Friday, June 6, 2014

Ras Epilogue: Eating the wolf.

Okay, so it's Thursday night, and we're all in a crowded hotel bar in Clonakilty.  And I mean all of us.  The real Ras is in the same hotel tonight.  

There's a quite mighty craic. Alan bumps into Emma O'Reilly and gets caught up after many years, a world away from Boulder, Colorado.  Paul chats with former Irish Olympian Seamus Downey, his wife, and their friends.  Seamus tonight is the proud father of An Post rider Sean Downey, who's kicking ass and taking names in the Ras this year as the top Irish rider, sitting 6th on GC.  They're reminiscing with anecdotes and memories of Paul's late dad J.J.  Lots of the Race the Ras guys are here too, all having a great time.  I'm sitting with Aaron and Brian McCormack, and we're enjoying that ever-so-perilous 'just one I promise' after dinner pint.

Slouching at stools at a high bar table next to us is a group of skinny, tan, clean cut and identically
tracksuited 20-somethings.  Not a Guinness in sight, just mineral water and cokes.  I recognize they're chatting in Italian, watching the TV. Euro boys.  Like kids their generation everywhere, they're laughing while texting, and staring at mobile phone screens. It's the Team IDEA 2010 ASD UCI Continental Team.  The Italian team at this year's An Post Ras.

I'm always keen to practice my poor Italian, so I strike up a conversation with the tall kid nearest me. I later find out his name is Mirko Tedeschi.  He's a really likeable kid, reminds me of one of my son's friends.  Polite, smiling.  Most American kids these days ought to pay for comportment and manners advice from Mirko and his team, but I digress.

I ask him about how he's liking the Ras, and tease them about how they're dealing with the Irish weather. Reflexive Irish vs. Italian ball-busting, familar from growing up in a Boston suburb where virtually all of your school mates were either of Irish or Italian descent. Mirko doesn't take the bait and hit back, rather he confirms that indeed they are finding it hard.  An endearing open honesty. His mates confirm by rolling their eyes and making horizontal hand gestures.  Bah, tanto, tanto pioggia.  So much rain.  He asks me if I know anything about tomorrow's parcours.  I turn to Aaron and Paul for the local knowledge.  They say it's going to be a headwind tomorrow, almost certain, all day, all the way up to Carrick on Suir.  And more rain.  Hmmm... the yank in the room as translator.  This has got to be a first...

"Molto, molto vento tutti il giorno domani ragazzi. E anche pioggia. Non troppo salita, ma attenzione! Sara molto duro."  A hard day, less mountainous maybe, but into the wind.  And more rain.  Mirko's face gets a little more serious.  He shares our forecast with his buddies.  They seem to doubt the validity of my adjacent Irish meterological sources.   
"Davvero."  Really.  They're still not sold.  OK, one more try. Time for the nuclear option. I point over at Paul.

Ma vedi questo uomini qui a vincere due Ras.  Davvero.  '87 and '88.  They perk up as Mirko passes on this fact, leading to an animated Varese dialect-chatter amongst them.  We get a kick out of them.  Nice kids.

I smile to myself and think how 30 or so years ago Paul,  Seamus and Alan all would have been skinny kids in tracksuits in this same hotel.  The world turns.  


I let Mirko get back to his mates with the standard farewell best wishes you give an Italian rider. You never say 'good luck' to an Italian cyclist.  Instead, just like you'd say 'break a leg' to an actor, in Italia, you wish a corridore luck by bidding him 'into the mouth of the wolf'.

"Ciao raggazzi.  In bocca al lupo."  

Mirko smiles back a future film star smile, giving me the usual reply of thanks. 

"Crepi al lupo".  "I'll eat the wolf."

Fast forward three days later to Skerries. Our Race the Ras over, Paul and I are hustling back to the finish with watch the arrival of the Ras' final stage.  We get there just in time, and watch the winner ride in on a solo break. No one else in the photo.

It's one of the Italian kids from the bar that night, Team IDEA 2000's Davide Ballerini.

His victory salute is one of the happiest I've ever seen.  Hands over his face, punching the sky, just an uncontrolled release of incredible ectasy. I remember and miss that feeling.

But the following extended celebration with his team as they cross the line and greet him is even better. For after all, nobody does victory celebrations like the Italians. The whole team just explodes in sheer happiness. 50 meters past the line, the boys are hugging, shouting, exclaming. Ballerini is in tears, they're all beside themselves with sheer joy. And his teammates are just as happy as the winner is.

Mirko? Well he finished 10th overall in the Ras.

It's a fitting final act to bring the curtain down on my Ras, as it gives my often cynical old keltic heart a badly needed shot of positive energy. A little taste of the spontaneous passion that I really believed was long gone from the sport I love, systematically drummed out by commercialism and modernization and go big or die gigantisme.  I've often been critical in this blog of modern cycling, with its marginal gains, radio controlled tactics and media handled riders making passion-less statements as bland and empty as those of our White House press secretary.

In fact I've been so disillusioned by the evolution of modern pro racing that most of you have likeliy noticed I've had little to say on this blog about pro racing this year, instead taking refuge in long hard rides, Ras prep and cycling nostaligia.

But now, watching these so likeable Italian kids devour the wolf as a small yet welcome ray of not-quite Mediterranean sun finally shined down over the Ras' final act in Skerries, I'm reinfused with a similarly small ray of hope for the future of cycling.

Day 8: Newbridge - Skerries 107km: Skerries, Sun and a 99.

