The AN Post Rás. It was probably the highlight of my 2011 season, so I had high expectations coming into the 2012 edition of the race. Last year I rode for the Irish national team but this year I was taking to the start line in the often-described-as ‘feckin brilliant’ black and white jersey of Rapha Condor Sharp.
I flew over to Dublin by myself to meet the rest of the team who were driving from Manchester. As soon as I arrived one of the lads noticed how much I was smiling. It isn’t just the tough unpredictable racing that makes the Ras such an enjoyable week, the atmosphere amongst all the teams and staff is something I’ve only experienced at this race. The Irish always know how to have a good time and it’s definitely the attitude of people that plays a large part in a good atmosphere that always keeps teams eager to return.
Looking back at the past winners of the race, it’s not a surprise that the team are well known in this part of the world. However, this year Rapha Condor Sharp has taken a completely different approach – focusing on the development of younger riders. The Ras squad was no exception with our eldest rider being 23, which I’m sure would give us the youngest average age of any team competing. The lineup consisted of; Rich Lang our Aussie climber/sprinter/everything’er, Chris Jennings our South African climbing specialist, big Ben Grenda our strong man from Tasmania, Rich Handley the British rider who can also do much pretty anything and finally me, Felix ‘the local’ from Ireland (and Brighton).
The first few days of the race consisted of 140km+ stages with tough rolling roads. We all rode aggressively trying to get at least one black jersey in every break. However, it quickly became apparent that the Ras was going to live up to its potential of being unlike any other race in the calendar. Break after break would try to escape but each attempt was swallowed up. The roads in Ireland are always rolling and usually have a rough broken surface, which made the averaged speeds of over 48km/h every day in the first hour pretty unbelievable.
Every stage of the Ras from beginning to end is like the first 10km of every other normal race – relentless attacks with everyone wanting to get in on the action. Straight away it was apparent that this year’s race was to be tougher than the 2011 edition. There was a lot more strength in the international teams, which meant you had a lot more riders strong enough to attack and consequently a lot more riders strong enough to close the gaps.
Rich Handley fought his way into the successful breakaway of stage two and finished with a 28 second advantage over the rest of the U23 peloton. It doesn’t seem like much, especially at such an early stage of the race, but this smart move from Rich proved to be decisive. With no time bonuses available, the only way for the race favourites to take time out of Rich was to either get away in a break (difficult now with teams wanting to desperately defend their slender advantage) or they’d have to ride away from him on the tougher climbs. Luckily for us, no one in the race was capable of doing that.
As the week progressed we became more and more organised. John kept us on our toes with tactical advice each night and our jobs were simple. Myself and Grenda were to follow all the early moves, disrupt the breakaways and, if needs be, close gaps to any splits or breaks that contained dangerous riders. Langy and Chris had to keep Rich up at the front of the race and then take over the job from myself and Ben in the last few km’s. Rich’s job of having to always be at the front was probably the most stressful – having your team mates work solely for you adds a lot of extra pressure but it was clear that was our best chance of securing the white jersey, so it we were all fully committed to him.
This organisation made things easier for us mentally as well. It’s a great feeling when you know you can ride at 100% to close a gap for your team leader, safe in the knowledge that one of your teammates will be there to immediately back you up and cover the next attack. Morale within the team was high all week, which definitely makes a big impact on the way you race together. Being able to have a laugh in the evenings and forget about the race for a few hours has a very positive effect.
Rich rode well over the very steep climbs of stages five and six and held onto the U23white jersey. One climb in particular was like nothing I’ve ever seen before – Mamore Gap on stage five. It was towards the end of a 160km day, and it must be over 30% in places. A few of us took the decision to ride 28t cassettes but I still struggled to make it over the top. It was 2-3km long and easily the hardest climb I’ve ridden. I had to ride hard in the first 2-3 hours of the stage to contain breakaways and generally try and make Rich’s life as easy as possible. Finishing the job riding over the line in Skerries was one of the best feelings I’ve had on a bike. Thanks to all my team mates, Rich, Ben, Langy and Chris for a great week. Also thanks to John, Ian, Rob and Iona for keeping us in line and for keeping it fun.
This is my first blog for a while and I think it comes at an appropriate time of my season. My last blog took us up to the end of our second team training camp. This point marked the end of my winter training and the beginning of my 2012 racing season. I had already spent 3-4 weeks away with my new team mates and as the start of the season drew closer, the exciting talks of racing were growing evermore common. Personally I couldn’t wait to take off the legwarmers and get stuck in.
