Stage 8 - Kildare-Skerries 133k
It was all smiles in the riders' paddock this morning for the final stage. The sun was peeping out meaning this would be the first day I didn't have to wear arm-warmers. The final stage was to be the shortest of the race. However, as the yellow jersey battle was still raging we were sure to be in for another tough ride. As far as I was concerned it was absolutely imperative that I make the finishing circuit in Skerries. If there is a split in the bunch then riders can lose too much time and thereby be denied access to the circuit as they will impede proceedings at the head of the race. Knowing how much time one can lose in a split it meant that I still had to stay very focused for the remaining few hours of racing. I didn't want to disappoint friends who had made the trip to Skerries to see me. Of course, I also wanted to make sure that I had raced over every single merciless kilometre of the 2011 Ras.
The legs felt strong on the warm-up but as the week has progressed my lungs have gotten more tired when breathing deeply. I'm not sure what is going on there, I'm guessing it is the intercostal muscles but it is not something I notice when racing. Anyway, the nervous thing about today's stage was that there was a Cat 3 climb after only 7.5kms. The Hill of Allen isn't that big a deal normally but if we screamed over it and there was any hesitation in the bunch, then riders would be out the back and would definitely fail to get onto the circuit in Skerries. Indeed the bunch did accelerate over the climb, I couldn't see but I'm guessing it was the An Post team of the race leader trying to nullify attacks. After the climb the pace remained reasonably high while riders tried to attack off the front. Thankfully, when the right combination of riders went in a break up the road things settled down somewhat. The yellow jersey will always be happy for a break to go once there is no-one in it who is threatening his overall advantage. This puts the onus on teams who have made the trip to Ireland and who have yet to win anything to do all the work in chasing for a stage victory.
The next dangerous moment was when the crosswinds hit on the way to Summerhill. By now my internal wind vane is particularly sensitive so I am properly positioned before the crosswinds sling us single-file into the gutter. As you take your position in the line you are looking up it to see if a rider you don't trust to hold a wheel is in front of you. If there is one there then you have to hurt yourself to move up the line in the breeze and barge your way in ahead of him. If you are looking at a line of pros then you know that people behind you are looking at you but at least you don't have to hurt to get out of the line and move up. However, we all know each other after 7 days of racing, we each find our level and even the pros learn to trust certain amateurs just from watching them ride during the week. Thankfully I made the split. I'm not sure how many riders were shelled but I felt bad that I was party to it when we should really have been in celebratory mood.
As we got back into the welcoming cover of trees things calmed down again and we had a fairly handy time of things. The only cause for concern was that the roads were relatively twisting and narrow, making it difficult to move up the bunch. Normally I ride the gutter up but the motor-bike marshalls were using that channel all day necessitating a lot of patience. The Cat 3 climb to Pluckhumin stretched the bunch again but it was really just a warm-up for what was to come. I had reconnoitered the rest of the route from this point the week before and knew that the bunch would likely blow to pieces on one of the two next climbs. The pace was fast now so it was difficult to move much further up. As we hit Balrothery and negotiated a little road furniture we turned left onto the Cross of the Cage climb. It's a bit of a stomper but you wouldn't expect to die a death on it. Of course, this was the pivotal moment of the race; one of the few remaining chances for someone to attack the yellow jersey. It felt like groundhog day as I was now looking at a gap in front of me. Not again! Mick came up to me and gave me a push to give me some more momentum, I then went through and buried myself to hold the gap. Another guy came through to give it a dig. When he was starting to blow I gave him a push. We were all just helping each other to keep the gap down to 10ms as if it got any bigger then we'd never rejoin. Over the top of the climb we hurt ourselves even more just to get back on but we managed to make it. On the one hand my head was hi-fiving me for making it onto the circuit with the yellow jersey but on the other hand I was annoyed that I couldn't savour the moment. There has been precious little let-up in this race all week for the amateurs, which gets annoying after a while but such is life on the Ras. As we came screaming through the finish-line for the first of two passages it was hard to take in the crowds and all the flags waving. I wanted to savour it but I knew that we still had to hit the Black Hill, a nasty little climb that kicks hard at the bottom but then lets you off the hook towards the top. I had already accepted my fate before I hit the chicane at the bottom. I just put her in gear and gave her as much as I had but I wasn't going to kill myself to hang on this time. Riders started to blow and a gap opened. Art tried to sprint around me to the tail-end of the line but got 50ms in front of me before he too accepted his fate and slipped back. Even though we were going backwards relative to the bunch we were still giving it everything. Over the top I was happy to sit-up but the small group I ended up in wanted to keep on pulling. So, it was another lap of trying to grin but having to bear it. We got over the climb together on the next lap and kept the pressure on all the way to the line losing just a few minutes on the stage.
Crossing the line felt fantastic, I patted my bars much like a winning jockey does his horse. Any amateur who had a hugely stressful week was very over-joyous. Even the pros would have been glad that the pressure was now off. Everybody had eight days to show their worth and by the finish-line in Skerries we all knew exactly where we stood. It had been a brutal test but at least the assessment had been honest. The nicest moment of the day was standing up on the podium with my team-mates, Dave our manager and John our soigneur to collect our finishing medals. Even in mediocrity it was nice to have one final moment to do as the pros do before they leave us for some other top-level race on their schedule; smile and wave to the crowd at our accomplishment. I generally take no satisfaction in being average at anything but here was a medal that just looking at would cause so many emotions and memories to race around in my head for the rest of my life.
Final thoughts on the race tomorrow