Round Ireland in the team car

by William Fotheringham

Words by William Fotheringham | Photos by Sean Rowe

26 years on from taking part in Ireland’s Ras Tailteann, William Fotheringham returned to the race as DS for the Halesowen A&CC Academy-Mapei development team. This is the story of their Ras…

Back in 1997 I was lucky enough to get the chance to ride the Ras, the amateur Tour of Ireland, and I documented that experience in an article for my then employer, Cycling Weekly, entitled, Round Ireland in High Gear. 26 years on, I returned as DS to Halesowen A&CC Academy-Mapei, a development team that I’ve been running in the West Midlands since 2015. In 1997 the Ras was the biggest race I’d ever attempted, by some margin; the same could be said of this year’s Ras for the team I now look after. Relaunched last year after a couple of years break, the Ras Tailteann is now five days as opposed to the previous eight, meaning you don’t get to see quite as much of Ireland, but as we will see, many of the fundamentals remain exactly the same.

Tuesday, May 16, Newgrange Hotel, Navan

It’s been quite the 72 hours since a team helper mailed me on Saturday night to say that he had Covid. Since then I’ve been working my contact book to try and find new help, to no avail; fortunately the organisers have located George Nevin, whose father was a legendary Ras rider in the late 1970s. George will prove to be a tower of strength as the week progresses. The presence of Covid meant we had to pull out one of the riders but luckily we had a reserve in place… until noon on Monday when his team decided the Ras was too risky a proposition. Later in the week, this idea doesn’t seem that dumb. Cue another flurry of phone calls until, at 4pm on Monday, Ben Chilton of Ribble Collective is confirmed. He’s just won the Warwick town centre race and is clearly an adaptable young man; the week will reveal other qualities too. He joins the experienced Jacob Tipper, who has retained his links with Halesowen since his time with us as a junior and whose knowledge of everything from rice cookers to aero kit will be invaluable, academy riders Charlie Genner and Patrick Fotheringham, and Jacob Gilkes, “on loan” from BCC, the Beeston CC race team; Jacob’s father Ian, a Ras stage winner in the 1990s, will spend the week with us checking bikes and handing up bottles. On reflection, I’m as nervous as I was 26 years ago, but this is much more complex as I have seven other people to worry about. At the team manager’s meeting that evening, we are drawn 16 of the 34 teams in the race convoy. That’s the best draw I’ve had so far as a DS; perhaps it’s an omen.

“As we head west from Birr, the roads are insanely twisty with barely a straight yard on them, but there are no crashes, probably because the riders never have time to get out of single file”

Wednesday, May 17, Shamrock Lodge Hotel, Athlone

After a ceremonial start at the Bective Stud outside Navan, who sponsor the yellow jersey, there is barely time to catch breath before the mayhem starts. 20 kilometres out, a massive crash splits the field; Tipper (pictured below) and Charlie are in the back group of about 40. They lose roughly a minute, and spend about 30 kilometres drifting up and back through the cars. There’s one classic Ras line-out in a stretch of crosswind just before the feed, after which Ben helps form a break of five which swells into a group of over 20 with all the race favourites in there. When the gap goes over 2min, George and I overtake the bunch – always nerve-wracking – and get Ben a bottle. That done, we agree with Richardsons-Trek – whose Conor McGoldrick will win the stage and wear yellow until the final day – that they will look after him; to reciprocate, we will drop back to the bunch and help if any of their riders need anything. On the long, steep climb of the Wolf Trap in the Slieve Bloom mountains, Ben drops back to the front part of the bunch, where Jacob Gilkes is showing his climbing skill. At the finish, Ben and Jacob are both in a very select group behind the remains of the break, 31st and 34th respectively, with Charlie and Tipper not far behind. Patrick finishes well down, complaining that his lungs feel the same as the last time he had Covid, so we run a rapid lateral flow test; cue massive relief when the single line appears.

Thursday, May 18, Treacy’s West County Hotel, Ennis

As we head west from Birr, the roads are insanely twisty with barely a straight yard on them, but there are no crashes, probably because the riders never have time to get out of single file. When the climbs start, we nurse Patrick into a gruppetto, ensuring he will finish the stage. After crossing the Shannon at Ballina, we make our way along the shores of Lough Dearg and into some very empty hills in East Clare. Just as the series of third and second cat climbs in the finale starts, we are called forward; Jacob Gilkes has crashed heavily on a corner after touching a wheel. He’s fallen on his hands and is in some pain, his knee is cut, his bike is in a tangle, and it takes an age to get him going. His GC challenge has ended in an instant, and it’s not the simplest job to make sure he has joined up with a backmarker group where Tipper can escort him to the end of the stage. Up front, Ben has made the front group on draggy roads that suit his powerful frame, and he tries to get away in the finale to the outskirts of Ennis; he misses out but jumps to 21st overall, so the car moves up to 12th in the convoy. On the down side, I get a fine from the commissaires for giving Tipper a sticky bottle at an inappropriate moment, but it’s all part of the learning process.

