Some races are more than just a bike race. While many of them seem to be just the same thing but in a different country with slightly different hotels, there are some races which stand out from the crowd and have a unique feel and quality that makes them memorable and special. One such event is the Irish race the An Post Rás, which is unlike any other in the world. And, to be honest, I don’t think many riders could handle more than one race like the Rás a year - it either makes you or breaks you.
For those of you who don’t know much about the Rás, here’s a brief introduction. It’s an 8 day- long UCI 2.2 category event and takes place in the last week of May in the Republic of Ireland. The stages range from 130km to 180km with an average of around 160km a day. The field is a mix of foreign UCI Continental teams, national teams, and Irish county teams with a maximum of 5 riders per team.
It all sounds like a normal race, so what makes it so special?
Well, firstly there’s the racing which can only be described as unpredictable and completely bonkers. The main problem for the pro teams is they only have 5 riders which makes defending the yellow jersey extremely difficult. Unless they are confident that the rider they have in the yellow jersey is stronger than everyone else, then most teams don’t even bother trying to keep it. With only 4 guys to ride on the front, if you get the jersey in the first few days then the best plan is to try and lose it and get it back at a later date.
Most riders who have ridden the Rás before don’t even think of it as a stage race. It’s more eight one-day races in a row with an overall classification at the end. That’s the way you have to ride it, because every day is the same. As soon as the flag drops the attacks start, and they usually keep going until the stage ends. This is partly down to the ‘County riders’ who always want to show well on their home roads. And there’s a race within a race for the County rider individual and team GC and the best County rider on the stage. This results in some strange tactics as the Irish teams battle with each other while the bigger teams try to win the race proper.
Another big part of the craziness of the Rás is the terrain. It’s always rolling…never too mountainous but also never totally flat. This means that there’s always a good place to launch an attack and as the hills aren’t too serious, most riders in the bunch are able to put in a move. Typically a Rás break can be 15-20 riders as groups of two and three ride away and then eventually join up to form a good sized group. If all the big teams have a rider there then the move is likely to never be seen again, gaining huge time in the process. This happens day after day until a few riders who have made the break each day are left to fight out the overall.
The trouble is that it’s impossible to predict where and when the big GC breaks will go. It’s not like the Tour de France where everything is formulaic and it’s easy to predict when a bunch sprint will occur or when the big favourites will make their attack. In the Rás the break normally goes on the most unremarkable sections of road. A moment’s inattention or an untimely mechanical and a GC favourite can lose minutes and the chance of victory is over.
The other thing that sets the Rás apart is its history. It’s an epic race with many epic stories and it’s captured the imagination of the Irish people. If you are a cyclist and go to Ireland, the first thing people will ask you is if you have ridden the Rás. There’s always county riders at the Rás for whom their lifelong goal is to finish the race and become a ‘Man of the Rás’.
The Rás isn’t just a race, it’s also a social event. The highlight of which is the ‘night stages’. This is where the team staff and members of the organisation can share a few pints and talk about the day’s events. It’s not uncommon for some of the riders to join in and have a drink or two. One of my old team-mates Mark Lovatt was well known for liking a drink at the Rás. He personal best was 13 pints of Guinness the night before a stage. How he even started the stage never mind finished it, I’m not sure. I was told this year that three pints was the perfect amount to get optimum recovery but I wasn’t too keen to try it in case it just made me feel bad in the morning.
This year in the Rapha Condor Sharp team we had three riders who were doing the Rás for the first time. They had heard the term ‘Men of the Rás’ but didn’t understand what it meant. They all thought it was just another weeklong stage race, and you don’t normally get a special moniker for finishing them.
Stage one saw the team take the stage win and yellow jersey thanks to Dean Downing, following a fantastic leadout by James McCallum and Dean Windsor. The race got stopped temporarily with seven km to go due to a huge crash in the bunch. It was at this point the new Rás boys started to realise this race didn’t follow the usual script. Any doubts they had were extinguished on stage 2 when we rode into a gale force headwind all day. The stage winner averaged 33km/h in what was one of the slowest Rás stages ever. The word epic was used both during and after the stage by the riders. If you’re not tough then don’t come to the Rás.
As the days went on and attack after attack was launched and brought back, two of our new boys started talking about wanting to finish the Rás. Not because they were hating the race, quite the contrary; it was because they couldn’t call themselves ‘Men of the Rás’ until they finished the last stage. Meanwhile the other new boy had decided this was the most ridiculous and insane race he had ever done and was counting down the hours until he could fly home.
After the race every finisher gets a Rás medal. As a team we’re used to winning races so normally merely finishing a race doesn’t get given much thought. So getting a medal for finishing isn’t something that is usually treasured or taken seriously. But when we were talking about whether we would hang around after the finish to get our medals, the new boys were adamant that we would be going up to the podium. ‘We’ve suffered for eight days to become Men of the Rás’ they said, ‘and we want our medals to prove it’
As Rás legend and two-time winner Phil Cassidy said to me when I told him it was my fifth Rás, ‘The first ten are hard, after that they start getting easier’
Maybe in six years time I’ll be writing a blog saying how easy the Rás is, but for now all I can say is what an epic race it is…and that I can’t wait for next year.
So if you meet someone who says he’s a man of the Rás, give him some respect, he deserves it…
Thanks for reading,