We're coming home boys. Up the Dubs.  
In Mullingar last night, I rested limbs so weary,
Started by daylight, Next mornin' light and airy,
Took a drop of the pure, To keep my heart from sinkin',
That's an Irishman's cure, Whene'er he's on for drinking.
To see the lasses smile,
Laughing all the while,
At my curious style, 
Twould set your heart a-bubblin'...
On the rocky road to Dublin 
One, two, three, four five.
Hunt the hare and turn her down the rocky road,
And all the way to Dublin, Whack-fol-lol-de-ra.

One more day on the rocky road to Dublin.  

This one will be a promenade. Piano piano.  (I hope.)
There's an 'end-of-term' feel about the gathering at the start this morning.  Still cool and wet, but sun is predicted (finally, I'll believe it when I see it).

The entire race the Ras Team before the final stage to Skerries.  
The entire Race the Ras team gathers for one more dedication, and a big group team photo. Today's smiles are a marked contrast to the grim faces of yesterday.


After what we've covered, today's 100k will be like a walk in the park.  A winding loop bending clockwise around the periphery of Dublin, ending at Skerries on the sea north of the city.  There are several one day riders joining us for the final day.  Paul is taking command of the group and I'm sure will police things so they don't get out of hand.  Joe Duffy asks them to 'take it easy on us'.  Apparantly last year the final stage was quite a burn up. Nobody's seems really in the mood for that now, we all just want a nice final promenade toward the sea and hopefully, sun.  A final chance to move around the group and have a final chat with some of the fantastic folks that made Race the Ras such as special event.

Riding the Ras with Aaron was great fun.
He'll come back to Boston
and hurt some legs in New England Master's fields! 
 
One new guy with fresh strong legs joining us for the day is Aaron's brother Gareth McCormack.  Gareth raced the and finished the real Ras last year. A strong climber, he was in the running last week for a slot in one of the county teams again this year and nearly got to do it again.  I was also glad this morning to see that Aaron recovered from that nasty stomach virus, and ready to blitz the final stage.  Just hope his brother takes it easy on us old guys today!
Two of Ireland's best: Caroline Ryan with Paul
before the final stage.   


Current Ireland international track cycling star Caroline Ryan is also joining us for this final stage.  Caroline won a bronze medal in the points race at the 2012 World Championships.  And at this year's world's in Colombia 10km scratch race, she started the winning breakaway, and came within a heartbreaking 100 meters of pulling off a silver medal. A gutsy performance.

Caroline has impeccable position and form on the bike. Pedalling sewing machine fast and super smooth, she makes the rest of us look like 'diesels'. And based on seeing how just incredibly pleasant she was to all of us, Irish sport couldn't have a nicer person as ambassador.

Caroline works as a Garda, and is partially supported by a national team grant to pursue her ambition: A medal at the 2016 Olympics in the omnium. I'm rooting for her. The tricolor will be flying high at my house when she gets that medal!

Team Ireland has been making a lot more noise on the international track scene in the past few years. There's a new 250-metre international track being planned for Dundalk as part of a plan put in motion by the big Cuchulainn club north of Dublin (which had many riders in participating in Race the Ras this year). I hope they get that velodrome operational by September as planned, as nothing makes me happier that seeing Green jerseys beat British Cycling at their own game!

Scott's on-bike cameras captured
the entire Ras.  (Race the Ras photo)
As we get ready to roll, Scott loads up his cameras one final time.  Throughout the week, my fellowAmerican Scott Glowa has been very dedicated in capturing a video record of the entire trip.  With two high def cameras on his bike, I bet he has some phenomenal footage.  An accomplished wheelbuilder and mechanic, Scott's also been increasingly in demand to graciously help out with many mechanical issues experienced by some of the boys.  He may not have a euro-stage race background (Just watching all the energy he expended in the daily management all his high tech kit, on top of riding and helping out with mechanical assistance was making me tired!) Scott's rode into the event better and better as it went along, and found his rythym.  With this base of miles in his legs, I expect Scotty to crush a few boys back home on the New England cyclocross circuit this fall.

This final stage takes in some great and rolling roads.  My first impression of the area near Dublin was that it was dead flat, but I'm pleased to find this route a little more up and down and interesting.

As we roll along, most of us take advantage to have a final chat with the many new friends we've made over the week.  Several of the guys on this ride have been just incredible, giving me a rolling tour guide commentary of what we're passing, and it's significance.  Johnny points out to me that we're on a circuit frequently used by Master's racing in and around the Dubin area.  A nice undulaing loop on quiet roads.  Would be a great circuit I think.
Jimmy Stagg and my buddy Johnny - an ex-All Ireland handball champ and a 'wicked strong' Master's racer.
Jimmy's gutted through an injury to finish with a smile.
His shop Stagg Cycles is a big supporter of the LUCAN cycling club.   (Race the Ras photo)
Paul and Alan also give me a rolling guided tour to these roads that are their old training stomping grounds.  Alan points out the uphill through a town where he sprinted against Sean Kelly in the Irish Junior championship back in 1973 - Kelly's first big win. And Paul waves his hand across the horizon and says this is where his dad J.J. would often motorpace him to prepare for the Ras or the Tour de l'Avenir.

I really enjoyed chatting with
Lloyd throughout the week
 
Another guy who I really enjoyed getting to know on this Ras and who quickly became a good friend over the week is Dublin's Lloyd Scott.