My season started relatively quietly with a local 25 mile TT. A very cold Sunday morning in Sussex marked my first race, where I was entitled to proudly pull on my Rapha Condor Sharp skinsuit for the first time. Although the TT itself was hugely uncomfortable and not particularly quick, it felt good to lay down a definitive marker and I can now monitor my improvement as the year progresses. More importantly it meant the season had now officially started.
My first big race for the team was the UCI 2.1 classified Tour de Taiwan. But before I jetted off to the other side of the globe, I was looking to fit in a few more races to help ease the always painful transition from training to racing. I was lucky enough to be given the offer to stay up North with my team mate Rich Handley – I got to know Rich quite well after sharing a room with for the duration of our first training camp in Lanzarote. It appears I didn’t annoy him too much first time round, so he was willing to accommodate me at his home for a weekend of training and racing. Along with a few of our other team mates, we raced in the Eddie Soens Memorial and CDNW Pimbo circuit races. I was pleasantly surprised with how I felt in the season openers and picked up 6th on the Saturday and 9th on the Sunday.
Tuesday afternoon I was dropped off at Manchester Airport to meet the members of the team I was travelling to Asia with; Luke (Mellor), Andy (Tennant) and Pete (Taylor). You can always sense the disappointment of the person behind the check-in desk at the airport who has to deal with us and this time was no exception as we had quite a large entourage of baggage to stow away on the plane; 7 bike bags, 8 suitcases and 1 very lanky rider. Our flight plan would add a few more pins into the chart on my wall with the journey taking us from Manchester to Amsterdam to Bangkok and finally to Taipei.
With no apparent signs of jet lag on arrival, the few days we had before the start of the race flew by. A few short rides, lots of Starbucks coffee, birthday cake purchasing, press conferences and probably too much twitter were what filled my time. After receiving our race programme it quickly became apparent that we weren’t going to be waking up any later than 6am at any point during the race. I generally don’t have a problem with early starts and here was no different but I did find myself struggling to stay awake past 9:30 most evenings.
Stage 1 was a short, very wet 55km crit around the centre of Taipei city. The short distance, bad weather and tight corners suited my style of riding quite a lot. I was pretty nervous before the start – as John picked up on when I couldn’t stop fidgeting – as I didn’t really have any idea how I was going to compare to the highest ranked field I’d ever raced against. I was fortunate enough to be given a nice initiation into this level of racing with a fast but comfortable first stage where I picked up 4th in the bunch sprint, which was good enough for 10th on the stage. However, the following few stages weren’t as kind.
The next 3 days involved me suffering, wheel sucking and trying my best not to get dropped from the main group too early. Even after a nice first stage, in my head I knew I was going to take a bit of a kicking. Last year whilst stage racing, although I experienced some good stages I also experienced a lot of bad days where I was struggling from the start to the very end of the stage. Naturally, taking a step up from the racing I did last year I expected it to be harder, so I think not underestimating how hard it was going to be was what helped me get through those first few days. I wasn’t panicking about my performances at night and wasn’t dreading getting up for the race in the morning – quite the contrary as although I wasn’t performing as well as the rest of the team, I was still loving the racing.
After a tough 5 days and my personal goal of reaching the finish of the race nearly complete, I was given the opportunity of trying to get in the days break away. Stage 6 was my best chance, when the break was let go within the first couple of km’s. This marked for me, personally my worst day of the tour. Sitting in the bunch steadily riding along knowing I could’ve been in the break wasn’t a nice feeling and to top off a very long drawn out day, I got burnt to a crisp by the sudden heat wave shortly after the start – 35 degree sun and pale Irish skin without any suncream is a terrible combination. After the disappointment of not capitalizing on my role of getting in the early break-away on stage 6, I was determined to rectify that on stage 7 and must’ve followed over 10 attacks within the first hour but to no avail. The not too shabby average speed of 49 km/h probably had something to do with that. The end of the race was tarred with an unfortunate event. A fast technical finish looked to be the perfect end to our tour, with Deano [Dean Downing] and Ben (Grenda) both up well within the top 10 with 500m to go but some bad dangerous riding from another rider saw Ben being taken down and bouncing down the tarmac on his ass. Not a nice end to Ben’s tour, especially after his solid performances taking a 5th and a 6th.
