There was a palpable sense of relief as I walked along Blackrock’s promenade last Sunday afternoon.
The charming coastal village, overlooking Dundalk Bay and the nearby Cooley Mountains, and lying halfway between Belfast and Dublin, is one of those seaside spots where pubs outnumber every other building two to one.
Or at least it seemed that way on Sunday, as I made my way past a seemingly endless number of middle-aged men, most of them modelling the colours of their local club or an Italian bike manufacturer, standing on the footpath sipping beers in the bright afternoon sunshine.
Along the closed road, riders caught up with their families to give them the post-mortem of five days of fast and tough racing across Ireland. Beside them, cap-clad old timers dissected the day’s events, while ice cream devouring children gazed up – with a mix of delight and bewilderment – at effigies depicting an enormously large-headed cyclist and a bike riding gorilla. A polka dot-sporting child, clutching an autograph book to his chest (surely a relic these days), looked on admiringly as a long line of race barriers were loaded onto a van.
A few hundred metres up the road, in the packed car park of a leisure centre, worn-out racers pour containers of water over each others’ heads and toast their upcoming and well-deserved period of rest with a Coke.
The whole place had an end-of-exams-party kind of feel to it. The final stage of the Rás Tailteann, a race last held back through the mists of time in 2018, had just finished.
The Rás was back.
“Everyone works towards the Rás”
The Rás is Ireland’s biggest cycle race and, like any big race, it’s built on carefully constructed myths and legends.
Famed for its relentless, from-the-gun racing (which returned with a vengeance this year), the event’s list of winners includes Stephen Roche, Tony Martin and Lukas Pöstlberger, while Sam Bennett, Malcolm Elliot, Owain Doull, John Degenkolb, Simon Yates and this year’s Giro winner Jai Hindley have all tasted success on Irish roads in recent years.
But the real heroes of the Rás are often found further back in the peloton: the local cyclists and club men who dreamed of pinning a number on at ‘the Big One’ ever since they first threw a leg over a bike, and for whom this is the most important – and most difficult – race of their lives.
Just as the Tour de France immortalised the Giants of the Road, the brave riders who suffer through each stage just to fight another day, the “Men of the Rás” are integral to the fabric of the race.
The Irish, you see, love a local hero. National sports such as gaelic football and hurling (bastions of Irish cultural identity) and their inter-county competition help foster communal pride in a broader all-Ireland context.
And so it goes with the Rás. The Roches, Kellys, Kimmages, Bennetts and Dunbars of the sport grew up watching the race. They stood on the side of the road as it passed through their towns, straining their necks in vain to spot the local man, the fella they knew from the town’s club or bike shop, rubbing shoulders with the best Ireland, Europe, and then the world had to offer. Spotting these local heroes gave them something to aim for.
“The Rás is like the world championships for an Irish rider,” Trinity Racing’s 20-year-old Kevin McCambridge, fresh from holding off the peloton with a 10-kilometre solo break in Blackrock, says at the finish.
“It is just amazing. The crowds, the people… I was so happy to win.”
2022 Rás winner Daire Feeley leads a four-rider group on the final stage to Blackrock
Yellow jersey-clad Daire Feeley agrees.
After blowing the race apart on the wet and hilly third stage to Lisdoonvarna, Feeley spent the final two days defending from the front – even infiltrating a dangerous looking group on the finishing circuits around Blackrock – to become the first Irish rider since Stephen Gallagher in 2008 to take the overall title.
“This is a race I’ve always dreamed of,” the ebullient 25-year-old announces from the podium in front of a huge sun-kissed crowd in Blackrock.
“I remember when I was young and watching the stages of the Rás finishing up in Roscommon.
“I always said I’d love to ride the race and finish it, but to be here standing in the yellow jersey after winning the race overall, it’s an absolutely incredible feeling.”
“It’s brilliant to see the spectacle of the bunch whizzing through Blackrock here today, it was special,” Seamus Downey, fighting to be heard over the boom of the tannoy, tells me at the finish. Downey won a stage and wore the yellow jersey at the 1984 Rás, the same year he competed for Ireland at the LA Olympics alongside Martin Earley and Paul Kimmage.
“This is the showpiece of Irish cycling, and it’s key for the development of young riders here in Ireland.
“Everyone aspires and works towards the Rás. It was won this year by a county rider, which is the first time in a very long time, so it’s absolutely brilliant to see it back on again and long may it continue.”
The race’s successful return from a four-year absence has been a constant theme throughout the five days on the road.
Back on the podium, man of the moment Feeley – notably – devotes a fair chunk of his time with the microphone to praise the Rás’ director, Ger Campbell, without whom, the Cork VeloRevolution rider says, “this race would not have made it onto the road”.
While many bike races, big or small, have suffered in recent years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Rás’ troubles pre-date the first lockdown.
In 2017 title sponsor An Post – a longstanding supporter of Irish cycling – pulled out. Though careful budgeting allowed the race to go ahead the following year, the organiser’s futile search for a sponsor saw the Rás cancelled for the first time in its 66-year history in 2019. A new, shorter format (down to five days from the traditional eight) without UCI ranking was planned for 2020, but the pandemic got in the way.
The success of the 2022 edition, then, is – as one commissaire put it on social media – even more important than most followers of the race realise.