Lloyd is about my age, and a former racing contemporary of Paul (they raced on the same Viking squad in the Junior Tour of Ireland years ago.)  We also share another mutual friend, ex-Ras star and Irish National Team rider Gary Thomson, who now lives near Paul and I in Massachusetts.  Lloyd did all the big Irish races in the 80's. We compare stories and notes and discover that we're similar riders: Penchant for the fast stuff, steep mountains our achilles heel.  And great minds think alike - like me he's also a big Freddy Maertens supporter!  We plan to stay in touch and hope we get to ride together in the future.
Lloyd Scott back in the day on Paul's wheel in the Tour of Ireland (Lloyd Scott photo)
We soon reach the final Cat 3 climb of the Ras, Paul keeps a hard surge by some of the new guys in check, much to the approval of cycle dealer and Lucan CC team patron Jimmy Stagg, who's been incredibly strong in finishing this Ras while nursing a knee injury. I'm really going to miss Jimmy's dry sense of humor!

Paul stays at the front to lead the dance up this final climb of our Ras. I ride up alongside and am somewhat honored to go through the last KOM on the front with my good friend.  In fact I'm kinda sad it's almost over.
That's all she wrote boys, this Ras is a wrap.  

Paul Kimmage, Seamus Downey and
Paul McCormack in Skerries
But all good things come to an end, so soon we're descending into Skerries, flashing over the finish line, and rolling to the bus one last time. There's a big yellow disc up in the sky, I'm not sure I recognize it. No wet clothes this time.

Everyone disperses after final hugs and handshakes, and Race the Ras is over for another year.  Brian Paul, Alan and I change, grab one last tasty lasagna meal at the Skerries GAA, and hustle down to see the final stage finish.

On the way, Paul bumps into Paul Kimmage.  They say hello and have a brief catch up. Introduced, I shake Paul's hand and tell him I admire his journalism, but I'm not sure how he takes it.  I'm pretty sure that from the recent Paul Kimmage defense fund fiasco that he would be justified in being weary and wary of Americans (I know I would be if I were in his shoes!)  I should have added that I admire how he courageously stands up for his principles even more than I admire his writing.

Spin 11's Maria and Karolina's nice smiles helped brighten a mostly gray and rainy Ras.
Clemens Fankhauser (Austria Tirol Cycling).
2014 An Post Ras champion.
A final stop to buy a few souvenirs for home at the Spin 11 van. Spin 11 is the official cycling clothing supplier to the Irish National team, and they also manufactured our Race the Ras jerseys. They produce some great custom cycling kit for clubs with low minimums. Their sales director Maria Connaughton and her friend Karolina were travelling the entire Ras, working super hard to promote their brand (a lot harder work than riding all day in the rain, as I know well from past experience!)  I promised Maria she'd sell a lot of Ireland national team jerseys to all my American friends and blog followers, so credit cards out jongens, support the green machine and order yours here today boys!

And speaking of jerseys, this years' Ras overall was won this year by an Austrian, Clemens Fankhauser (Austria Tirol Cycling). Fankhauser took the yellow jersey on the Ring of Kerry stage to Clonakilty, and defended it over the final days to Skerries.

Best Irish rider was Sean Downey in 6th.  Maybe next year we'll see another home winner.

A McCormack brother end of the Ras tradition:
The long awaited 99. 

Brian, Alan and I have one last very important appointment before we hook up with Scott (who was off exploring and getting some more great photos of the windmill and area around Skerries) and get on the now empty bus back to Donaghamede.

The mission?  The hunt for a 99.  That's a last day of the Ras tradition with the McCormack boys.  A 99 is like a Dairy Queen soft vanilla ice cream, only with a giant hunk of chocolate stuffed in the top.  Alan had been looking forward to it all day, talking it up. I have to admit, he didn't oversell the experience.  It's not Champagne, but then again, this is the Ras.  The 99 did hit the spot.

Brian checks on our secret stash of drinks
and food.
After few final words of thanks to organizer Joe Duffy, the five of us get back on a bus quiet and empty for the first time since our ride toward stage one last Sunday.  It seems like that happened in a different lifetime.

Brian's got the rebel tunes playing on the bus speaker as we head home. I'm looking out at the Irish countryside with that thousand yard stare.  Alan's trying to sleep.  Did we really ride all the way around Ireland?  I guess we did.

Back at chez McCormack, we pack up our bikes and enjoy one last Fish and Chips dinner with Brian's family and Carol. We're leaving early in the morning for the airport, Brian's dropping us off on his way to begin his next job for McCormack Coaches.

My final comment to close out an incredible week is reserved for Brian McCormack.

How do you begin to thank a guy who did so much for us during the week?  Brian was our clan's team director, tour guide, soigneur, driver and bartender all in one.  I've had a few experienced team directors in the past, but with all due respect, none of them could hold a candle to Brian: He would blow them all away.  Hot food and drinks always there at just the right time, always thinking of us first before his own needs. And his general horsing around and humor was just incredible. I literally 'laughed me arse off' all week.
Want to really experience Ireland?
Call this number and let Brian show you around.

Brian - and for that matter all the McCormack's really - treated me like family all week. Thank you seems such an inadequate  expression of my gratitude, but I'll say it anyway. Thanks Horse, you the man!








As we packed the suitcases one last time on the bus on Monday morning, Brian gave me one last souvenir to take back home:  An Ireland road map that he traced the route of the Ras onto as we travelled through the week.   It's getting framed and going up in my office, adjacent to the 'Sean Kelly Suite'.

Riding the Ras with clan McCormack? The most fun I've ever had on a bike.    

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The power of random coincidence, and why we're here.

It's day two. A rainy morning in Roscommon.

Rain jacketed guys are huddled with their bikes under small doorways on the main street to stay dry. Paul and I are on our bikes and circling, impatient to get this show on the road.  Tired of waiting around in the rain.

Clan McCormack in their natural habitat:
Paul, Brian and Alan.
The moderately paced group goes out 15 minutes before ours.  "C'mon Eddy O, lets go!" says Paul as he gets out of the saddle and sprints onto the back of the train.