Looking back now I am pretty satisfied that I got through the race. I loved the experience and it felt great to finally get involved in some racing after months of excitedly anticipating lining up with my new team mates. International stage racing has definitely become one of my most favourite aspects of the sport in the last few years. I relish the way the team comes together throughout the race to help each other achieve the best results possible and to get each other through the lows as well as the highs is something that I haven’t yet experienced anywhere else. Although in the Tour de Taiwan I was at times disappointed that I wasn’t able to help my team mates more, I think the experience gained there will stand be in good stead for the rest of the season.
From this moment I have quite a busy 4 weeks ahead of me. This Saturday (24th March) I’m racing for the first time since Taiwan in a short hilly circuit race in East London. I then move to my next race with the team the following Sunday – the Dengie Marsh classic premier calendar. After that I fly to Belfast for the 4 day stage race: the Tour of the North. Finally, I fly out to Holland to compete in the ZLM U23 Nations Cup event, where I will be riding my first race of 2012 for the Irish National team. A busy, but very exciting few weeks ahead and I can’t wait to get racing again.
After the success of the previous camp, I had high expectations for our second camp of the year and it didn’t disappoint. It was my first time meeting the 3 new international additions to the team for 2012; Ben Grenda, Rich Lang and Chris Jennings. The 3 guys fitted into the team immediately – probably helped by the ‘Twitter banter’ which started before we’d even met the guys and has kept everyone entertained both at home and whilst together on camp. Our stay in Benidorm was scheduled by the boss to get us race fit, just before we kick start our racing season. The harder efforts were a bit of a shock to the system, in contrary to the laid back steady riding I had become accustomed to over the winter and whilst out in Lanzarote. This time around I wasn’t nervous about the camp, but I had a small amount of doubt at the back of my mind about how I was going to perform after training was interrupted when the UK skies decided to snow. I’m writing this now about 10,000 feet up in the air, wedged into my Ryanair seat (thankfully I’m on the shorter side so I have some leg room, unlike a few of my longer team mates), flying towards London Stansted (or knowing Ryanair, somewhere within a 50 mile radius) in preparation for our team launch at Sharp HQ. Our mechanics and soigneurs are currently driving north through Spain heading towards the French border. With our bikes being driven back home, it means each of us only has to worry about getting our suitcases and a pair of sore and heavy legs back home to the UK, sometimes easier said than done.
With a total of 9 training days, the camp was split up into two four day blocks with one rest day. This alone was going to make the camp harder, and with the added bonus of specific TT, hill and leadout efforts it was destined to produce; aching legs, stiff backs and tired bodies. Along with the different style of training, we had our team nutritionist Mayur over for a few days, examining our meals and checking our skinfolds – which always brings competitiveness from everybody. We’ve decided that Luke has to be removed from the competition as he puts us all to shame! The presence of an all you can eat buffet meant that Mayur was definitely necessary to keep us in shape and to make sure we were getting the most of what we were putting into our bodies. The combination of Mayur’s advice at the dinner table and the support from Science In Sport, every rider has got through the tough camp without picking up any illnesses and we’ve all seen the ever welcome improvements in our skin folds.
The setup in Benidorm was different to the self-catering apartments we had out in Lanzarote. We had smaller rooms with 2-3 people in each, which I think suited this type of camp a lot better. There was also the huge bonus of having free wifi in every room. Having access to wifi always make for a more relaxing stay – the ability to lie in bed, flicking about the interweb after a hard days riding is priceless. This time around I was rooming with Mr Deano Downing. I learnt a lot throughout the week just from chatting to Dean about the upcoming season, and the expectations this team has. All of the talk of racing throughout the week, has every rider on the team chomping at the bit and super excited about pinning our first set of race numbers on the back of our Rapha Condor Sharp jerseys.
Along with the other stuff going on, we had the Rapha film competition winner Andrew with us for the duration of the camp. He’s producing a short film of the team, which will show the ins and outs of a Rapha Condor Sharp training camp. After seeing some of the shots he’s picked up over the week, I can’t wait to the see the finished product. A few of the days involved Andrew filming out the back of the Skoda team car with the boot open, whilst we chased him down one of the particularly fast and windy descents. All good fun!
