More 'RAS' Stories
By Gerard Cromwell (Dec 7)
It usually began with the packing of an old brown suitcase. It looked like it had seen better days. The brown fake leather was peeling off in patches and you could see a kind of laminated cardboard underneath. There were stickers covering some of these patches and on the front and back, written in thick black marker, were the words: G. HOWARD MEATH.
My aunty Kay would take lots of short sleeved cycling jerseys out of the hot press and pass them to my uncle, who would then decide whether he would need each one individually. The same was done with the black woollen cycling shorts, the leather mitts with the mesh on the front and the strange looking Velcro straps. The rain capes, the gloves, the caps, all were analysed and scrutinised before they made their way into the case. It wasn't a very big suitcase, not by today's standards anyway, and I often wondered how the hell he was going to fit all those rolled up tubular tyres on top of his clothes and cycling gear.
The packing of the suitcase was a ceremonial thing. For me it meant there were only a few days before I would get a spin on my uncle's shiny, sparkly, much-too-big-for-me racing bike. At first I was so small he would hold me on the saddle and push me down the driveway with my legs dangling freely like a parachutist who'd just been entangled in a tree branch. The tyres always looked far too skinny to be safe and were pumped up so hard you could hear them ping if you flicked them with your finger. For my Aunty the packing of the case meant that she wouldn't get to see her husband for eight days. The same went for my cousins, who all got a spin on the bike in turn. My little cousin Seamus had to make do with standing on one pedal at first, but he didn't seem to mind. They wouldn't see their daddy for nine whole days, but if they were lucky they might hear his name on the radio or see a picture of him in the paper during that time. For my uncle it meant one thing. The biggest event of his year was about to begin. The Rás was coming.
As I grew up, I was told my uncle won the longest stage in 1965. I wasn't even born then. I took up cycling myself as an under 16 and began to meet people from all over Ireland. People who cycled and who had ridden the Rás. I wanted to ride it. I wanted to win a stage, to be a man of the Rás. Sé O Hanlon was one of the people I met as I mingled in the cycling fraternity as a youngster. Sé O'Hanlon was a good cyclist. Correction: Sé O Hanlon was a great cyclist. I knew that much. I bought my first racer from him. Gene Mangan: I spent a day in a van with him and my uncle following a race when I was a kid. He was from Kerry and he was great too. Paddy Flanagan, Bobby Power, Billy Kerr, even my Da knew their names and he had no interest in cycling as far as I knew. That's all I knew. Until last week.
Last week I finished reading The Rás: Ireland's Unique Bike Race by Tom Daly. I found out that Sé O'Hanlon had not only won the Rás three years in a row, but he had held the yellow jersey every day from one Rás to the other in the process! Gene Mangan rode 140 miles on a brand new bike as a 14 year old! For the next two years he won the Kerry County Championship and a few years later won the Rás itself. He is a legend in Irish cycling, winning no less than 12 stages of this great race. I know him. He gave me a spin in his van! Micky Nulty, who is a member of my club now as a veteran, won two stages in 1973. I never knew that and I speak to him most weekends!
Tom Daly's book unveils some of the hidden secrets of Irish cycling's past and introduces a whole new generation to the romantic, idealistic world of Irish cycling and it's superstars of the time. Beginning in 1953, the Ras Tailteann started out as a two-day event. Supported by the GAA and promoting republican ideals, the first Rás was won by the organiser's brother. After a stern warning that the future of the race could be in jeopardy as there were no prizes for the winner, Colm, the younger of the Christle brothers succeeded in holding off numerous attacks on the run-in to Dublin from Wexford to save the family name and indeed the race.
Just one year later the Ras was upgraded to an eight-day event and regularly drew crowds of between ten and twenty thousand people to stage finishes. An estimated forty thousand people saw Sé O'Hanlon win his third Rás in the Phoenix Park in 1967. The training habits and lifestyles of the competitors in the early Rás' make for compelling reading. Tales of attacks on the race by the RUC and local protestants in Cookstown, the introduction of foreign teams and the martyr-like qualities of the NCA men who, in the early days had foregone all chance of international selection because of their belief that all Irish cyclists should be allowed race together (The international governing body had split Ireland into North and South) gave the 'Men of the Rás' an esteemed place in the eyes of the nation. Local riders were hero-worshipped and people stood slack-jawed at the accents and dress of those from 'far away' counties.
Now one of the world's oldest and best known stage races, the Rás draws riders from all over the world to compete with Ireland's best county teams. It has produced world champions, Olympic champions and Tour de France stage winners and it's race organiser, Dermot Dignam has recently won an award from the UCI for his efforts. Tom Daly captures the essence of the race, in both words and pictures, many previously unpublished. Backed up by interviews, anecdotes and results from each Ras to date, the book tells one of the great, untold stories of Irish sport. With Christmas just around the corner, the book is a steal at 30euros and is available in all good book shops and the Collins Press and is the perfect gift for the cyclist who has everything.
As for the brown suitcase, it went into hiding until 1990 when I rode my first and only Rás at the age of 20. I just crossed out the word HOWARD and put CROMWELL instead. I survived the nine days and ten stages that year and the one good thing about it was I never had to go looking for it in a pile of identical suitcases. It stood out like a sore thumb. After reading the Rás book, I almost feel motivated enough to ride another one. Now, I have my own shiny, sparkly, just-the-right-size-for-me bike with tyres that ping if you flick them. I have lots of short sleeve jerseys and shorts. Now if only I could find that suitcase!