Entering the compact town of Clonakilty in West Cork sometime after the finish of the Rás Tailteann stage, a steady stream of exhausted riders passed our car in the opposite direction, returning to their team hotels after the day’s exertions.
We did a double take, as one rider seemingly well past his sell-by date and carrying a few extra pounds around his midriff, rode by with a number attached to his seatpost. There must have been a sportive earlier, we decided, and he somehow got mixed in with the professionals.
We were wrong.
This is the Rás Tailteann, Ireland’s brilliantly unique home tour that mixes up-and-coming talent from all over Europe with club and county teams from across the Emerald Isle.
Tony Martin won the 2007 edition. I’m willing to wager our mature chap finished that one too, and a few prior. Maybe not as far back as Stephen Roche’s victory in 1979, but possibly the 1995 edition which Pat McQuaid’s brother Paul won. Irish riders with 20 Rás under their belts are not unusual. This fella is a ‘man of the Rás’ – a title bestowed upon any rider finishing the eight-day race that would seem like overkill elsewhere. But this is no ordinary race. Not by a long chalk.
Today’s finish town of Clonakilty won the Irish Tidy Towns competition a while back, which is no great surprise. With its trim and prim narrow streets and pleasingly eclectic shops – a world away from the identikit eyesore that is the British high street – the town has a few other claims to fame. Notably, a reputation for the best black pudding in the whole of Ireland (our photographer Robert blags both black and white versions from the butcher and the reputation is justified) and a statue of Irish independence leader Michael Collins, born just a few miles down the road and killed by anti-treaty forces at the age of 31.
Politics is rarely far from the surface in Ireland and the first edition of the Rás was no different. The two-stage race was organised by the National Cycling Association, a body unrecognised by the UCI in 1953 due to its stance on representing all 32 counties and not just the Republic’s 23. While the official organisation, the Cumann Rothaíochta na hÉireann, ran its own Tour of Ireland, the NCA plumped for the Gaelic name of Rás Tailteann, symbolising Irish nationalism.
The very first Rás started outside the Dublin General Post Office in O’Connell Street, scene of the Easter Rising in 1916, where Collins and hundreds of lightly armed women and men (two of my wife’s great uncles included) fought a doomed battle against the overwhelming might of the British occupiers that was the catalyst leading to the eventual foundation of the republic in 1949.
As a political statement, starting outside the GPO made its point all right, while finishing the first stage in Wexford, scene of the Rebellion of 1978, was no coincidence either. The political landscape in Northern Ireland has changed beyond recognition in recent decades, while the Rás remains steadfastly and gloriously Irish in every respect.
Take the issue of time limits, not so much an issue in pre-UCI classification years as non-existent. Struggling county riders would be chivvied, towed, sticky-bottled and drafted with virtual impunity back in the day – anything to keep the men of the Rás in the race. Social media effectively put an end to that little quirk of Irish racing, which nobody seemed particularly bothered about, far as I can ascertain. Once photos started appearing on Twitter and Facebook of blatant rule-breaking, the UCI got involved and reminded the organisers of their obligations. Twenty-three county men left the race after missing the time cut in one particularly hilly stage in 2013, leading to concerns that the nature of the Rás itself was in danger.
“There was a massive stink about it a few years back,” says Jack Wilson, the 22-year-old An Post-Chain reaction rider whose progress we are here to track. “People were saying it was ruining the Rás. But it’s a UCI-ranked race, you have to stick to those rules.”
Mass expulsions seem to be a rarity these days – just the one rider misses the time cut after the Clonakilty stage we have just missed seeing. The county riders have upped their game. Or the rule-bending has gotten more subtle…
Not that the commissaires panel is immune to dishing out a few tasty fines on a daily basis. The following morning’s list of offenders includes one team manager hit hard in the wallet for “littering at race headquarters following the stage”. The mind boggles.
And three county riders, all from Waterford, are also relieved of 100CHF for “taking selfies with mobile devices during the stage”. A handsome bunch, those Waterford boys.
How to explain the beauty of this race? Former world scratch champion Martyn Irvine, a man of the Rás “six or seven times”, makes a good start: “It is definitely unique – that blend of Irish and professional, and it’s a bunch of volunteers and fans who run it. You get that feeling of community at the stage starts and finishes.