In the pub that evening, I meet a former rider who asks about the article I wrote in Cycling Weekly in 1997. In it, I described the strangest thing I saw in the race, a rider in the gruppetto taking a cigarette out of a jersey pocket and pretending to light up. Drum roll… he is that man; the cigarette was a fake and the whole episode was planned to wind up the gruppetto. Which it did. Much of the pub, including me, collapses in gales of laughter. That non-smoker is Cian Lynch, now the voice of the Ras. This is, probably, the strangest thing to happen all week.

Friday, May 19, AirBnB, Ballyglass, County Mayo

The start is relaxed; the riders gently pedal the mile from the hotel, only getting lost once, and there is a café for them to chill out before the flag drops. That’s as good as it gets. The rest of the stage is carnage. The crashes start after a few miles, and continue almost without a break until the last gruesome pile-up at two miles to go. By the finish, the front of the race is down to 40 riders, and George and I have seen every kind of nasty you can imagine. It’s a constant process when the announcement comes of a crash: pray none of our riders are involved, pull up abruptly while the medics clear the road, pass with great care, then drive hard to regain the back of the peloton, overtaking the stragglers. Once there, it’s constant attention in the rear view mirrors as the backmarkers work their way past. Tipper is caught up behind the first crash in the opening kilometres; he and a small group take 20 kilometres to regain the bunch. Not long after there’s a massive pile-up, leaving him and Jacob well behind the bunch, while Charlie is a little further ahead, but none of them look likely to regain contact. Why is all this happening? I’ve seen it in other races, where there’s a bad crash, riders get nervous, the nerves increase the speed and the desperation to be at the front, causing more crashes in one brutal vicious circle. Meanwhile, Ben is in a strong move, putting pressure on McGoldrick and his team before, eventually, they are caught. Charlie reappears in the side mirror 10 kilometres from the finish; he and his small group have chased for 60 kilometres. The final mass pile-up comes, cruelly, at 3.5 kilometre to go, and will see last year’s winner Daire Feeley forced out with concussion; shortly afterwards, the race turns onto a side road, and Ben attacks, gaining 10sec. For a few minutes, the stage win beckons, then he is swept up; moving up to 17th overall is scant consolation. At the finish, Patrick is 21st, quite a ride for the lanterne rouge on a stage completed at 29.8mph. We join the other race vehicles in the gridlock in Castlebar centre, eventually spotting the riders in a garage forecourt. Waiting there is a wise move on their part, as we can nip into the shop and provide them with sugary snacks. Then it’s off to a quiet AirBnB deep in the County Mayo countryside, where to the boys’ delight there is a full poker set. That’s their evening sorted.

Saturday, May 20, AirBnB, Castle Leslie Estate, Co Monaghan

The longest stage of the race is the most “routine” of the five, although it’s still run off at nearly 29.4mph. Four of ours finish in the peloton and there’s a bizarre crash for Patrick in which he is avoiding a fallen rider when a helper comes out of the roadside and piles into the rider in front. Evasive action takes him into a nettle and bramble patch. Memo to self: next time, put some sting cream in the first aid kit. For once, Ben isn’t in the break, which again forces McGoldrick and Richardson’s-Trek to dig deep. But having got this far, all our riders should now finish. Tonight, I’m sharing a B&B with the Moynalty cycling club, from north of Dublin. They’re not one of Ireland’s biggest clubs, but they have a wealth of small sponsors – who will be prominent at the roadside on Sunday – and they’re in their second Ras. The resources they are putting in are remarkable; six helpers and three vehicles to our three and two. They have two physios who deal with the starts and finishes, two lads doing the feeds, with the help of “the scarecrow”, a fluorescent club jersey on a long pole to let the riders know exactly where the bottles are. One rider has endured two heavy crashes in two days, hitting the back of a team car on a narrow bridge on Friday, and piling into a traffic island today. He’s landed on the same side on both occasions. As we leave for Sunday’s start, he limps to the car and someone tells him the pain he feels now is as nothing compared to how it will feel racing. That’s tough love for you.

Sunday, May 21, Premier Inn, Holyhead

Our Ras ends in fine style. After a welter of attacking on the hilly roads out of Monaghan in increasingly heavy rain, Ben infiltrates a break including eventual winner Dillion Corkery, a break to which McGoldrick and his team have no answer. On the technical finishing circuit at Blackrock, Ben is a driving force as the move splits, with five going clear. Up front, Ben finishes fourth behind stage winner Finn Crockett of Foyle, moving up to 14th overall. Given he didn’t even imagine he was riding a week ago, that’s a huge ride over the five days. Our other four all make it to the circuit in the peloton and qualify as finishers.  Afterwards, there’s a leisurely sort-out and repacking of the vehicles before a pizza and the late ferry to North Wales. As we wait at the port with the Wheelbase and Cycling Sheffield teams, someone brings out a football and the boys have a kick about in the holding area. I’m amazed they have any energy left.

Our Ras would not have been possible without:

George Nevin for stepping in at the last minute and being a tower of strength all week.

Ribble Collective and BCC/Beeston for releasing Ben Chilton and Jacob Gilkes for the five days.

Secret Training for fuelling the team with copious amounts of Big Energy drink, bottles, gels and protein drink.

Thanks also to HACC Academy sponsors Mapei UK, ProVision, Fenwicks, BikeStow, BroadBean Deli and Fleur au Soleil Gite for their continuing support.

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