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.
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.