The RAS Mumhan had finally arrived, after much conversation earlier in the year about whether I could or couldn’t make it, whether I would or would not be staying in my current job long enough to get the time off, and generally how things would all work logistically; it was actually all happening and after a few rider substitutions it was game on for Team Surrey League/Casco!
I drove down to Storrington to meet Tim Bishop and the other guys who kindly organized the whole thing and I suppose was our operations manager for the whole trip and was driving the van, he’d got previous with this race and knew the other riders pretty well so it was great that he was our leader! We also had Mark Storie (aka Brown) who was acting as our driver/mechanic for the trip, which turned out to be a huge boon for the team with last minute changes and bike fixing etc. In the end with Wouter Sybrandy being injured and our sub in Alex Paton hurting his wrist at Tour of the Res, we had a fairly different line up to what was first thought. Myself, Simon and Chris McNamara, Richard Cartland, Stuart Bettis, and we picked up Roy Chamberlain of Corley Cycles en route. It was a good bunch of guys and I quickly realized that between Rich, Si, Chris and Roy, they knew just about everything and everyone there was to know about the amateur/semi pro racing scene. While I had ridden a few races once or twice, I think between Chris and Roy they probably have ridden something like the Les Ingman about 30 times and with Roy casually dropping in that he had raced 14 day stage races like the Tour of Cameroon and the Tour of Serbia I was certainly going to enjoy listening to the stories. He did mention he raced an Irish stage race in 1987, I didn’t pipe up that I was likely in the womb when he was on the bike! No time was wasted and quickly we got going to catch the ferry over to the Emerald Isle from Pembroke dock in Wales, we had two cars, Tim’s van and the Sigma Sport team car from last year which was a nice touch, they even left a couple of gels in there from the glory days!
Once on the ferry we saw there were a fair few other riders also travelling over with kit etc, BH Solidor who we didn’t really speak to, and Felt who we did. Many of the guys from our team (Simon had done 5 RAS I think) and indeed Felt had raced the event many times before so it was interesting hearing about how it had worked out previously, what the weather had done, and what the standard was like. I was prepared for shit weather, after all, one of the stages was as far West as you can go, and is the last bit of land before you hit the East Coast of America, that’s a lot of open sea to blow in crap weather. I had been told to pack full winter gear an prepare for the worst. I duly did and bought a lot of kit that I wouldn’t normally bother with, just to be safe!
Upon arriving over in Ireland we had a stop over in a B&B before a longer drive the next day to stay with our host John Magnan, he had put up the Surrey League teams in the past and was an ex cyclist himself. The amount of silverware in his front room left you under no illusion as to the talent he had as a rider, and a marksman it would seem, his house was packed full of taxidermy, ranging from small animals right up to a moose head which dominated the living room! We got settled in and over one of many carb rich meals talked about the first stage and what it would entail.
To set the scene breifly, the RAS Mumhan is a 4 day event, with 4 stages totalling around 500km. It has the benefit of a rolling road closure and extensive escorting and support. The first stage which was around 75 miles and fairly flat/rolling, the middle two stages were more hilly with a few proper climbs, and at 90 miles each were going to test the legs (Healey Pass was the icing on the cake in that sense), and the final stage was a flat one of 70 miles that finished in the main town with a crit like finishing circuit. The race was a big deal in Ireland and as such the field was mostly Irish, this years edition had 214 riders, 34 team cars in the convoy, a winners list with a few famous names (Russ Downing a couple of years back and our host John in 1975!) and generally it was a big race where the best riders of Ireland, and to a lesser extent Scotland/England all came to test themselves over amazing terrain. We also had a few foreign teams in the mix too.
It was popular opinion among the guys that the first stage was going to be pretty fast, and a bit nervy as everyone found their feet. As you’ll see each year in the tour, half the battle is getting through that first few stages as everyone has fresh legs and is nervous and wants to be at the front of the race to follow the attacks. While I’m under no illusion that this was not the Tour De France, similarity could be drawn in this sense, and with 200 riders the peloton was certainly every bit as big as any world tour race, it was going to be a bit different to getting the front of a 40 man field at Hillingdon!!
We lined up for the roll out and the atmosphere (and weather!) was fantastic, it was a real buzz and great to be part of, the first day saw our team car almost dead last in the convoy, so they likely were not going to see much unless one of us got up the road. When the flag was finally dropped it was indeed pretty quick after the first k of neutral riding, 30 mph or so was common place, the first hour or so was not only fast, but also a fair bit more rolling than the profile had given it credit for, I think the first hour required 300w from me and had an average speed approaching 26mph, which considering the whole first half was slowly climbing up to a peak of around 1000ft told a story of how nippy it was. I managed to stick the pace on the flats without too much bother, which was a relief, and even briefly had a go at getting over to a group that looked promising. I had a quick chat with Rich who mentioned that the toughest bit of the stage was incoming, a stepped hill that had a surface not unlike a section of cobbles! This was tough, obviously for our team of whippets it wasn’t an issue but I had to dig quite deep to get over the top with the front group, and indeed even this 4 or so minute hill had caused a fairly huge split, something like 60-70 people were now in the front group with well over 100 riders getting distanced. The standard was generally accepted by our team to be somewhere between your National B’s and Prem calendars, nearer the former than the latter I expect, they were no walk in the park, however, among the 200 were a fair number of regular club riders (like me, but less fit I should think!) so these splits did become common place over the 4 days, but even so, there were a lot of good riders not making this selection.
