The Rás

*Words:* Felix English *Photos:* David Stewart

Felix English, Rapha Condor Sharp and Ireland rider, was one of the five boys in black racing at this year’s AN Post Rás, one of the toughest stage races north of France.

The AN Post Rás. It was probably the highlight of my 2011 season, so I had high expectations coming into the 2012 edition of the race. Last year, I rode for the Irish national team but this year I was taking to the start line in the black and white jersey of Rapha Condor Sharp.

I flew to Dublin alone to meet the rest of the team, who were driving from Manchester. As soon as I arrived, one of the lads noticed how much I was smiling. It isn’t just the tough, unpredictable racing that makes the Rás such an enjoyable week. The amazing atmosphere among the teams and staff is something I’ve only experienced at this race.

Looking back at past editions of the Rás, it’s hardly a surprise that the Rapha Condor Sharp team is well known in this part of the world. This year, however, the team has taken a completely different approach, focusing on the development of younger riders. The Rás squad was no exception with our eldest rider being 23, which I’m sure gave us the youngest average age of any team competing. The line-up consisted of: Rich Lang, our Aussie climber/sprinter/everything’er; Chris Jennings, our South African climbing specialist; big Ben Grenda, the strongman from Tasmania; Rich Handley, a British rider who, like Lang, can do much pretty anything; and finally me, Felix, the local boy from Ireland (and Brighton).

The first few days of the race consisted of 140km-plus stages, with tough rolling roads. We all rode aggressively, trying to get at least one black jersey in every break. However, it quickly became apparent that the Rás was going to live up to its potential of being unlike any other race in the calendar. Break after break would try to escape but each attempt was swallowed up. The roads in Ireland are always rolling and usually have a rough, broken surface, which made average speeds of more than 48kph in the first hour of every day pretty unbelievable.

Every stage of the Rás is like the first 10km of every other normal race – relentless attacks with everyone wanting to get in on the action. Straight away it was apparent that this year’s race was to be tougher than the 2011 edition. There was a lot more strength in the international teams, which meant you had a lot more riders strong enough to attack and, equally, just as many riders strong enough to close the gaps.

Rich Handley fought his way into the successful breakaway on stage two and finished with a 28-second advantage over the rest of the U23 peloton. It doesn’t seem like much, especially at such an early stage of the race, but this smart move from Rich would prove to be decisive. With no time bonuses available, the only way for the race favourites to take time out of Rich was to either get away in a break – increasingly difficult as teams became desperate to defend even a slender advantage – or ride away from him on the tougher climbs. Luckily for us, no one in the race was capable of doing either.

As the week progressed we became more and more organised. Team manager John Herety kept us on our toes, with tactical advice each night to make our jobs as simple as possible. Myself and Ben Grenda were to follow all the early moves, disrupt the breakaways and, if need be, close gaps to any splits or breaks that contained dangerous riders. Langy and Chris had to keep Rich up at the front of the race and then take over from myself and Ben in the last few kilometres. Rich’s job meant he always had to be at the front and was probably the most stressful. Having your teammates working solely for you adds a lot of extra pressure but it was clear that riding for Rich was our best chance of securing the white jersey, so it made sense that we were all fully committed to him.

John’s organisational nous made things easier for us mentally as well. It’s a great feeling when you know you can ride at 100% to close a gap for your team leader, safe in the knowledge that one of your teammates will be there to immediately back you up and cover the next attack. Morale within the team was high all week, which definitely makes a big impact on the way you race together. Being able to have a laugh in the evenings and forget about the race for a few hours has a very positive effect.

Rich rode well over the very steep climbs of stages five and six and held onto the U23 white jersey. One climb in particular, Mamore Gap on stage five, was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It was towards the end of a 160km day, and it must have been more than 30% in places. A few of us took the decision to ride 28t cassettes but I still struggled to make it over the top. It was between two and three kilometres long and easily the hardest climb I’ve ridden. I had to ride hard in the first 2-3 hours of the stage to contain breakaways and generally try and make Rich’s life as easy as possible. Finishing the job, riding over the line in Skerries, was one of the best feelings I’ve had on a bike. Thanks to all my teammates, Rich, Ben, Langy and Chris for a great week. Also thanks to John, Ian, Rob and Iona for keeping us in line and for keeping it fun.