"Paul, that's not our group...".   I circle back.  My pal diappears with the group.

Later maybe just under and hour or so into the ride, I see Paul standing with a group of folks by the side of the road.  He's talking.  He rejoins our group again.  I don't think much of it at the time, figured he was doing some Race the Ras PR chatting with the other group for awhile.

After what seems like a decade later, that afternoon back at the hotel while he sprays second skin on his road rash, he tells Alan and I the story of his early start...
Every Race the Ras stage was dedicated to someone affected by Cancer.  
As Paul rode along with the second group, he came upon a young teen,  He's riding an ordinary bike in sneakers, with toe clips and straps.  Just off the side of the group.  It reminds Paul of how he started cycling, so he strikes up a conversation.  Asks the boy his name.  And why he's riding on this rainy morning.

"I'm riding together with my brother over there.  Our ma died of Cancer in March, so we're riding part of the route today for her."

Paul is stunned.  At their pre-arranged arrival point, they stop to meet their father and small group gathered by the side of the road.  Paul stops with them, and introduces himself to the father.  Shakes his hand, and expresses his sorrow for their loss.  He learns that as part of the attempt to raise money for his late wife Mary's treatment, a cycling club was formed in Roscommon. They are riding today as part of that group.

The two boys have no idea who he is, and Paul is too modest to ever talk about his past accomplishments. But one of the small roadside group lets them in on it. "You know this man dontcha?  He's Paul McCormack. He won the Ras twice."

Before he jumps back in the group, Paul asks the boys and their da for a favor.  He wants them all to be his guest at our final dinner Saturday night outside Dublin.

As he tells us the story, Paul says he's not sure they'll come, but really hopes they will.  Ever the hustler, he gets on the phone with his fellow co-conspirator Philip Cassidy to set the wheels in motion to ensure they'll be there.  I note that this project is more front of mind to him than his sore hip and road rash.

Ever a believer in a higher power behind such random moments, and having unshakable superstitious faith that accidental conincidences like this never happen without a reason, a thought suddenly crosses my mind.  "Hey Paully, I'll betcha five bucks that 10 years from now, one of those boys will win the Ras." The two former Ras stars laugh. But interestingly, neither takes the bet...

So fast forward to a fantastic Saturday night out in Dublin. After entertaining the entire Race the Ras team with his annual tongue-in-cheek verbal storytelling banter with Philip Cassidy (Those two make a natural stand-up team), Paul recounts his story of meeting the boys to the group.

Now as good a cyclist as he is, Paul's perhaps an even better orator. By the end, he's getting a little choked up. There's barely a dry eye in the room.
Kevin and Patick Fanning and their dad Francis (L) with Paul McCormack, Andy Roche and Philip Cassidy.
Legends of Ras past... and future?  I wouldn't bet against it!
He then introduces the boys, Patrick and Kevin. And their father Francis. Paul, Philip and the Isle of Man's Andy Roche (who won the Ras in 1997, and had been riding the real An Post Ras in 2014 with the 'Race the Ras' team) present them their Race the Ras jerseys to a warm standing ovation.

Despite the daily dedication of a stage to a different person impacted by Cancer, it was easy to get caught up in the cycling, and lose sight why you're doing an event like Race the Ras. Forgetting was especially easy for me, as to borrow a overused cliche symbol from St. Patrick, I had a 'trinity' of reasons to come over to Ireland.  To ride for a week with good friends in a major cycling challenge and relive past glory days.  And to immerse myself in my cultural homeland.  Those two reasons felt like plenty enough.

But Paul's telling of his spontaneous, accidental encounter on the road out of Roscommon reminded me - and all of us - of the most important reason we were all gathered in that steakhouse outside Dublin.  To raise a little money to fight breast Cancer, a disease that impacts the lives of so many.  

Seeing these two smiling red headed teens reminds me of my own similarly red-headed teenage son back in America, and how much I miss him. Tommorow we'll ride into Skerries, and everyone will disperse.  One more day, and it'll be time to go back to real life, to work and family. This physical challenge will be over.  I'm conscious though that for the many whose lives are affected by Cancer, their pain, and their challenge, will not be over tomorrow night.  For Cancer victims and loved ones, theirs is a perpetual fight.

Paul and Eamon in Skerries (Photo courtesy Race the Ras)
The next day in Skerries after we cross the line, Paul is called up on stage with organizer Eamon Ó Muircheartaigh.  Paul recounts for the crowd gathered for the final stage of that Ras his story of meeting the Fanning boys on the road in Roscommon.

But Paul didn't tell the crowd another story. One I'll now tell you.

On the same May Sunday in Skerries two years ago, Paul was in the crowd as just another spectator, watching the final stage of the Ras. He'd gone back home to Ireland to spend time with his mother Rita, who was herself fighting a final battle with Cancer.  He'd taken a few weeks leave of absence from work to go over, back home.  To renovate her bathroom, and spend some precious time with her, knowing it would likely be their last time together.  Believe me, the 21st century is no less painful to the diaspora.

He went on a Sunday afternoon to watch the Ras, and he saw the first Race the Ras team come rolling in. Heard for the first time about their cause. It all suddenly just clicked.  He introduced himself and asked to get involved.

The power of random coindicence. I believe things happen for a reason.

Paul's Race the Ras discovery in Skerries led to his reconnection with old friend Philip Cassidy.  Which led to him riding last year.  Which led to me being here this year. And Alan too. And Aaron, and Scott.

