THE REAL MEN OF THE RAS
By Gerard Cromwell (May 14)
This Sunday, over 120 of Ireland's and the world's top cyclists will converge on O'Connell St. Dublin, just outside the GPO for this year's FBD Milk Rás. Since it's inception in 1953, the Rás Táilteann, as it was then known, has grown into one of the best pro-am stage races in the world today. The eight-day stage race regularly attracts the cream of world cycling and can boast of being a breeding ground for top professionals and even future Tour De France stage winners.
Patrick Jonker won the King of the Mountains title in the 1990 Ras and has gone on to become one of Australia's top pro's and has since ridden for the US Postal team at the request of none other than triple Tour De France winner Lance Armstrong among other teams. What cycling fan can forget watching the lone figure of Giuseppe Guerini attacking on the Alpe D'Huez stage of the 1999 Tour, only to be knocked down by an over-zealous fan trying to get a photo. Guerini gave him a close-up alright. He rode straight into him! Luckily, for the fans sake, the Italian pro was uninjured and had enough time to remount and take the stage win. Guerini had no such hindrance in Naas in 1992 as he took his Rás stage win from teammate and now fellow professional Vladimir Belli.
But the Rás is not all about top foreign riders coming over here and winning our race. 1998 saw Waterford's Ciaran Power take the overall honours. Since then Power has gone on to record some fine results as a professional, including two top-five placings on stages of the three-week Giro D'Italia. On a break from racing with his American-based Navigators squad, Power came home to lead Team Ireland to Rás victory last year and will be hoping to repeat the feat this time around. Stage winner into Killorglin two years ago, Mark Scanlon now plies his trade in the pro peleton for the Ag2r team in France and if current form is anything to go by then a ride in this year's Tour De France is beckoning the young Sligoman. Last year, Mayo's David O'Loughlin was lying in second place overall before succumbing to food poisoning midway through the race. This year O'Loughlin is a professional rider for the American OFOTO-Lombardi Sports team and will join Power on the Irish team as co-leader.
In fact the Rás is unique in that the majority of teams are made up of county selections and there are even two separate classifications overall for teams- one for international teams and one for county teams. As anyone who has ever stood at a Rás stage finish and heard the commentary of Ray Kennedy will know, these men are regarded as the real 'Men of the Rás'. These riders are amateurs in the true sense of the word. They sacrifice a normal lifestyle to enable them to merely finish the FBD Milk Ras.
For these guys, training starts around December with four to six-hour endurance spins on cold, damp weekend mornings and builds up gradually in intensity until a week or two before the race. These two weeks will be used as a recuperation period in the hope that the riders can store up enough energy to get them through eight days of long miles, constant attacks, high mountains, crosswinds, echelons, punctures, crashes, lineouts and whatever the Irish weather has to throw at them!
If that wasn't enough, off the bike there are other strains. The early mornings - breakfast is usually consumed three hours before stage start to allow for digestion - a different bed every night, endless bowls of pasta, endless rivers of energy drinks, snoring teammates, the everyday race to get the hot water first for a post stage shower, and the constant effort of trying to keep all your cycling gear clean and dry in time for the next days racing all take their toll on an already fatigued body.
What makes it even more remarkable is that these eight days are usually a county rider's holidays from work! Not many others would swop two weeks in the Costa del Sunshine for eight days on a bike with their arse in the air and their nose on the handlebars for over 100 miles a day, cursing some Dutchman who is going like a motorbike across the Connemara landscape in the lashings of rain!
English rider Fred Bamforth was asked what he thought of the Irish countryside one year. "It just looks like a cyclists arse to me!" came the reply. These guys aren't here for the scenery. They've trained for four or five hours a day since January to ride this race. Imagine that for one moment. A normal working day, excluding overtime, is eight hours. Perhaps it takes you half an hour to get to work and the same to get home. You need to sleep for at least eight hours and you train for another four. That's 21 hours in total, leaving you with a whole three hours to do the menial things in life like eat, wash, get changed, spend a bit of time with the wife/ girlfriend and maybe get to watch a bit of telly if you're lucky! Remember, these county riders do it for nothing, except the love of the sport and the chance to be one of the 'Men of the Rás'. To be able to say "I finished the Rás" is an achievement in itself.
So if you're on the route of this year's FBD Milk Ras and you see a group of cold, wet, tired and bedraggled looking souls coming into view, cheer them on. Encourage them! That's all they want, to know that someone appreciates the effort they put in. Because, next week, they are not factory workers, sales reps, farmers, or bricklayers. Next week they are heroes. Next week they are the real 'Men of the Ras'.