapha Condor JLT, and their team manager John Herety has a special relationship with the Rás.
Herety has been in charge of the winning team at the Rás four times, firstly with Paul Manning when he won it for the GB track team in 2001, then Chris Newton and Kristian House with Recycling.co.uk in 2005 and 2006. More recently he guided Rapha Condor to overall victory in the race, with Simon Richardson in 2009. Amazingly these four riders remain the only four English winners of the race, and Herety was at the helm each time.
“The Rás is one of the races that has given me a great deal of satisfaction to have won. Every time I’ve had riders win it, it has been through a completely different tactical approach and set of circumstances. That’s the thing about the Rás, you can go there with the strongest rider in the race, but you can’t be sure just what will happen.”
“The majority of riders there are so keen to get stuck in that for the first days (until the county riders tire a little) you pretty much have to cover every attack that goes. What makes it harder is that there are only 5 riders per team, so controlling the race is really difficult.”
“The terrain is perfect for ambushes, with strong winds, small roads, and an almost constant succession of tough climbs that can catch riders out. What is more, the Irish have a real fighting spirit, and they don’t like getting beaten by the English – and they let you know that too! There is nothing sinister to it whatsoever, and it’s all very friendly, but that attitude makes for some really tough racing.”
But while in recent years English and Irish riders have enjoyed their rivalry on the road, a host of strong international foreign teams have also come to the race, bringing over the likes of Tony Martin and Danny Pate – whom Kristian House beat by a single second to win the race in 2006.
The Men In Black have enjoyed a great deal of success over the years in Ireland. In 2008, the team’s first year as a UCI squad, Dean Downing took a stage win on the way to winning the points jersey, while both Dan Craven and Jon Tiernan-Locke took memorable stage wins in the race for the British team. In last year’s edition the team managed to take home the best young riders jersey through Richard Handley - a significant achievement for the young, development-focused team.
This year’s 61st edition of the race will start in Donboyne in County Meath on Sunday, heading anti-clockwise around the country with stage finishes in Longford, Nenagh, Listowel, Glengarriff, Mitchelstown, Carlow and Naas before the final stage finishes in Skerries. While the first three stages are relatively flat, stages four six and seven offer decidedly hilly stages that run over the short but unforgiving and often windswept Irish climbs.
Rapha Condor JLT will head to the race with a talented team of stage racers in Mike Cuming, Elliott Porter, Ed Laverack, Aaron Buggle and last years best young rider Richard Handley. And according to Herety, of all his riders it's Handley who has the attributes of a potential podium finisher at the Ras.
“Rich was close last year, ending up 5th overall and he has developed significantly both physically and in terms of the way that he is racing. He has all that it takes for this kind of racing. But to do well at the Ras, everything has to go right from start to finish; it is a race that favours the brave, and that is what our guys will need to be.”
The An Post Rás Tailteann gets underway this coming Sunday May 19th.
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