And others no doubt.  For as Paul climbed off the stage and got on his bike to pedal his final k to Brian's bus in the Skerries sun this year, he was approached by two strangers.  They introduced themselves, were moved by the story of the Fanning boys, and told him they also intended to ride in Race the Ras next year.

That's the real reason we're here.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Day 7: Carrick on Suir - Baltinglass 147km. A gap too far.

The mood around the Super Valu parking lot in Carrick on Suir this morning is somber.  It's raining and cold.  Again.

Ok, let's get on with it!
My roommate Aaron McCormack got hit hard by that stomach virus last night.  Staying up drinking with Alan seems now like it might have been the lesser of two evils, but not by much.  "We shouldn't have drank so much, bad for the adrendal glands.  I'd never have done that if we were racing." says Alan.

Well, it's all more water under the bridge now amigo. I feel great this morning. Fired up.  Get on the bike.  It feels like there's no chain today.

There's only one more big obstacle in the Ras.  A 3 stepped climb up and over Mt. Leinster.  As we're not doing the big Wicklow climbs this year, I've convinced myself this substitute won't be too bad.  About 30 minutes or so of hard effort.

With about 600 miles behind me, I'm getting cocky. I've avoided getting sick. My legs feel good, better every day in fact. The rain, my eternal ally, is not bothering me. And a week of rooming with two of Ireland's most storied cycling professionals has me believing I belong here, and all is possible.  Mt. Leinster?  No worries boys.  Bring it on.  Pints be damned.

In constrast all around me it sounds like a consumption ward.  Coughing everywhere. Faces as grey as the skies. We roll out of Carrick slowly. Very slowly.  About 13-14 mph slowly.  So slow the 'slower group' almost catches us.  None of us want to ride hard before the mountain.  A long warm up before the final challenge.

Only the thing is, we can't warm up.  It's pouring.  Flippin' cold.


A grey dog that looks like a greyhound darts out in front of the bunch, and before we have time to pull the brakes, he mercifully turns tail and just as quickly, darts back off the road. Disaster avoided.

The peloton mood is like that in a prisoner cart being driven to the guillotine.  It's pouring.  At the pee stop I do the calculus and reluctantly put on my rain cape.  I won't want it on the climb in about an hour, but I'm freezing cold now.

I bide my time by counting down the time.  The climbs start at 70k.  We've been riding over 2 hours in now.  Seems like we'll never get there.  A watched pot never boils.

Paul's advice for the climb is running through my head.  "There's a steep one before Mt. Leinster. You've got to hang on on that, or you'll need to ride alone on the less steep but open slopes of the final climb to the summit."  The final gauntlet is thrown.  Got to get over the steep part with the group.

We start climbing finally.  Small gears, spinning nicely, feel good.  Paul and Alan and a few others lead.  I'm radar locked on Paul's rear wheel.  We go up a long steep winding climb for what seems like a long time.  No conversation, just concentration.  It crests, and now we're on a short descent.  Was that the steep one?  That wasn't so bad.

Now we're on another steeper one.  This is harder, worse. Yes, this is Corabutt gap I'm told.  I'm still on Paul's wheel, as he taps out a hard tempo on the front.  I'm in a 34 x 21.  I can hear Paul rythmically exhaling hard, like a boxer.

Concentrate.  It's pretty hard.  Very hard.  Christ, this is super hard.  Houston, we have a problem.

About a 400 meters ahead, the narrow path ahead of us ramps up even steeper, about 12% I'd guess, up a 1/4 mile wall to a right hand turn and still it climbs into infinity after that.  It would be better if I couldn't see how much we have to come. Don't think. Just suffer.

I'm starting to blow.  Don't panic, try standing awhile, see if that helps.  I dance to maintain the tempo, but it's not sustainable, I'm over my limit.  Not an angel of the mountains, more an anchor.  I've got to sit, got to let 'em go and give way, gradually at first.

Christ, it's hot now.  I'm frying in my impermeable sauna, sweating like a stuck pig. This friggin' rain cape. Going too slow to get it off.  Screw this!  I stop, pull it off and stuff it in my pocket.  A little better, but it's all relative.  Pulse shows 176.  This is my limit.

Only the vanguard is gone now, and more guys are trickling by me.  Stuck in a familiar horror film that I know the ending of.  The final ramp to the top of Corabutt gap is super steep.  In my lowest gear now 34 x 25.  Cadence slow and power gone, I fight around a left hand turn to the summit.  Wow, that was ugly.

On Mt. Leinster you see the entire climb to the summit.  I can everyone all stretched out ahead of me, on a long slope that bends to the right around a curving bald mountain.  The view on good day must be great.  Today it's all obscured by mist though: White mist from rain, and a red mist of fury in my frustrated eyes.  I'm pissed off that I couldn't stay with them.

Only one more day boys.
The easier grade lets me get a rythym going again. I even catch a few guys near the top, good sign. My handball champ and drinking buddy from last night Johnny's also here. We fly down the descent.  I'm going a lot faster.  Maybe I can get back on the front group?  I let the brakes go, and fly away.

It's a pursuit, I'm picking off guys one at a time. There's the big strong dude with the Lucan shorts. Bunny hops over cattle grates. Careful, try not to pull a 'Phil Anderson' on the hard gravelly hard left hander, Alan said he crashed badly there in the Nissan Classic once.

I hook up with another guy and we are working well together as the descent ends.  We doing bit and bit to try to catch four more that are tantalizing in sight just ahead.  We're not getting closer.  I can't turn the big gear I need to close the gap, the legs are done now.

The group is stopped ahead for a regroup.  Battle over.  Another welcome Jaffa cake guy ravitaillment from our Garda moto buddy.  We wait, and eat.  There's now a collective sense of relief, the last big difficultly of the Ras is behind us.


