Stage 5 - Castletownbere-Blarney 156k
While anything can happen in the Ras it is uncommon that so many riders and teams are within touching distance of yellow after four stages. This heaps the pressure on the yellow jersey team as they have to control the attacks of multiple riders from various teams with only four men while keeping their race leader fresh. The consequences are brutal for the rest of us as it was obvious they would line it out from the gun thereby keeping the pace too high for attacks to happen. I was expecting a fast start but the roads were heavy and the course lumpy. Thus, even if you stayed tucked in it wasn't enough to take the pressure off the body as the legs still had to push on the four Cat 3s and over the rough roads. I was doing well enough and of course, I was very aware that Chris Coyle was up in the front row again trying to get in the early move that would decide the stage. It is common for a break to go and then ride a minute ahead of the bunch and wait for all the big-name riders to come across before screaming off into the distance again. I too tried to follow any momentum after any attack from Coyle when he might need to recover. Nothing was getting away and the pace was starting to ramp up properly to line-out mode. The An Post team of the race leader just piled the pressure on us amateurs and while they weren't shedding us they tried at every available opportunity, such as on bumpy roads through towns or jammy corners when riders are distracted and can't just focus on power.
About 20k out of Bantry they were still lining it out. It was murder and you are just thinking how long is it humanly possible for them to keep this up? The legs were still pumping but you are starting to ask questions of them. Inevitably I was thinking more of Coyle and Dempsey in the line. These guys are seriously good riders but I know I'm in better shape than them head-to-head. The problem with the Ras though is that you can win prizes by piggy-backing the pros in the main race and getting into splits. These two lads know that they can't beat me up or down a mountain so the only way to get time on me is to get in the front split. Fair enough, that's the race I'm in and the result is that I'm riding front-row with all the pros in what is my first Ras and my first season as a B rider.
I was about 8 riders behind Coyle in the line and Dempsey was somewhere further down. Every rider in that line-out must have been under pressure. I was waiting for it to happen and then it did. Coyle was starting to let wheels go. Deadly! I thought about it for a split second thinking that I can just sit on him and follow him out the back or I could try and win the overall prize today by sticking with the front group despite the pressure. Obviously I decided for the latter, which was prudent because Dempsey was still in the line. However, all the pros were thinking the same thing as me, we must get around this rider or we will be gapped. Just as the bunch was offering a hint of respite I moved up on the left. Next thing I know a Giant Asia pro just switches left right in front of me without giving me any indication. He jams his rear skewer (what locks the wheel to the frame) into my front wheel almost causing me to crash and take down a Rapha Condor rider with me. I managed to stay upright but suddenly my wheel was making noises. Oh no, his skewer has ripped my spokes out of the wheel, Disaster! I had to pull out of the front group as the hammer was down to get a wheel. I came to a stop as the neutral service car beeped me from behind for a quick wheel-change. However, in such scenarios it's an impossible task trying to get back onto the bunch on my own at such speeds in strong winds. I stayed calm and just rode tempo hoping that the bunch might sit up at some point to take a break. My team car came up to me and my calm just vanished. I just had to vent. They told me to sit up and wait for the next bunch which was 500ms behind me. I let them come through and luckily two of my team-mates were there, James and Mick. It was only ten riders but a few more got up to us through the cars. It was hard to know what to do. The race was on up the road but we were still 70k from the finish. Not everybody was willing to work and I couldn't try and go up the road with James and Mick as we would just murder ourselves on our own and eliminate ourselves from the race. Thus, we had to work with this bunch and hope that they would ride reasonably quickly. We got to within 800ms of the bunch just before the feed-zone but the pros didn't sit up to feed like they normally would as the race was still very much on. Thus, our chances of rejoining vanished.
We still had two cat 2s to go and while it was nice not to have to race over them it was obviously frustrating sitting there knowing I couldn't do anything about the B prize today. Coyle's team-mate was in my group and for some reason decided to pop away with 25k to go at the bottom of the final climb. We were all thinking 'where is your man off to?'. He then comically dropped his chain by down-shifting to the small ring as he hit the first steep ramp. Junior error. We all giggled as we came around him and he clipped out. Dave, his other team-mate dropped back to him to help him get back on but the rider who clipped out dropped charitable dave and spun back to our group leaving Dave to ride his ass off for 2k on his own to rejoin us. When Clarke got back on he went off on his own again. He got a decent gap and over the top we started to pick up our speed for the run-in. We could see him dangling in front of us about 6k from the finish. It was a good ride but we just had to catch him to do his head in. We caught him 300ms from the line much to our giddiness. It's nice to have something else to laugh at when things aren't going your way. Mick and James did a lot of work for me today. Mick is very experienced so he was giving me good advice and pulling hard when he could. James could have blown us all up the mountain with the legs he had so we had to tell him to calm it down a but. He then switched into his strong time-trial mode for the finish to help close the gap. The lads have been unbelievable all week.
Of course, I then had to wait nervously for the results to see how much time I leaked to both Dempsey and Coyle. Coyle didn't manage to blow on the climbs meaning it looked like the pace eased up somewhat as there was a big front bunch galloping for first place. He in fact came second amateur rider on the stage today. Both Coyle and Dempsey gained 17 minutes on me, which effectively puts Coyle in first place in the B prize 8 minutes ahead of Dempsey with me just behind. Very disappointing considering it was bad luck which led to me finishing in the next group on the road.
It's not over yet though. My head and legs are good. It just means that I have to really raise my game even further to get that time back. Obviously I was bullin that a pro screwed up my race. He's also damaged my wheel. I have to pay for this stuff, he gets it for free ... obviously annoying. The third thought is that I am having to ride like a pro in the front row of the Ras to win the B prize. This is totally crazy. It's my first season as a B. I didn't race last season and it's my first Ras. Coyle has ridden at least two Rasanna and has twice won best amateur prize on a stage. This prize is much coveted by any A rider in the race as it's the only thing they can reasonably be expected to have a chance of winning. Dempsey is an ex international rider and has ridden in the Tout of Qatar, the traditional season opener for a lot of the Tour de France teams. He also came 5th overall in the amateur prize last year. On the one-hand I'm annoyed that they are in my race when they shouldn't be but on the other hand they are raising my game to levels I didn't know I was capable of. However, I'm absolutely fed-up to the teeth with moral victories. I've been in sport for a long-time and I have not won anything that I am actually proud of. I've lost so much that I now know how to win. This is one of the reasons I am riding so well. My head is tough to crack. The result is that I'm desperate to win this prize. The problem is that today didn't decide anything in terms of the overall GC for the race so it'll be more of the same tomorrow.
Again, I can not emphasise enough how murderous this thing is. I can't even reach for my bottle in the first two hours of the race because there is so much happening. For someone who detests stress, it's surprising that I get my kicks from such a stressful sport.
After losing Anthony after the 1st stage to a fractured elbow we said goodbye to James as he has to leave the race early for an unexpected Job interview with the Air Corps. And then there were 3.
Fingers crossed for another strong day tomorrow.