Off the back



The winner takes the adulations of the crowd, the money and the glory, but without those who have finished behind there would be no winner. Much is often written and spoken about the winner but what about those who struggle to finish in the bunch or those who eventually make it to the finish off the back, minutes and sometimes over an hour behind. What is their story.

Today I stood on a roadside as the breakaway group in the Suir Valley 3 Day rounded the corner at the top of a small climb. These strong riders all made it look simple as they propelled their carbon steeds with apparent ease. Anyone who watches a small amount of racing will know that these riders were suffering and in pain but in a controlled manageable sort of way. A pain that could just about be endured hour after hour without ever really going fully into the red for too long. Some do cross that red line for lengthier periods and as there is no mercy on a bike they suffer a quick and sharp demise.

Then came the chasing group. Whilst there were one or two who could be seen to have crossed into the red line territory, most were again suffering in a controllable manner.

The bunch were driven along by the eagerness of youth at the front. A keen eye would recognise the young riders who want to race no matter where they are on the road. Their position moves forward with each race until eventually they will cross the finish line with arms aloft in victory.

The experience of age positions those who have talent and experience in the belly of the bunch. They may have been ill or undertrained or may just be keeping powder dry for a targeted stage. They are expending the least amount of effort possible and are almost invisible, until they decide to strike.

Some riders are happy to be there and enjoy the occasion. Victory in the race for them will be a place in the midst of the bunch every day as it crosses the finish line. Some have raced for many years and are always satisfied with this position and this is the attainable goal for them. It keeps them fit and healthy and is the catalyst to train when the desire wanes.

Then comes the sight of those dangling off the back of the main bunch. Their red light has been flashing since kilometre zero and they struggle and fight to hang on for as long as they can with every sinew in their body.

I recognised some of these riders. One that I know, smiled as he passed. The smile on his face spoke a half dozen different phrases as he crested the summit of the small climb. It said :

  • Thank f**k that’s over
  • Well, how are things
  • I know I’m mad but sure what the hell
  • They’ll stall up ahead and I’ll get back into the bunch
  • I can’t wait for a can of coke
  • I should have trained more

The fact is that the one thing that got them into that position is not physical weakness but actually mental strength. A rider who is undertrained and over worked in their career and flat out with family life who enters an International Stage Race where the speed will be determined by full or semi-full time bike riders almost half their age will find themselves in that position due to one personality trait alone, bravery.

As the cavalcade made its way towards the finish line these riders dug deeper and deeper to try to remain within the cars. A quick glance up followed by 5 or 10 pedal strokes as a head facing the stem swayed from side to side, then another glance up and the same 5 or 10 pedal strokes again. These riders were trying every bit as hard as an escapee trying to get away from the break to win the stage at the head of the race.

An elderly couple stood beside their small hatchback at the side of the road as we approached Clonmel and cheered these men on. They had not jumped back into their car as soon as the bunch had passed. The husband had a hard weather beaten look about him that suggested a life with times of struggle and hardship in his wake. He recognised suffering and pain and applauded those who were brave enough to put themselves out there to face their own battles and survive.

Chapeaux, or as the weatherbeaten man would say, ‘Fair play to ye lads’




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