The last 25 miles were mostly downhill as the race worked its way back to the start town, it was quick, and keeping position was very tough, you quickly learned that these guys had no issue getting up close and personal and there were more than a few clashes of shoulders as we got closer to the final few k. I thought the finish likely suited me quite well, there were a group of 10 up the road however so it wasn’t life and death to be right up there, but I still wanted to give it a go, Roy said to stay on his wheel with 10k or so to go and he would drag me up to a decent position, which he did. However, keeping that position was easier said than done, with the whole road to use, teams would come up the inside/outside like trains to get their riders into the right place. I was hopping wheels and trying to keep near the front, with 2-3km to go it got properly nervy and a few shouts were heard speeds were now well over 30mph touching 40 on the gentle downhills as we dodged teh gargantuan cateyes. As we approached the final 1km to go it was clear I wasn’t going to be able to maintain the best position with people flying up all over the place, I was likely in the first 3rd at least and gave it a bit of juice up the finish hill and finished 28th I think, with Chris and Simon in similar positions with Rich and Roy not far behind. Stuart who had really jumped in at the deep end of racing given he had never raced an e123 road race in the UK had done a good ride and came in not long behind! When all was said and done this moved us up to 10th team I think, so an improvement on placing of the team car was on the cards for the next day.
It was a hard stage but not silly, effort wise it mostly wasn’t a problem, but the positioning etc was a step up from what I am used to! The whole stage was around 2hrs20mins at 275w average, however as with many of these stages the normalized was well north of 300 which told a story to how many efforts were needed at times to close gaps and stick on wheels.
This stage was always going to be tough, it had a few tasty climbs, and the only cat 1 climb of the race which was the Healey Pass, at around 3.5 miles at 5-6% average with ramps up near the top it was going to be a big sort out of the bunch. Obviously I knew that my best option for these climbs would be to get as near to the front as possible and allow myself room to slip back down on the climbs and remain in touch over the top. I was fairly confident I had the power to get up there in reasonable time, but there were some proper climbing whippets in this race (Jack Pullar was riding, ex national HC champ for example) so the pace dictated was likely going to be quick. We got off again to a fast and nervy start a couple of minor crashes in the early miles, but with the first cat 3 climb only 12 miles in, and then a couple of miles till the Healey it at least was going to be thinned out pretty quickly which made the rest of the stage feel a lot more manageable. My legs felt good again, and indeed over the 3rd cat climb I felt fine and was moving my way up to prepare for the Healey, when we got to it I asked John from Felt whether we were on it or not, he confirmed we were, I had a quick peak up the road and could see how the road snaked up and hugged the hillside until it went out of sight. It was going to be an unpleasant 12 or so minutes, that was the last I saw of John that day.
As it was, it took around 13 mins to get over this climb with the front group, it was hard, but I was never really in the proper red for the first half, and the only time I really did have to put in some serious effort was towards the end where the pace went up and it got steeper, the last half effort wise was nearer where I would expect it to feel hard at around 420w. The whole climb was a 385w effort for me which is the sort of thing I could likely do for nearly an hour at the minute if it was steady and I was going well. Simon’s near identical time for the climb needed 330w for him, once again I was cursing my weight! Still, we had only gone up there around 80-90 secs slower than Orica Greenedge rider Simon Yates, so we weren’t hanging about and I was pleased to have had the legs to get to the top in touch with the main guys.
As became the theme over the top was almost just as hard as climbing itself, it was splitting and I could see that a big effort was needed over the top and into the first bit of downhill to get into the front group which must have been around 45-50 riders as there were people all over the place. I was going down the hills well, and cursing the slower riders in front of me who were taking the corners as if they were soaking wet (they were bone dry, weather wonderful, again!), eventually after a few overtakes I was firmly in the front group and it was looking promising with everyone else from the team in the same group. I think Stuart had lost contact on the Healey and he later said he went round with John from Felt. As time went on I was just keen to stick with this group, it was possible to do so, though with a few climbs late on it was a tough stage and I knew I needed to keep a bit in reserve for them. At some point during this stage Roy had got off the front with a few others and taken a lump of time and moved himself up into 11th place overall. Meanwhile, with one climb left to go which was basically a main road a bored looking Jack Pullar attacked hard with one of the Felt boys and it really did inject some pace into things and again huge splits occured over the top and people flying downhill a 50mph to get back on was a common sight! As we came into the last 20k attacks were going left right and center. I tried a couple of times and also tried to bridge over to a promising looking bunch solo but it all came together again, in the end a couple had slipped away, and I rolled in with the main bunch towards the front, again in the top 30 or 40 riders overall, which was pleasing.