Training throughout the week was kept simple and we made sure we got some essential race prep work done. I won’t bore you with the specifics but as I said earlier we worked on a 4 days on, 1 day off schedule. The first 3 days were each between 90-100km, with the first day working on TT efforts, the second day working on threshold hill efforts, the third day – my favourite of the block – was leadout/sprint day and finally we ended with a steady endurance day. We each worked on our efforts individually as it was clear from the beginning of the camp that we are all different in our abilities in certain areas – as expected with our age gaps and variety of different types of riders. The steady (sometimes not so steady for me when the Aussies got to the front) endurance day took us on a nice loop around the surrounding mountains, allowing us to clock up 160km in 5:30 hours with 3000m of climbing. Each ride was always a good laugh and with a few coveted ‘Strava segment sprints’ being contested there was always a good flow of conversation between everyone – saying that I was communicating considerably less on some of the climbs… not out of choice.
All in all, another highly successful camp. All of us are buzzing for the start of the 2012 racing season and judging by the way a lot of the guys were riding it won’t be long until we have a few wins under our belts either.
I’ve sat down to write this blog 3 times now over the past week but failed on each occasion. Finally, sat down with a nice cup of tea and I’m ready to start rambling.
I posted a bunch of pictures from the first rest day on our team training camp last week, so I’ll kick things off by talking about what I got up to in Lanzarote with Rapha Condor Sharp.
There were a decent number of us involved the camp with 8 riders, John, Ken- one of our teams coaches, Andy- our soigneur, Pete- our mechanic and Camille- our team photographer from SHARP. Straight from the off everyone got on really well and conversation flowed easily from when we got up in the morning to when went to sleep at night. I think this transferred directly into how we rode as a team, even from our first ride together. It was made clear by John from the very start of the week that this camp was to be used to practice and hone our skills riding together properly as a team. There was no intent from anyone to try and prove themselves physically stronger or fitter than anyone else on the rides. If one of us was having a bad day, then the group would alter its pace to ensure that everyone was looked after. This mutual respect made performing and perfecting the technical aspect of our riding a lot easier. We did a series of sub-maximal efforts throughout the week including some through and off blocks and a few lead out sprints. Pretty much everything went to plan, which was surprising seeing as some of the things we were doing can be quite tricky whilst riding in the very strong winds Lanzarote is famous for. Saying that, I let the team down on one of the days… whilst sat on the back of the group I got blown off the road and then couldn’t hop back up again! Whilst it was happening I thought that it was crazy winds and I had a picture in my head of me leaning at 45 degrees, heroically managing to avoid crashing. However, to my disappointment Camille had everything on video. So after being shown it I was disappointed to see nothing crazy happens, it’s just clear that I’m just not very good at riding a bike. We had one other unfortunate moment at the beginning of the camp where Deano’s tyre blew out and sent him flying off the back of his bike! It was a fast stretch of road where we were riding at 50km/h but I think the unlucky Deano got off quite lucky in the circumstances, after only just recovering from an operation on his collar bone and somehow managing to avoid falling on his side and without landing in the endless amount of volcanic rock by the roadside- that stuff is lethal looking! Andy did a great job patching him up each day, but it still looked so painful. Climbing onto his bike each day with wounds the sides of dinner plates on both sides of his ass, made you think twice about complaining how your legs were a little bit tired!
Overall, it was a great camp. Had a good laugh with everyone, felt good on the bike, enjoyed the sun and clocked up some good km’s in the process. I’ve been home now for 5 days and haven’t really been up too much. Took a few days off the bike and then started riding again a couple of days ago.
As well as riding together well, we also looked the part (never sacrifice style for speed was mentioned a few times). We all had our matching custom Condor Leggero road bikes, our Rapha team kit and our brand new Giro gear- Aeon helmets and Prolight SLX road shoes – which are particularly nice, with Easton EC90 carbon soles and 3 Velcro straps, as I was really not a fan of the ratchets that continuously broke on the shoes I had last season!
I’m at home now for a couple of weeks before heading off to Benidorm for our second training camp in early February. I am expecting this camp to be entirely different to the one he had in Lanzarote. Although I’m sure we’ll still be working on the technical stuff, the main objective of the camp is get physically ready for the racing season, which starts a few days after arriving back. I think this one is going to be a bit of a shock to the system and I reckon us younger guys will be doing a bit/a lot of suffering! Looking forward to it though.
My racing programme kicks off with a TT and some road racing up in Manchester. I’m staying up with one of my team mates for the week, so it will us the opportunity to race together as a team for the first time. I then jet off to the Tour of Taiwan in mid-March. The race has upgraded to a UCI 2.1 – which is the highest category race I’ll have ever ridden. The race website mentions teams such as SaxoBank and Europcar could be riding.
