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Early Season Form

the dude leads a chase group through the technical section in the Jazzer Wherity. Photo © Nadia Gativa.Right, skip ahead to the next paragraph if you already know your cycling as what follows is a little background info. In terms of the sport globally there are different standards of races but there are more or less seven divisions of teams. The Tour de France guys ride what is considered Pro-Tour level. These guys are salaried and ride for fully supported for teams with mulit-million euro budgets. The next level down is Pro-Continental which consists of some very classy riders, some of whom are great champions in their own right. These teams have smaller (but still sizable budgets) and can't access all the top level races. The third tier is Continental, which consists of guys who are effectively pro-am. These riders ride fully supported and they might receive a basic wage. Such squads typically consist of younger riders who are trying to step up to the properly paid pro ranks. Even if they are not top tier these guys train like professionals and some of them actually make it. Of course, within each of these divisions there are stronger and weaker squads. We then have the amateur ranks which consists of four divisions in Ireland. The best riders have what we'll call an A licence, the next category ride as Bs, then there are the Cs and Ds. The level you race at determines the length and severity of the races you can enter and it is typically through the accumulation of points based on results that you move up a level thereby maintaining standards and ensuring that riders are not collecting on prizes in a level beneath their ability. This is the general scheme of things in cycling but in Ireland the B riders typically race with the As, making it harder to get upgraded as you need to be placing in A races to accumulate the requisite number of points for an upgrade. Essentially you need to be an A already before they grant you an A licence. Fair enough. In terms of the Rás, the race is made up of about 170 riders. About 85 of these are from Continental level teams and the remainder are amateurs. The majority of amateurs will be A riders, some of which will have raced the Rás numerous times. There will be about 20 B riders with some rookies like me amongst the ranks.

Having not raced last season I left myself a fair amount of work to do to get to the level required to complete a Rás properly. When I turned out of the Rocky Mountains ahead of the cold weather and used Denver as my winter bolt-hole, the first thing I did was buy a bike. I had had enough of going only 16mph on a fully laden steel mountain-bike, so buying something faster and more suited to asphalt was automatic. There are three fitnesses one needs to train as a bike racer; cardio, strength and leg-speed. I bought a cyclo-cross bike so that I could be on regular sized wheels and maybe train with people. It was a bit of a shock to the system initially and I was terribly disappointed with my form. Despite the 13,905k of loaded bike-touring over some of the roughest terrain and biggest mountains imaginable (and much more unloaded exploratory kilometres besides), I didn't feel particularly fit or strong. It would take me a fair amount of training to find my legs and leg-speed again. The snowfalls and Colorado cold-snaps didn't help with consistency but at least I was trying and laying a base of some sort. I should have bought an indoor-trainer but I couldn't justify the expense as Denver weather was initially mild and it would be one more thing to sell before I came home. I generally rely on indoor-trainers for consistency and interval work. These two things form the bed-rock of a really good racing engine. Once the cyclo-cross season was out of the way, the roadies came out of hibernation and I managed to join in on a couple of group spins around Denver. The standard was very high and I was left with the sinking feeling that I would have a mountain of work to do to get in shape for the Rás.

On my arrival home to Ireland, I wasn't sure what to think. My legs weren't terrible but the heavy road surfaces took some getting used to again. I hooked up with Art for training spins, a good friend and in the same boat as myself in terms of trying to ride the Rás for the first time this year. We had some good sessions and we tried to keep each other honest. While we are similar riders in terms of our hunger and style we are still different horses suited to different courses. We have lots of different ideas about things making for plenty of conversation on spins when Art was not making me gasp up a mountain. I was really enjoying being back in Leinster, which I think has the best training and racing grounds of anywhere I have seen in the world. Being a city boy it is hard to have such proximal access to nature, quiet roads and a variety of terrain for training and still have all the cool things that city-life offers. Dublin provides this in spades and one can ride here for 360 days a year unlike lots of other parts of the world. We lack high-mountains and lots of sunshine but a couple of trips abroad each year with the bike more than make up for this.

My first race of the season was the Newbridge Grand Prix. On the second lap some ass-hole rode me into the ditch.  When I hopped out I had a puncture and as I'm not riding for a team with a support car from which I could take a spare wheel, I was out of the race after only 30k.

Thus, my first proper race of the season was the Lucan Grand Prix. As I was going on a three-day bender to Budapest for a stag (bachelor party) the following weekend and missing some good races I wanted to have a solid race. The only way to find out where I stood was to be aggressive and blow the lights out. We Bs had a one-minute handicap on the A riders and we took full advantage. I was jumping into every move and even when I was being pulled back I was jumping again. I couldn't believe my cardio. I was recovering from each jump ridiculously quickly allowing me to stay up the front and fire a lot of bullets in the hope that one would hit the target. Job done, I got into the break of the day and 8 of us pushed clear. We were all of a similar level and we worked incredibly well together. I don't think anyone skipped a turn until coming into the last lap. We shelled one rider close to the end and another punctured meaning that if I could stay away I would be in the top six and place on the results-sheet. There was a moment of panic as we approached the final corner 1.5k from the line. A slurry truck (only in Ireland!) had pulled out on the course totally oblivious to our escape for glory. Four riders got around but myself and another lad had to skirt the gravel on a roundabout causing the group to split. The front lads kindly stalled the jets for us and we got back on. We still had to keep the pressure on as the bunch was closing in fast. The slurry truck incident disrupted my flow and while I was back in the race I was staring into a head-wind and unsure of myself. I went left, they went right, I followed right and then they switched left. By the time I got on the wheel I wanted I was spinning as fast as I could and not really doing any damage. In any case I chose the wrong wheel and then Odhran came around me meaning I finished 6th with the bunch right on my heels. I was happy with the day but if I had known how good my legs were then I would have popped off on a solo flyer a lot earlier. In the end I realised that I was strong but lacking in confidence.  Still, a good day-out for someone returning to racing after an absence.

The weekend following my Budapest adventure I did three races. The highlight was Friday night's town criterium in Balbriggan where I finished 10th and fastest B rider. I love the speed of crits and this 2k lap suited me perfectly as it had a hill and a super technical section with a few tight corners all in quick succession. Again, I was finding that my recovery in the middle of the race was as good as it has ever been and while I wasn't strong enough to get into the key-move I did a huge amount of work and wasn't too far away at the finish. I was flying, I was very aggressive and I got my tactics right. I attacked on the back-side of the course to hit the technical section in front thereby limiting the chances of riders being able to come around me in the sprint.

Things were going surprisingly well and so I just needed a few more tough races in the legs ahead of the fast approaching stage-races. These stage-races are key to a rider's Rás preparation and it would be my relative success or failure in these that would determine whether I felt I would be able to ride the Rás.

Stage-race fever tomorrow


Lucan GP - the dude in an early break that failed. Photo © Peter Purfield www.irishcycling.comthe dude works in the winning break. Photo © Peter Purfield www.irishcycling.com7k to go and the break doesn't have too much of an advantage. Photo © Peter Purfield www.irishcycling.comthe dude checks his gear for the sprint with the bunch finishing fast behind. Photo © Peter Purfield www.irishcycling.comanother defeat but good to know the legs are there. Photo © Peter Purfield www.irishcycling.com

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