After this stage I noticed a slight niggle in my Achilles, so was keen to get rest and see how things progressed on that front!
Today had another 90 miles of tough terrain in store for us to get over. This was billed as a very exposed stage with a couple of really decisive points. We were now right on the coast and even though once again the weather had really helped us out, it was clear that it might still be a bit tricky when we reached the point most people agreed was the likely sorting point – Valentia Island – which was very exposed and had one way on and one way off, an exposed bridge!
We got off to a quick start, and though people were still nervy, it felt a bit safer at this point, we were straight into a climb pretty earlier on and it shelled a lot of people, by this point I knew I was able to ride the hills at the lead group pace, so wasn’t to worried about that side of things, however it became clear that whatever I’d done to my ankle was not getting any better, it was now very painful on every pedal stroke, with 60 or so miles left to ride I was not in a good place mentally or physically!
When we got towards the Island, the winds were stronger, but not silly, god knows what it would be like in crap weather, it was lined out for a bit in the gutter, but nothing too crazy. The climb was indeed a horrid little thing, and I think this person who created this strava segment for it summed it up well haha! http://www.strava.com/segments/7049023?filter=overall, steep at around 12%, but pretty short, the main issue was that it was 5ft wide with grass in the middle. I was going well up there and was having to cross the grass section to overtake pretty frequently, over the top of the climb the pace was set on fire, again, and no sooner had I reached the flat top that I was in the 55/12 again drilling it at 30mph to follow the wheel! This detonated the group as you can imagine and a big split was looking like it was about to happen, I managed to make it over to the front group with a few others and as we flew down back off the island there were groups just coming over the bridge the other way, it had really split the race to bits.
At this point I had no thoughts of contesting anything, just getting to the end, every pedalstroke was pain, after one last climb which myself and Rob Ward of Felt agreed was a horrid surprise after we thought we had done the last one, it was downhill to the finish, sadly in the final run in there was a pile up and Simon went into one of the fallers, he was OK, but his front wheel folded in half! I had to go into a carpark to avoid the crash and because I wasn’t actually involved I didn’t get the same time as the finishers so moved myself a few places up the GC sadly! But I’d been pleased with how I rode considering my pain. Positions had altered slightly and Chris Mac was now in 13th with Roy still in 11th, we were 3rd team, too!
I think I knew deep down that my ankle was not going to be ride-able, but I made my best effort, took some pills, taped it up, and rode to the start (4 miles) with the other guys for the last stage, I desperately wanted to finish the race. But I got on the bike at the house and the pain immediately was unbearable, 4 miles at 100w and it felt like my foot was being torn off, I didn’t sign on, and I put the bike away, there was no way I could ride without doing serious damage to myself, I was gutted, come this far, and ridden above where I thought I could and I was scuppered by a brand new injury, all this when I had the legs of my life, never have they felt so good day after day. It was a really depressing feeling to be honest.
The other guys were good about it and knew that if it was that bad then it there was no other option. I rode in the team car for this stage which was fun at least. It was a very fast stage, and the main competition was all to play for, the plan was to get one of us up the road to improve team placing to get into the prizes. As it happened Si got unlucky and was caught behind a crash, and it was Chris Mac that got up the road with 3 others, they worked well for the last few laps and pulled out a lead, Chris said to me after that he had planned what he was going to do, and had great legs, we were wishing him the best in the car really hoping he could get into the top 3 for a bit of podium action, I think his plan didn’t quite go as he wanted and he ended up being jumped by the others (who at least one of them were big sprinter types!) to roll in 4th, which was still a great ride. Roy finished safely and kept his 11th overall. And Si came in a bit later and we kept our placing as 3rd team. Stu was having issues with his knee’s and got pulled out when the race reached the finishing circuit. But for someone who had never rode a nat b race in the UK he was still around 100th of over 200 starters, a great showing from him overall. Obviously I was a DNF, but likely would have been around 40th or so with Simon had I finished, which I would have taken before the race. It really was a great thing to do, and you do leave normal life and start living like a cyclist, eat, sleep, ride, repeat, something that must be quite a thing to do for a career!
I’d like to thank all the guys for making the trip great fun and learning a heap about racing, also Surrey League and Casco Europe for making it possible, Tim Bishop for doing a sterling job organizing and driving everyone around! And Mark for being straight to task when it came to sorting the bikes, cleaning them, doing 20 hours behind the wheel, and generally just being a massive help for all of us! And obviously a shout for our host John, who I couldn’t understand most of the time, but he was hospitable and it was great to stay in his place for the duration!
I’m in to see a physio on Friday, so hopefully I won’t be off the bike too long. It has given me confidence that I can go ahead and beat some of my goals for this year, and hopefully I’ll be back on the road soon!