I’ll stop myself from rattling on now. Going to go indulge and have a Yakult.
Thanks for reading,
Been a good few days here in Lanzarote with the Rapha Condor Sharp team. Today was a rest day so I took the opportunity to take a few photos on our 2 hour spin.
@timkennaugh has been on fine form the last few days
Out on the road with @raphacondor Sharp
Our @raphacondor Sharp team bikes prepared to ride by our mechanic Pete
Coffee stop in the Spanish sun this morning after a recovery spin
@dean0downing came down pretty hard yesterday but was back out on the bike today
@Jimmy_mach10 ready for the coffee spin this morning
Smooth roads and interesting scenery make for enjoyable rides
SiS keeping us hydrated during the hot weather
It's been nice and warm everyday - bare arms and legs!
@camillemcmillan from Sharp is here in Lanzarote to take videos and pictures (don't worry they're much better than mine!)
@mike_cuming has picked up a bad habit of making it look too easy
We've ridden well together from the very first ride
Twitter Rapha Rogues Gallery:
I have been a bit lax on the blogging front over the past few weeks. I’ve been busy sorting things out with my new team Rapha Condor Sharp, and also getting some important base training done. I’ve been mainly tackling the cold and usually wet Sussex road by myself. I had a spell of 2-3 weeks where I was doing 4-5 hour spins on a regular basis. I backed off just before Christmas when I was starting to feel tired. I then had an easy week between Christmas and New Year to properly recharge the batteries before tackling the second and final part of the Winter.
Since going up to the Claremont Hospital in Sheffield with the team I have found out that I am deficient in both Iron and Vitamin D. So I am now on the correct supplements to set this right – this highlights how important having a partner like Claremont is to the team. Even more so when one of my team mates broke his collar-bone and he was able to be checked and have surgery within a week of the accident.
Christmas and New Year for me was very relaxed. I stayed at home and enjoyed some good food, some bad telly and some very steady road rides. I’ve also had Camille and Tom Southam – our team photographer and press officer– come down to the house for interviews and photographs. On a second visit I was chasing Camille on his motorbike (hooked up with cameras) around Beachy Head in horrific conditions. Again, the team have been so efficient getting all of this done already! Plus, the press/journalism side is something that also interests me quite a lot.
As I’m writing this I’m sat on a plane with my team-mate Oliver Rossi flying over to Lanzarote for our first team training camp. The rest of the team would have already landed and probably won’t be far from the hotel at this point. I’ve been looking forward to this camp for a while and can’t wait to get out on the road with my new team mates. The Spanish sun and 22+ degrees temperature will also be a nice bonus. I’m not sure yet what the plan is training wise but I’ve heard mention of; race radios, lead out practice and coffee – so I’m a happy boy!
My first race with the team will be the Tour of Taiwan mid-March. The team’s position in the race was looking doubtful but we had a nice surprise a few weeks ago when we received an entry. After doing some research on the race and looking at picture from the past few years it looks like a pretty big event! It’ll be the biggest race I’ll have competed in anyway. There was a prologue TT last year – 2km = 1 lap of the crit course – but it appears to have been removed for this year’s edition, which is a bit of a disappointment, but then again I won’t be short of things to be thinking about with seven stages! There’s a good mix of hard hilly courses, a couple of sprint stages and a 60km crit on the final day. The team has had success in the past few years it has done it, so let’s hope we can replicate it this year.
In other English related news; I got to meet Edith Bowman from BBC Radio 1 whilst we were both working at an event at the Olympic Velodrome! I even got my name mentioned on her next show – this had me very happy for a 24 hours! I also got to meet the ‘voice over guy’ from the X Factor, Pete Dickson. Family wise, my Sister [Kimberley] finished her cross season on Saturday taking a top 10 in the National Cross Championships. She’s been training hard over the past months with the British Cycling Talent Team – there may be some conflicts this year in the household with myself riding for Ireland and my little Sister riding for GB. My Dad is in training for the Wicklow 200 this year. It’s a 200km sportif over some pretty savage terrain. All I know is my Dad was out on the bike this morning at 8am for a planned 100 mile spin!! At least there’s 1 athlete in the house…
I’ll leave it at that for now as my battery is starting to die, and I quite fancy shutting my eyes for 20 minutes before we land. I will do my best to do a couple of updates whilst I’m out in Lanzarote.
Thanks for reading, hope you had a good New Year,