Stage 4 - Castleisland-Castletownbere 142k
Today's stage was what would be termed the Queen stage of the race with its three Category 2 climbs and the Category 1 climb of the Healy Pass 25k from the finish. The winds were gale force again today. Not as bad as stage 2 (which I later learnt were storm force winds) but still very treacherous. I have ridden parts of this route before, although at a much more leisurely pace. Despite this I still sought some route-intell from friends who know these roads well.
As I'm racing the race within the race for the B prize I really just had to keep tabs on a few B riders who are close to me on time. I was leading the category by three minutes at the start of the stage. Still, I want to have as good as race as possible and hopefully that will still be good enough for the B prize at the end of the race in Skerries. With the winds so dangerous in terms of presenting lots of opportunity to a group that is prepared to bury themselves for 30 minutes to get an advantage, I had to make sure that no B rider sneaked into the front group and thereby got an easy 20 minutes on me on GC. Chris Coyle was up the front all day and trying to get into an early move. I was struggling to get up to the front-row to mark him but I didn't think a move could stay away in the head-wind. I just stayed close but in the shelter of the main bunch. As we came close to Killarney 50k into the race I could smell line-outs coming. The pace was increasing ever so slightly and the bunch was starting to be in two or three lines. I rode up to the front and with my momentum I jumped onto whatever wheels were moving as fast. Suddenly I was on McCann's wheel as he came screaming down the left to link up with his team-mate Martyn Irvine who had popped down the right. I was now sitting on the wheel of two of Ireland's best cyclists with a whole load of pros lined-out on my wheel. I could have panicked but I have found out in this race that my legs are getting stronger and I was able to sit there. I could see they were trying to snap the elastic and bridge up to a break up the road. We got there and while we had the bunch totally strung out it wasn't enough to snap the elastic. I couldn't believe that I was able to do that but it was good to know. Obviously sticking my nose into the breeze is a different level altogether but it's just a deadly buzz being at the front of the Ras when the action is happening.
As we came to the bottom of the first climb the weather was shocking and the yellow jersey team just rode tempo up it with everybody happy not to have to race over it. It was a fairly comfortable pace for me as I was tucked into the bunch out of the head-wind. Things started to hot-up as we got closer to Kenmare 50k from the finish. This was the approach to a Cat 2 climb which served as the appetiser for what would be a showdown on the Healy Pass. It was lined out on the Cat 2 and I was making sure to stay close to the guys up for the B prize. They had tried to move all the way up to the front but hadn't quite managed it. One of them let a wheel go, which meant that I had lost the front of the race but that the pace was more manageable and that my competition was still in my favour. They now had to do something on the Healy Pass to try and crack me. The Pass is not steep on the lower grades although the road is heavy. The head-wind made it difficult for any attacks to happen but they couldn't drop me even though they were trying to keep the pace up. I saw that they were flagging so I came around and sat 4th man in line. Close to the front to not lose a wheel and to cover a move but not too close that I had to work. As we came to the steep section over the top I could see that McFadden was still looking reasonably strong. Coyle and Dempsey were just behind in a group of around 15 I'm guessing. We were now staring down a scary descent of the Healy Pass in the wind and rain. Anyone who has seen this descent will know that it is one of the more technical and crazy descents in the country, although because it is exposed it is easy to read the corners. As we crested the summit my head said just to gun it, I obeyed and suddenly I had a gap of fifty yards coming out of the first corner. Sweet! I hit them when they were least expecting it. They had probably signed off on the stage thinking that we would all battle it out on another day but I was now piling the pressure on just when nobody would have wanted it. As I tore down the mountain I made sure not to take any risks on the wet corners. Looking back up the mountain I could see I was gaining huge ground on my rivals, two of them were trying to drop down to me but I was absolutely flying. I could tell one of them was Coyle though so I had to see what would happen on the run-in to Castletownbere. Luckily I was catching good riders who had been dropped by the front group. I bridged up to an An Post lad who was likely beat from working for the yellow jersey and then I picked up Adam Armstrong who is leading the amateur competition. He was on his own. Soon we had a bit of a group going but Finnegan from Stamullen who is up for the amateur prize had a team-mate with him and managed to tag-team with him to bridge across to my group. I'm guessing he towed Chris Coyle up. That was bad news for me but at least the other two guys I had to look out for where behind me. I tried to duck as much work as possible as in that situation you just need to see which riders are hungry for time and thus, have to work. The guys who were up in the amateur prize were prepared to do the work but with 5k to go one of them went on the outside and Finnegan's team-mate sat on him. They had a 100ms on us, Finnegan went after them, I sat on Andy Roche's wheel to see if he would follow. He didn't have to so he didn't. I jumped and got onto Finnegan just as he closed to Armstrong. I looked between my legs and I could see Paidi was there, but Coyle wasn't. Deadly, I had managed to drop him. He can't have been happy.
We ended up coming in just behing the second small group on the road. It was another stressful day but one where I demonstrated what I can do. Not just to my rivals but to myself. I was thrilled to bits as it's scary to see how well I am reading the race and how good my legs are. I just hope I can keep this going. I finished 45th on the stage. I now have an 8 minute cushion to second-placed man on the B prize. This race is not over yet. I am 12th amateur rider and 60th overall with half the race completed.
More gale-force winds for tomorrow's rolling stage to Blarney. It is impossible to convey how stressful this race is. It helps that I'm generally pretty calm but I can't switch off for a minute, which during a four hour plus stage is a huge amount of mental energy to burn up on top of the physical energy required to push the bike home.
The winds are howling outside as I post this ... lovely!