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.