Alan says he felt bad on the climb too, got a cold coming on.  "We shouldn't have drank last night Ed. If you hadn't drank, you'd have flown up that ramp, no problem".  He's quite sure.  Kind words at just the right moment from a good friend who knows cycling, and knows what I'm thinking.  I would have liked to have ridden for Alan back in the day, he knows just how to stoke a teammates' morale.

In my heart of hearts though, I'm not entirely convinced. For the gap between cycling champions and nearly boys often feels so small you can convince yourself it doesn't exist. But just as it did at critical times throughout my cycling career, Corabutt gap revealed the hard truth about limitations.

For today, for this old amateur, Corabutt was a Gap too far. I may be able to ride and drink with these guys, but when it's super hard, their true champion's class gets revealed, and the proper pecking order confirmed. (But hey, don't expect this inconvenient truth to stop me from trying to climb with them again and again though... After all, if it wasn't for selective memory and reality distortion, we'd wouldn't be cyclists, would we!)

The rest of the ride is hard.   I do my pulls, but mostly just suffer on the run in.  The two Cat 3 climbs toward Baltinglass burn my legs. I'm climbing on Kilian's (a.k.a. Taylor Phinney Dude's) wheel.  The kids long legs are still rotating whizzer fast.  I'm envious, mine don't spin fast like that anymore, they muscle a bigger gear now.  The kid's a great bike rider, it's been fun riding with him this week.  I hope he wins a lot this season.

As we dive into another great GAA feed at the end of a hard day in Baltinglass, I smile to myself,
for my glass in this Ras is way more than half full.
The GAA has long been the glue that holds the Ras together.  
Paul relaxes in Baltinglass with ex All-Ireland GAA football star who rode with us.
I met the physical challenge of doing the Ras.  A few of my pals in the states bet I'd end up in the broom wagon, but I was going to complete every mile in good health, and felt better and better as it went along.  I also got to spend a week riding with Irish cycling legends, and a fantastic group of new friends.  And I got to really experience my ancesteral homeland in a way few American tourists ever will.

Thanks Joe Duffy, and everyone else in the organizing team for an incredible experience.

For my American friends, this is what you call a good craic.
The McCormack and Cassidy clans celebrate the end of the 'hard stuff' at the Louis Fitzgerald bar.
Tonight is our big dinner outside Dublin.  Paul's friend Philip Cassidy, and Paul's sister meet us for pre dinner drinks at the hotel.  A little McCormack clan reunion.  Should be a good craic.   No need for major laundry tonight, just one more day.

Savage roadman.

Soigneur secrets of the Ras number 44:
Niall is living proof of the efficacy of Ireland's 

time-tested cure for a hard blow to the face.  
I was quite fortunate to meet and get to know a lot of impressive bike riders on Race the Ras. But if someone asked me to pick my 'man of the Ras',  there would be no contest.

It'd be Niall.  No doubt jongen.  By a long shot. 'No one else in the photo' as they'd say in Belgium.

I met Niall on the road on the first day of the Ras. He looked totally euro pro, Assos shorts, kit all matching, bike clean and impeccable. Pedalled great, smooth on the bike, perfect position. He was familiar with most of the climbs we'd be doing.  He knew their savage nature, and counseled us yanks to respect what lay ahead.

Niall was also patient. For being the total idiot I am, for the next few days I mis-remembered his name and kept calling him Colin.  He graciously let me off the hook, "Eddy, my name's Niall."  Sorry Colin ;)

Wrapped up in my own personal pain cave at the finish in Lisdoonvarna, word filtered in later that Niall had been taken out by someone sprinting for the finish who rammed him from behind. It was a bad crash.  His road rash was extensive.  I saw him on the line the next morning though, arm wrapped up, yet shrugging it off as if it were no more than a paper cut.

Road rash didn't slow Niall one bit.
His run of bad luck continued.  After the finish in Clonakilty, he was cycling into the town when a clueless pedestrian walked right out in front of him.  Big collision, crash.  Again.  This time they suspected a broken cheekbone, were going to take him to the hospital to get checked out.  His face was red and swollen like those old photos of Eddy Merckx in the 1975 tour when after a similar freak collision, he was forced to finish the rest of the Tour on pureed food and applesauce.  Most recreational cyclists would have called it a day then.

But Niall was at the start the next morning though.  Brushing it off again.  Concerned, I asked him how he was feeling.  He stoically shurgged, and said it wasn't broken, it wasn't so bad. No doubt about not finishing. A real hard man.

Eddy Merckx got up from a smashed cheekbone to finish 2nd in the '75 Tour, leading the pack into Paris, still attacking Thevenet till the end.  It was a courageous feat on cycling's biggest stage that many still remember.

Wounded Merckx on the Champs Elysee:
1975 Tour de France.
Niall also smashed his cheekbone, and got up the next morning to tow Race the Ras at high speed through Cork.  Unlike Merckx, nobody was paying Niall to do it.  He kept riding out of respect for the Ras, and because that's what real bike riders do.  Give an anonymous character demonstration that won't be glorified in any cycling magazines.

No matter.  I'll always remember it as being just as impressive.    

Years from now, when my mental film of the Ras week has blurred together in a melange of rain and wet clothes and Guinness and damp cold and GAA tea stops and green and sheep and laughter and heavy roads, my memory of this quiet, courageous hard man from Cork will remain crystal clear.

Because Niall is my Man of the Ras.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Day 6: Clonakilty to Carrick on Suir, 168km. My Irish influences named John.

So meet the boys from Kerry, and meet the boys from Clare
From Dublin, Wicklow, Donegal and the boys of old Kildare
Some came from a land beyond the sea
From Boston and New York
But the boys who beat the Black and Tans
Were the boys from the County Cork.