“I’m sure the average age of the riders is in the high-30s. But that’s why it is so popular, because there are local guys in with the professionals – that’s the buzz. The pros moan about it, because it’s a race within a race and that gets in the way sometimes.
“First timers get a shock. It’s not like a pro race, where they race and then ease off; go hard and then take a break. It can go on all day if you are unlucky.”
“No one can really control it,” says stage winner Aaron Gate, riding his fourth Rás and clearly loving it. “Five guys might make it more chaotic, but it makes it that bit more exciting, and there’s also a bit of camaraderie between the teams. I had [Clemens] Fankhauser in the yellow jersey come up to me and say: ‘Surely you want that to come back? I said ‘how many team-mates have you got left?’ He said ‘I’ve got one, but I’ll ride myself and if you send up a couple, then we are on.’ It’s a great race for that.”
First-timers at the Rás, as Irvine warned, take a while to get their heads round the seemingly uncontrolled mayhem that constitutes a day of racing here. Emiel Wastyn, one of the Belgians with An Post-Chain Reaction getting to grips with the savage nature of the racing by taking second on stage 4, was shell-shocked from the drop of the flag on day one.
“The first day, Emiel crashed and he said to me later: ‘What the fuck is this race?’” says Bogearts. “I said ‘I warned you. You wanted to come. This is only the beginning…’”
Wilson chips in with his own quote from Wastyn, a backhanded compliment if ever there was one: “The guys look like idiots but they keep going and going!”
Heavy roads, constant attacking, five-man teams and those county riders and their race-within-a-race: it’s a combination that produces all-day action. For Emiel Wastyn and the other debutants in Ireland, it’s a matter of tearing up the rulebook and starting from scratch. Make that mental switch and you will truly become a man of the Rás.
“It is very difficult to control because of the five-man teams,” Bogaerts confirms. “And there are the county teams. Okay, they are falling out of the back, but they always come back between the cars, and then they are fighting for position again.
“But it is a good race. A lot of European racing is so controlled these days, it’s boring. In a way, some organisations could take the Rás as an example of how to make it more exciting. For cycling in general to develop and become more attractive, smaller teams are a good thing.”
With only five slots to fill from a squad of 14 riders, there’s going to be some disappointed young men in the team, like Jake Scott and Jasper Bovenhuis, watching the Rás results from afar, wishing they were being given the chance to shine in the team’s home race. How does Bogaerts go about picking a squad when the usual roles of domestique, climber, sprinter, or leader are constrained by the number of bodies? Is it every man for himself?
“You try to ride as a team, but what I like to do is come with five potential winners – for GC, but also guys who have a winning capability from a break. I prefer to ride aggressively. Last year, we won four stages, this year we have been close,” Bogaerts tells me the night before Aaron Gate does the business in Dungarvan.
Of the five men picked for this year’s Rás, only two are Irish – Jack Wilson and national champion Damien Shaw, which I found surprising.
“It’s an Irish race, we are a team with Irish sponsors,” Bogearts explains. “Of course, you need to look at how the Irish guys are going. After the first two years of the team, we decided that being Irish was not the only reason to be selected for this race. Of course, if they are equal, I will opt for the Irish rider. And they need to be willing. If they are not happy to be here, they will not be any good.”
As we stand atop Mount Leinster, the highpoint of this Rás and the obvious place to launch an attack on a thus-far extremely tight top-ten on GC, the Australians come into view first in an audacious move. Team tactics can be deployed despite the limitations of manpower when your men are as talented as these young Aussies. Jai Hindley, fourth overall and just three seconds adrift of yellow jersey and 2014 Rás winner Fankhauser, is leading the way with two team-mates in close order.
Unfortunately for Hindley, the Austrian Fankhauser is unshakable and the fifth man along for the craic is the prodigiously talented Eddie Dunbar, riding for an Irish national squad. The 19-year-old from Cork was an obvious candidate to sign with An Post-Chain Reaction, but this year opted for Axel Merckx’s US-based Axeon team instead – which must have smarted somewhat, especially when the kid who looks like a career as a jockey could be eminently feasible should the cycling game not work out, outsmarts his four breakaway companions and takes a hugely popular stage win in Baltinglass.
For all the apparent uncontrolled nature of racing the Rás, the cream rises inexorably to the top. Dunbar is the crème de la crème. Or the crème fraiche, at least.
Edited extract from issue 64 of Rouleur magazine