Stage 7 – Tramore-Kildare 162k
Today was to be another day for the the climbers. I'm not a specialist but I know I can climb pretty well. The tactics for the day were simply to make the front split with the pros who would have to attack to take the yellow jersey. If I could make the front group then I'd have a chance of getting time up on Coyle but only if he missed it. On current form that wasn't likely. Thus, the real race I had to focus on was Dempsey who was only a minute behind me on GC. Dempsey has faced such scenarios a million times before. Plus, he lives a mere 10 miles from the course meaning I could be sure he knew these roads well. There was a Cat 2 climb 35k in, which on paper looked menancing in terms of a potential battle-ground for a split. After 90k there was to be a Cat 1 climb before some rolls and a reasonably straight-forward run-in to Kildare.
The key to making the split would be to be positioned up the front as the peloton attacked the climb. This allows some margin in terms of being slower up it as if you lose 200ms you might be able to get on at the end of the line even if 70 riders have come around you. Of course, everyone else has the same idea meaning getting into the front-row ahead of the climb would be a challenge. However, I succeeded in riding in about 20th position on the approach to the climb which boded well. Inevitably Coyle and Dempsey were in close proximity and so it all came down to how fast the pros wanted to race up it. The only extra edge I had given myself was to be as light as possible. I went with minimum food in the back-pocket and only one bottle, whereas normally I'd have two. We were the only team employing this strategy, which showed how desperate we were to make the split and how nervous we were about not making it. In the end the climb proved to be the decisive selection in the race. It wasn't massively steep but it went on for 4k and had some sharp corners. I'm still not 100% sure what happened. On the run-in the group fanned out a bit meaning that I was still close to the front but a lot more riders were alongside me. As we hit the lower slopes you just pray that your legs can take the initial hit as you hang the bike off your hamstrings. Push, push, push, breathe, breathe, breathe and before you know it you are in climbing mode. The corners were out of the saddle but everything else was in the saddle spinning like mad. I was going around people and definitely had momentum. About 1.5k from the top it became clear that people were running out of gas and starting to blow, I was just following the wheels around these guys but I was now under serious pressure myself. Then, someone in front of me in the line left a gap of 20ms open and the riders just in front of me were now sprinting across it. Ah hold on lads, how am I supposed to sprint across like? I could do nothing more but sit in the saddle and continue to spin. Inevitably guys on my wheel decided to come around me and sprint up to the next group. I was only going 0.2kph slower than them but now the breeze was leaning against me and all I could do was hope that I could close what was now a 75m gap. By the top it was 100ms and no-one else on my wheel was in a position to close it for me. Ironically, jumping while on the limit on a mountain is the one thing I knew I hadn't trained my body to do and now I was paying the price. Unbelievable. I needed the mountain to be either a bit steeper or another couple of kilometres longer to make them slow down. My cardio is good enough at the moment that I could have kept going at the rate I was for another 3k but my 1,247k bike-race had just come down to a mere 100ms. I gunned it over the top to close the gap but the pros just kept the hammer down. Even though I was working hard with 6 keen lads it wasn't enough to rejoin. When you see that people are getting onto the back of your group as opposed to your group hoovering up riders in front you know the game is up. The only thing we could hope for now was that there would be a lull in the bunch. With the yellow jersey race so close this was unlikely to happen.
Of course, Coyle was up the road so I had lost that battle. The question now was whether Dempsey was up the road too. I'm pretty sure I was in front of him at the bottom but he's such a small rider that he can squeeze into gaps in the bunch unnoticed. He may have come around me when I was cross-eyed from the effort and couldn't process who was bridging. I wasn't sure, but when I was suddenly in a bunch of riders with almost no pros and with amateurs I hadn't seen all week, then I knew the news was bad. The only good thing was that we didn't have to race over the Cat 1 but judging by the lack of riders being shelled from the front group it seems that the pros didn't race over it either. Thus, the selection was on the Cat 2 as we feared and unfortunately Mick, Art and I had missed it.
In the end we lost 24mins to the front bunch meaning that Coyle would run-away with the B prize and that Dempsey would leap-frog into second. I was gutted but I wasn't good enough to beat these guys when it came to the absolute crunch. Such is stage-racing and in particular, the Ras. While the excitement of having done well over the previous six stages had numbed any pain I was all of a sudden feeling pretty beat-up from the week as a result of a disappointing seventh stage. Of course, only 16 Irish amateurs managed to make the split and of these only a couple are actual amateurs. The rest of them are full-time riders. They are also either pure climbers or exceptionally strong and experienced riders so there is no shame in not making the selection. Still, I'm disappointed even if thankful that I've had such tough competitors to bring me on in leaps and bounds and give me something to focus on for the week. I would have liked to have made that elite amateur rider selection but it wasn't to be this year. I have to be satisfied with being almost good enough.
Right, that's the gist of it. I expect to be having pints after tomorrow's stage so it is unlikely I'll post a stage 8 report until Monday. The yellow jersey race is still on so tomorrow will be murder again. It will be far from the ceremonial procession that the Tour riders have onto the Champs Elysees but I'm assuming the excitement of being back on home roads and the prospect of finishing the race will anaethesise the pain for just one more day.
Congratulations to Martyn Irvine who won the stage today, the only Irish rider to really get anything out of this race. He also held the mountains jersey on one of the stages.
I look forward to seeing some of you in Skerries tomorrow.