I'm riding through County Cork this morning.  My uncle Johnny's land.  

Uncle Johnny was my Cork connection.
John 'Uncle Johnny' Jeffers showed up one October day at our Boston family home, back in 1970.  He wasn't really my uncle, although we called him that. A cousin to my grandmother, close enough. A few times back in those years, uncle Johnny came and stayed with us quite awhile, with his 'own ones'.  He used to go back and forth between Ireland and Boston a lot, never could decide which country he belonged to or wanted to stay in.  Pensioned from the postal service I recall.  Sometimes he'd visit us, sometimes relatives in Everett.  We gladly squeezed him into our tiny house, without question. 

As I ride this morning through the flat headwinds toward Cork city, I'm thinking a lot about him.

He was a Gaelic speaker who had the totally cool lilting Cork brogue. After school, sometimes he used to go walk with me and our dog to the local corner drug store.  We'd sit at the formica counter, he'd buy me a chocolate milk shake. I'd drink, he'd smoke. The smart-ass soda fountain girls, and psychadleic hippies who hung around the counter couldn't quite figure him out, but they knew better than to give him any shite. He was simple, quiet, and had a great sense of humor.  He'd predict my brother and I would be boxers, and set up matches in the parlor just to wind up our ma. And he'd get the dog all riled up and barking, just for the sheer mad fun of it.  

My uncle Johnny also was an IRA soldier. Way back in the teens or twenties, not sure exactly when.  I do know he left home as a teen to join up, and that he ran around in the Cork hills fighting the Black and Tans. I recall a story he told us of trying to lift the boots off a dead one to replace his old tattered ones that were falling apart.  Only when he pulled, the whole leg came off...  

Like most real soldiers though he wouldn't talk about that stuff though, although I do recall were some hushed late evening rememberences of the terrible times at the kitchen table with my ma and grandma over tea and toast, when they thought we kids had gone to up bed. 

His home town of Macroom was very close to Béal na mBláth where Michael Collins was killed.  Later after uncle Johnny passed away, and when we learned a little more Irish history, my brother and I always used to wonder where he was on that infamous day, and which side Uncle Johnny fought on when all that stuff went down. Perhaps it's best that we don't know... 

The rain and cold snaps me back to present.  I look around.  It's a very different Cork now Johnny.  My sepia toned nostalic cork, peat and tweed image is dealt a concrete-and -glass 21st century euro reality slap.  From my fast moving vantage point, Cork could be Munich, or Maastricht.  My imagined nostaligia has been rendered quite silly by the real environs of modern Ireland's second city.  
Today it's Election day in Ireland. Vote for me.
 If elected I promise to make it stop raining.  And free Jaffa cakes for all.
Right now we're cycling on the main motorway to the city, being led by motorcade through the Jack Lynch tunnel.  For Boston readers, that's like riding in a bunch through the Sumner Tunnel during the morning commute.  Such is the power of the Ras in Ireland: Nobody's ever cycled through the Jack Lynch tunnel before, I'm told.  The ability to avoid an inner city traverse of Cork by following the same route the Ras will take through this tunnel is key to our hopes of making it to Carrick on Suir before the Ras arrives. We all want to experience the climb the boys are saying is one of Ireland's toughest:  Seskin Hill.

At the front, the Cork boys, Niall and one of our guides named Mick, are really pouring it on behind the Garda escort.  Riding as if the fate of the county depends on it.  And thanks to the perfect pace of the cycling-savvy Garda who's leading us, we're basically motorpacing.  Niall and Mick are really flying. Over 25mph, sometimes faster.   I see Micks shoulders up there, bobbing.   They stay on the front a long, long time.

Down and up the far side of the tunnel, those at the back are flat out now fighting hard to stay on the group at it climbs to a rotary.  It's a line out.  And for about 20 minutes or so, we're flying past and around Cork city, still on divided highway.  

Speedwork session over, we're out on the Wexford road, heading south along the coast toward Dungarvan, and soon back to our two by two, up and over paceline. As the ever astute Aaron predicted, the headwind is extreme, massive.  Turns on the front are shorter now and conversations ceases and we collectively knuckle down.  Ahead there's rain again.  What else is new.
Pressing up a climb and into the wind to Dungarvan. 
On the Cat 3 Grange climb before Dungarvan, one of our Race the Race newbies - a long lean, and powerful local guy - is setting a killer tempo.  He's a 'one day' rider I'm told, not doing the entire Ras.  Many of the full Ras riders in our group, with 500+ miles in tired legs, are getting gapped as the new guy turns the screw on the front.  Feeling good and feisty, and taking a cue from the Paul McCormack peloton patron playbook, I go to the front and try to intimidate him to ease the pace a bit.  I fly up along side no hands, in that old patented 'I know you think you're going hard, but to me this is really easy' bluff. 

"Yo!!  Go easy dude, you're killing these guys."

He looks at me and slowly, indigantly shakes his head. 

"No.  I'm not". 

Oh well, I guess that's that then!  (We shared a good laugh about it later.)

So with your man at the front, we fly through Dungarvan.  Kids on the street heckle us for the first time all week.  Traffic here is a little sketchy too.  We're glad to get through this town. 

We turn north toward Carrick on Suir.  Entering Sean Kelly country.

The surrounding landscape resembles Vermont, only with more cows and sheep.  It's hilly, green and rural, but also pretty well developed compared to the wild west and Kerry.  I see a lot of new buildings, and what look like massive newly built homes.  The rain starts again.  We're all climbing gradually inland, but everyone is keeping their powder dry for the big finale up Seskin Hill.

