It's hard to believe it's all over. The Ras is something that I just assumed was above me for a large part of my life and now I've managed to not only complete it but give it a good dig too. For certain I'll miss it as preparing for it has been such a big focus for the last few months. In essence it was my Tour de France and I needed all my years of watching the pro-peloton on Eurosport to know what to do. It's not real experience but it is all I had to go on.
This is my first season as a B rider and my first Ras. Between the preparation races and the Ras itself I have come on loads, not just physically but mentally too in terms of exploring all the nooks and crannies of my racing brain and being able to absorb the huge pressure involved in hanging on. I didn't really have a bad stage or a 'jour sans' where the legs bunk off school for the day. I was part of so much; the pile-up and bunch sprint on stage 1, the chase group that bridged after the cross-winds in Gort on stage 2 (only to bonk as the winds forced us to race for an extra hour), the front split and then the crowds on the side of the Crag Cave climb on stage 3, sitting on McCann's and Irvine's wheels right at the front when they were flat out to reel in a break and then descending the Healy Pass like a mad man on stage 4 when everyone expected me to crash (even though I didn't take any risks), watching a pro dangerously switch into my front wheel and thereby eject me from the front group due to a wheel-change and knock me off the top spot in the B prize on stage 5, missing the amateur move on stage 6 but still managing to sneak away 5k from the finish to move up to 2nd in the B prize, knowing that the race was going to blow apart on the climb after 30k on stage 7 and being the first man not to make it across to the split, feeling the legs explode one last time up the Black Hill in Skerries on stage 8 before standing on the podium to collect my finisher's medal. Of course, how can I not mention all the line-outs that caused me and so many others to have cursed words with our maker during the week. The whole thing really was a roller-coaster and fantastic fun.
The main thing for me was to see the level as it's something that is difficult to observe from the side of the road. When I was on my absolute limit hanging on it was clear that the back of the front group was maybe only 2% better than me. This group was full of pros and a handful of really good amateurs (of which only a few are not full-time riders). Naturally the front of the front group is possibly 10% better than the back of it and then I'm not sure what the gap is between these lads and the properly paid ranks but it's probably another 10%. Thus, the question is whether I would do another Ras. I'd have to think about it. There is more to me than just the bike so I'm just delighted that I've done one so that there won't be any begrudgery if regular life were to get in the way of my bike. However, I'm sure I could make the front group next year knowing now what it takes but it is a huge commitment and knowing that the level up again is sizable you have to ask yourself what is the point? Of course, it would be magic to score something in the Ras as an amateur as it is much coveted but I'm not much into doing things that other people think are cool as it is not enough of a motivating factor for me. Certainly, I'm riding well and I have found my level now with some other guys of similar experience but I need someone to sit me down and say, listen, this is what you could achieve and if that excites me then I'd think hard about it. Naturally, there are other races that racing a Ras might prepare me for. The esoteric crazy races full of gutter-riding could be fun. Otherwise the Ras might just be too tough on the amateurs. It was ok for me this year as I had no sense of perspective being a rookie but if I didn't have that B prize as a focus and 2 ringers in that competition to raise my game, then I would have been just riding around in the Ras to get my head kicked in. It's a pretty cruel race for the amateur as you need to be able to piggy-back the pros to score prizes. This certainly makes you strong but it doesn't necessarily make you the strongest head-to-head against the other amateurs. Thus, it is not just physically bruising but mentally tortuous too as you feel bad about yourself when you miss a split. But that is the nature of the beast. Even when you have a good day in the Ras you can only come in 80th across the line. It is definitely a two-speed race so it will be interesting to see whether the organisers keep pushing the standard up as they have been doing over the last number of years. Not only did I do a lap of half the country and not see anything (my first time to the Burren and I couldn't manage to sneak a look) but it felt like I was in a totally different race when I read the press. The RTE and irishcycling.com coverage was all about the pros. Fair enough, but some small paragraph mentioning the lads racing for the County Rider prize or some other notable showings by amateurs would have been nice. It really felt like we were making up the numbers. The race now has a great international reputation as a proving ground for riders looking to score a real pro contract. However, as the level goes up at the front so too must the level of the amateur at the back. At some point people will draw the line and say that they just can't commit the amount of time now needed to train for the Ras as every year even more is being asked of the amateur. This might suit the few Irish riders who want (and really need) to raise their game to make it into a pro team but for most of us that is not our objective. There is a real risk that the number of Irish amateurs in the race will plummet. My guess is that they have been quietly protesting for a while now but that they will still show up at the start-line, such is the nature of cyclists to obey the call of a suffer-fest.
In the end I finished 92nd. Even though I rode well, I was still mediocre as promised. Ironically, the persons ahead and behind me on GC have both won the Ras (Stephen Gallagher and Andrew Roche). Clearly, things didn't go their way, they were thinking of stages (or even other races) or they weren't in top form this time around. I finished 3rd in the B prize even though I hope the 2 lads above me in this category take no pride in the fact that they beat me as they are clearly not Bs. Certainly, the guy who won it was in screaming form for the second half of the week and managed to claim the much coveted daily prize for being the first amateur across the line on the final stage. This is the second year in a row he has managed to do this into Skerries. It was only a matter of time as he had been trying really hard all week. Fair play.
All that remains is to say a big thanks to the organisers and all the race crew without whom I couldn't have experienced such an amazing Ras. A million thanks to Zilcom for supporting the South Dublin Team during the week. Also, I have to shout a huge thank you to Michelle, Mick, JP, Latts, Dave, John and James for being the most unbelievable support team for the race. As an amateur who has to wrench his own bikes and do everything himself normally, it was a real treat to be looked after by guys who were total professionals doing an incredibly thankless job behind the scenes. Cheers to Mick and Art for staying the course with me cracking jokes, talking nonsense, helping me in the race and for just generally keeping morale high. I should also acknowledge the lovely warm Irish (and quasi-Irish) hospitality I received from all the great people in B&Bs I stayed in throughout the week. These people showed me that despite all my travels, Ireland is still one of the most incredible countries to go on holidays in. Naturally I wish a speedy recovery to Anthony, my team-mate, who crashed out on stage one with a fractured elbow and a big good luck to James who left us after 5 solid days in the race due to an interview for his dream job (what James, you mean you are not tempted to become a pro bike-racer?)
Even though us riders swear the bejayusus out of each other on our bikes it's funny that we are all courteous and friendly to each other off them, it was certainly a pleasure to be part of the Ras class of 2011. Well done to all riders who both started and finished, the Irish An Post team for winning the race the hard way and to Martyn Irvine and David McCann for grabbing the two final stages and at last something for the Irish lads to cheer about. I look forward to finding out which lads in this race actually make it into the fully-paid pro ranks, best of luck to all the (semi-)pros in their careers and thanks for giving me hell. We amateurs might moan but it wouldn't have been the same without you.
It's now time for the dude to get on with the rest of his life. See you next time ... maybe.
This concludes my Ras coverage, thanks for reading