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Tour of Ulster - 3 Day Stage-Race in Dungannon

the dude suffers in the hill-sprint totally oblivious to the fact he is flying the tri-colour in loyalist heartlands! Photo © Nadia GativaThe Tour of Ulster was brutal. I knew it would be hard but it definitely rates as being as hard as Mumhan if not harder. They can only have ca. 100 riders in Northern Irish races so the field is a lot smaller to start with. This means there is less shelter and fewer places to hide in both the bunch and the cavalcade. Plus, the quality of the field was seriously impressive. We had perfect weather; lots of sunshine without it being too hot. However, the winds were constant and vicious at times and were a key factor in the racing. I don't think I have ever raced a course with so much wind.

Stage 1 – 141k

My only real mistake was not to arrive on time for the first stage ... I had a google map of it but when we got into town it was difficult to find the sign-on and it cost me a good warm-up. Of course, the first hour of a stage-race can be nuts as nobody wants to miss a move that may decide the overall GC on the first stage. Without a proper warm-up I felt physically blocked for two hours and was struggling just to stay on the back of the bunch. The second chase group screamed clear over the top of the Cat 1 KOH as I was losing contact. I got back on on the descent and the subsequent steadying of pace allowed me to get my second wind meaning I could start my race. I had good legs for the rest of the day but all the teams had guys up the road so the subsequent dropping in the pace by a few kph made life a lot more manageable ... but for the fact that I had missed the move, which always gnaws at what's left of your sanity. I worked on the front to try and keep the time-gap down to some smaller groups but people were largely unco-operative and the bunch pulled the parachute to 18mins by the time we crossed the line. If I hadn't have felt blocked I might have made a group 10mins down but the bunch should have snuffed out everything to at least 15mins.

Stage two - 140k

This was another really lumpy day with 6 climbs - two cat 3s followed by two cat 2s and two cat 1s. By this stage I never pay attention to the categorisation as it's often difficult to discern the difference when riding. They seem to set the categorisation to effect the racing ... encourage the race to break up at certain times for the yellow and climber's jersey. The gradient and length is most important as that determines the style of the climb and whether it suits a rider. The key thing to note on this stage was that the Cat 2 would be followed immediately by a Cat 1 and that the subsequent Cat 1 in town was only about a mile long and was likely a Cat 1 because it was a hill finish as opposed to being difficult (KOH points scoring etc). My task for the day was to stay up the front and to be on the right side of the split when it came to the double climb. I was positioning myself well all day and was very active in the first hour to get into a break. Some strong riders clipped away at a huge speed that I knew I couldn't follow so I just waited for the main part of the stage to make sure I didn't blow the lights out. When the important climbs came I was fine. Ryan Sherlock set the pace up one and possibly Paul Griffen up the other. I had made it over with a lot of big-name riders including McCann and Irvine even if some lads were already up the road from an earlier break. There was a split on the back but I was surprised to find another climb on the course after these two ... I don't know where it came from but the other lads were finding the going tough too and so it was possible to just sit-in at their pace. I stayed out of the wind as McCann, Sherlock and Griffen tried to pull back the gap to the leaders. McCann was in yellow but seemed to be having punctures and the like. It wasn't coming back but I moved from 10th place up to 4th place for the rise to the finish. Any further back would have required a Gilbert like sprint to get around people. As we came into the corners the bunch went left and I went right to open up my sprint. I saw the final bend and knew that if I could get to that without people coming around me I would hold my position to the finish. I got there 2nd and then just punched the bike up the last 100ms. I was 2nd on what was remaining in the bunch but it was only good enough for 16th on the stage. Still, good to know I'm making all the right moves towards the finish these days and that I can hold my own with the climbers once I'm towards the front heading into them.

Stage 3 - 800m hill-sprint

The course had a lot of corners, some bad road and three proper stompers. It was the kind of course that one should recce but it wasn't possible unless you cut out a lot of recovery from the morning stage. Even then, you'd still need the legs and it was so short that a good recce would only be good for ten seconds maybe. I did a decent warm-up but hit the course blind. I got caught out by the second stomper - I thought this was flattish and the legs didn't know what hit them. The gradient was smack in the middle of my range – I didn't know whether to push the pedals down or pull them up meaning that I was climbing with two different styles and changing my gear selection a few times on the course. I posted a 2:04 but it still hurt. Most of the big guys were pulling 1:52s and then Johnny McEvoy from the English Motorpoint team managed 1:37 - a total screamer.

Stage 4 – 123k

This seemed a lot less tricky on paper than the first two stages because of the absence of climbs, there were 6 categorised climbs on each of the previous two stages. The problem was that the English lads only had a 7sec lead on Andy Roche on GC and so there was a lot still to play for. The stage left Dungannon for an 11 x 7 mile circuit. It was exposed and had about three short stompers on it. The main problem was the amount of corners on the circuit ... and then the speed. The pace was blistering at the start and a lot of people were out the back before they knew what had happened - race over. I was suffering like everyone else but I was in the top half of the bunch to make sure I didn't get caught behind a rider with tired legs leaving a gap open. The pace was so high I didn't have a chance to process how much longer I could keep this going. We were going too fast for anything to get away but for Martin Irvine on his own. The Motorpoint team just set a fast tempo on the front with Andy Roche sitting on their wheels hoping they would tire themselves out in their protection of yellow. Things steadied after 3 laps but the tempo was still high and the amount of corners was cause for a lot of concentration and effort. I was decently positioned but I was struggling to hold onto a better position further up the line. In the closing three laps the pace ramped up again and the line-outs were huge. I was staying on wheels and closing some but the corners were taking a lot out of me. On the third last lap I realised I was struggling on the rises for the first time. Where before I would close-up to the top 30 and not feel it I was now falling backwards on the climbs.  A couple more jammy corners and it was getting really difficult to hold the wheels. Guys were going out the back and while I didn't crack I had used up my all my bullets by the second last time up the hill. I was simply spent as opposed to my head cracking. I fell in a heap into the cavalcade but about 10 riders had blown just in front of me allowing me to join up with them. When I got up to them I realised I was in pretty good company. The trick to that course was the corners but I realised this fact too late - I have never seen anything like the pressure those Motorpoint lads heaped on the bunch. After two difficult stages that was definitely the hardest stage and possibly the hardest of the two stage-racing weekends. I finished 37th on the stage 3mins down. I was hoping to move up in the B prize but could only move up to 4th of the Bs overall, still, that was worth some prize-money.  I was hoping for a top 3, the guy winning it looked too good for me but the other lads are about my level.  As it was I finished 41st overall in a race that only 69 managed to complete out of an original 105 starters.

So I only had two bad hours in what was a brutal race and while that was frustrating in the sense that I made a schoolboy error on stage one, I can feel reasonably assured that my legs are good and that I recover well between stages. It is also nice to learn that while I don't consider myself a climber that I can hold the pace on the climbs. I need to sort my cornering and then the rest is another season away in terms of actually being able to put my nose into the breeze and keep it there. Two hard back-to-back stage-racing weekends gave me enough confidence to knock on doors to see if clubs were looking for a rider for their Rás team.

More tomorrow


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