We finally descend a wet switchback road into Carrick on Suir.  It's a road out of town you'd expect to find in France or Switzerland, pretty long and steep.  At the bottom, on the edge of the town, we we're stopped by the Garda and race marshalls in vests.  At first we think we're being stopped, that we won't get a crack at the climb.  Then we're asked if we want to ride Seskin Hill.  

While 40 voices roar 'yea', two guys opt to go straight to the bus.  My two professionals mates: Alan and Paul.   Both know the climb well, but more important they also know there's no prize money at the top. They wisely opt for dry clothes, sambos and hot tea at the bus parked at the SuperValu in the center of Carrick.  You've got to understand that both Alan and Paul have won the Christmas Hamper race in Carrick on Suir in their distictive careers, so Seskin Hill represents no magic to them.  

Pro's Lesson 4:  Never suffer needlessly unless there's money in it for you.

I, however, was never a pro, but as America's Number One Sean Kelly Supporter ™ I came all this way to ride up Sean's home climb, and by God I've got to do it.  It's not even a question.  
Number one!  Sean Kelly Square, Carrick on Suir, Ireland. 
John James 'Sean' Kelly cast a considerable if distant influence over me only a handful of years after Uncle Johnny left for Ireland for the last time.  At 16 I'd started bicycle racing, but most of the races an apsiring teen with ambition but no connections or cash could ride locally back then were non-USCF 'citizens' races.  There were lots of them.  Mass start, open roads, anyone and everyone in.  They were wild point to point free for alls in open traffic, but they also had really great prizes.  Cash. TV sets. Air conditioners.  Way better stuff than offered in the sanctioned races.  

Of course, some of the savvy local USCF riders would enter to grab some 'easy' swag, but under assumed names, of course.  You'd read the Newburyport Times on an August Monday, and the winner of the local Elks club bike race would be 'Scott Van Impe', follwed by 'Ron DeVlaeminck'.  Nobody had a clue.  Organizers, officials, nobody.  We'd all laugh our asses off.   

The older guys took me aside at the shop one day. I was being 'made' in their little wieler-Mafia.  "Eddy, if you want to ride these races, you need an assumed name so the USCF doesn't suspend your license."  Dilemma. What name?  I'm pondering this while reading Velonews. The stage results for the 1977 Dauphine Libere.  Hey look, there's a guy from Ireland riding...here, a bit down the GC list. 'Sean Kelly.'  Hmmm.... 

In my house, Kelly is King.
So that next Saturday, 'Sean Kelly' (ahem) finished a close 2nd in the Waltham, MA Lions Club bicycle race.  It was a fast 35mph plus downhill 4 up breakaway sprint that 'Sean' might have taken if he wasn't in a junior restricted 52x15 gear.   I think I spun 170rpm, wild sprint, complete with bike throw.  I still won a toaster oven, a giant trophy, and a huge smile from my proud Dad I can still see...   'Sean' rode a lot of Massachusetts races that summer.  Won a few too.  

So for years after, while I tried to make a go of cycling myself, it's no surprise I followed Sean's career religiously, devouring every bit of news I could about my wieleridol in those limited information, pre-internet days. I experienced incredible joy and satisfaction following his climb to world's number one.  

In my house, Kelly was, and is, king. Literally. Fast forward almost 18 years later, and the real 'King Kelly' himself is crashing in my spare bedroom, trying to grab a few hours sleep before he and Paul fly to Atlanta for the 'Sean Kelly Tour' promotional event we'd organized.  Teammates from CCB later start calling my spare bedroom the "Sean Kelly Suite"...  

So Seskin Hill begins.  The front guys sprint off, they're pulling away, really going at it.  Shite, it's really steep now.  I climb by a few big guys.  Surely I must be about half done now.  Nope, I'm wrong, there's the 1k to go sign.  Yikes, still such a long way to go.  A steep ramp up to a left hand turn around a retaining wall.  Spectators tell us it eases after that "Just get to that turn and you're home."  Christ, I hope so!

After the turn it goes back to a ridable grade up a straight ramp, still about 10% or so though.  But then the killer finale.  The last 500 meters is just a serpentine agony.  Super steep, around a turn.  Every 50 meters feels like an eternity.  Aaron comes dancing by me, out of the saddle.  I'm stuck seated, just barely getting the pedals around.  Fighting 100%, but just not winning.  

Just Mt. Leinster tomorrow?  Bah, how hard can it be Alan?  
I finally crawl over the line.  There's traditional Irish music playing on the PA system, as if mocking my nostalgic daydreams earlier in the day.  Lots of green An Post shirts.  People are cheering.  In my delirium, I think for sure a few of them are laughing at me.  I know I'm going slow, must look pretty bad.  

Seskin Hill is savage.  A great climb!  

That night in Waterford, we start to feel like the end is in sight. Tomorrow is just one more big climb of Mt. Leinster.  After what we've come through, I'm feeling like that will be no problem.  

I'm a little relaxed, want to hear some music.  Paul wisely hits the sack, he's still recovering from his cold.  Alan and I hold court at the bar with the boys.  I want to buy Brian a Bulmers, he's been doing so much for us all this week. 

We share a few pints with another Johnny, this one an Irish masters racer who's an ex-all Ireland Handball champion, and a dead ringer for Shay Elliott on the bike. Johnny flew up Seskin Hill today.  

Another Bulmers for Brian.  Another Pint for Alan and I.  

Approaching 11:30 we suddenly realize the hotel pub is turning into something resembling a Mallorcan holiday cruise, full of blue hair and oldies crooning.  Our cue to get to bed.