The An Post Ras is over for another year and the withdrawal symptoms have set in. In years gone by it was only the hourly Roy Willoughby radio report and the 30 second clip on the RTE evening news that had us all enthralled. However, nowadays we have Shane Stokes’ live updates on Irishcycling.com, Sticky Bottle live updates on Facebook and Fiona Cooke on twitter as @anpostras to keep up with the action as it happens. Then in the evening before any tv station gets a chance to screen its clip the TV3 4 minute clip is up on youtube and sticky bottle. Shane Stokes then gives great synopsis of what, when and how it all happened up front whilst Richard Hooten, Paddy Clarke and the KING of all Cycling reality writers Myles McCorry gave a fantastic insight into what was really going on within the bunch for all the Men of the Ras.
For the past few editions there has been a lot of talk about the Ras nowadays being too hard for amateurs and county riders who have day jobs and families to fit their training around. Suggestions include having a separate Ras for amateurs and to leave the current Ras to the professionals who are in search of UCI points.
I disagree with this notion. The old Ras still had riders who would go on to be top professionals. Think of the likes of Giuseppe Guarini, Patrick Jonker and Tony Martin. Go back further and think of the Russians who were as strong as any of top professionals of that time. The British always sent their Olympic hopefuls and it was always the toughest race of the year .
People say that county riders can no longer be competitive but the ‘county rider’ has changed. In years gone by Ireland’s top amateurs spent much of the season riding International races abroad and came home to ride on county teams for the Ras. Sunday races had a regular field of international level riders too. Out on the bike yesterday I asked Fitzy ,who has won 5 stages of the Ras how many times he has worn the green Irish jersey. The answer was 132 times. Any current rider at that level would be riding for An Post where they are now given the opportunity to develop their full potential. The Worlds and possibly the Tour of Britain seem to be the only time the Irish jersey is seen abroad now.
Sam Bennett is a huge talent and is the youngest ever Ras stage winner. He finished second and third on the last two stages and was unlucky not to get a win but he was still probably the fastest sprinter in the race. 15 years ago he would have been on the Tipperary county team. As a county rider he would still be way above the level of the majority of the bunch.
Ronan McLoughlin did a fantastic ride to almost win a stage getting caught within sight of the line. He gave it everything and more to try to win the stage. A ride similar to the best of an old style county rider effort. Ray has finished second on five different stages and has been in a similar situation to Ronan on a number of occasions.
Dave McCann was on the podium in 1996 and won in 2004. With a bit of luck and less negative racing on the part of some of the foreign teams he could well have made the podium again this year. For a forty year old Irish rider who is just recovering from a horrific thumb injury to be that close dispels the notion that the Ras is now too hard for an Irish rider to get a result in.
Adam Armstrong was best county rider and managed a third place stage finish whilst working in Tesco. Eugene Moriarty who has seen plenty of the old and new Ras was seventh in yesterdays final stage whilst holding down a full time job abroad. Robin Kelly from Waterford riding for Carlow seemed to be a permanent fixture off the front of the bunch almost every day.
Gediminas Bagdonas is similar to the Russian riders of old. A man who could eat thunder and crap lightening, he would go through a wall for a win. He rides like as if his life depends on winning every race he starts. County riders get to learn a lot riding alongside a man like this.
The legendary tales of the fight that county riders put up to get around the race have not changed, just look at Donal Harrington this year. A former 17 stone truck driver who crashed on the first stage and needed 10 stitches over his eye. The doctor said he would have pulled him out of the race had he seen him during the stage but quitting was not an option for this man of the ras.
The Ras itself has evolved and kept up with the times. It is still a unique race on the International calendar. It still challenges the best riders in the country and further afield whilst giving the ‘ordinary’ Irish cyclist the chance to do something extraordinary. A separate, easier Ras will not produce a true ‘Man of the Ras’.
The main thing that has really changed is that Irish cycling has gotten softer. The Tommy Sheehan is lucky to get thirty riders to sign on as there are a few hills in it and the Ras is deemed to be too hard. Hard races produce hard riders. If we want to see more Irish World beaters in the future making things easy is not the way to go. Each and every rider who crossed the finish line in Skerries yesterday is all the better for it. Dermot Dignam and his crew are doing a fantastic job. There is and hopefully always will be only one Ras !