Because, just as the French and Flemish like to say about their respective showpiece tours, the Rás is more than a bike race.
Who says cyclists have big heads?
More than a bike race
Named after the ancient Tailteann Games and founded in 1953 by Joe Christle, a prominent figure in both the National Cycling Association (NCA) and the IRA, the Rás from the very outset was intrinsically tied to the sporting, cultural and political context of post-partition Ireland.
The NCA, which began life as part of the Gaelic Athletic Association (the governing body for Irish sports such as gaelic football, hurling and camogie), operated on an all-Ireland basis and vehemently opposed the partition of the island in both a political and sporting sense.
In 1947, after the British federation complained about the Irish body’s claim over Northern Ireland, the UCI booted the NCA out of the global cycling family and banned its members from competing in all UCI-sanctioned events (in turn effectively banning UCI members from entering NCA races like the Rás).
In response, some clubs defected to form their own UCI-recognised body, the CRE, which restricted its activities to the 26 counties of what had by then become the Republic of Ireland, leading to an often-bitter power struggle between the new group and the republican NCA.
Under Christle’s leadership, the Rás – established to rival the CRE’s Tour of Ireland – emerged both as an important prop in the sporting cold war which had engulfed post-war Irish cycling and as a potent form of political protest.
Stages of the race’s inaugural edition paid homage to the 1798 and 1916 rebellions against British rule, while Christle’s republican, anti-partitionist politics saw the race venture over the border into Northern Ireland frequently throughout the 1950s.
During one such trip north, in 1956, the RUC attempted to shut the race down after Christle provocatively flew an Irish tricolour from the lead car. Punches were exchanged between the riders and the police, and the stage was cancelled, sparking headlines across Ireland.
The late 1970s – finally – ushered in détente between Irish cycling’s warring factions, and with it the race’s most famous winner, Stephen Roche, in 1979 (the Rás’ first truly open edition), and an increasingly international and professional complexion to Ireland’s most revered race.
The Flemish aren't the only bike racing fans who enjoy waving obscure flags
Irish riders, those local heroes, who had won all but nine of the Rás’ first 47 editions, were forced to take a backseat as British and European pros – viewing the race as a steppingstone in their careers – dominated. Since the race was granted UCI status in 2000, only four Irishmen have secured overall victory.
Feeley’s win last week, then, may have ended a 14-year home drought, but it also marked something of a renaissance for the Rás’ relationship with the Irish public and the country’s cultural psyche.
While lacking the depth of the international field it attracted as a UCI event (though several teams from across the UK and the Netherlands still made the trip), this year’s race resembled something of a throwback to the race’s early days, with the local riders, led by Feeley, dominating once again, and capturing the public imagination along the way.
The 25-year-old’s career-defining triumph garnered, rather surprisingly for long-term followers of the sport, plenty of attention in the mainstream news media, from the broadsheets to the national broadcaster. But it was also celebrated in style by his regional paper, the Roscommon People, which published an eight-page supplement (complete with interviews, photo spreads and messages of congratulations from family and friends) on their latest local – and national – star.
It’s the Rás!
Stuck in a long, unmoving queue of traffic outside Blackrock on Sunday, the importance of the Rás to the communities it passes through – as well as the wider cycling community – was all too clear.
Having bunked off a news shift at road.cc to travel down to the race (hey, being at bike races is work, right?), I reach the outskirts of the seaside town – after being unhelpfully directed the wrong way by a nonchalant, almost indecipherable police officer – just as the riders were tackling the first of four finishing laps.
Peering down at the endless line of vehicles, it seemed that everywhere south of Dundalk was at a standstill. Oops.
So I ditch the car at the side of the road to begin the long trek towards town. Well, at least it’s a nice day.
Just as I click the keys to lock the car, an elderly, grey-haired man on a sit-up-and-beg cycles by, and announces in an elongated drawl to the stranded motorists (partly by way of explanation, partly in scorn at their ignorance towards this most revered of national sporting events): “It’s the Raaaaaaaawwwssss”.
The public holiday vibe around Blackrock doesn’t end with the queue of frustrated motorists. As I finally make it down to the back end of the course, feeling the heat after my brisk walk, I join a decent crowd gathered at a wide, sweeping lefthand bend taking the riders back into town.
Feeley – fittingly – is the first rider we see. The yellow jersey is driving a four-man group clear on what should have been a straightforward series of victory laps for the 25-year-old from Roscommon. Just because he can, I suppose.
Fifteen seconds later, the peloton comes steaming by, led by the Cycling Ulster team of stage one winner and former race leader Matthew Teggart.
Cycling Ulster leads the chase in the peloton
If the Rás has pedigree, so does Teggart.
The Banbridge-born WiV SunGod rider – competing in the colours of his home province this week – has raced for Team Wiggins and EvoPro Racing in the past, and wore the red sprints jersey at the 2018 Tour of Britain. The 26-year-old has impressed this year with some decent results on the continent, including a fourth-place finish at Paris-Troyes earlier this month.
Teggart also comes from one of Irish cycling’s most illustrious families: his father Neil represented Northern Ireland at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, and currently drives the neutral service car at the Rás (his brother Stephen, incidentally, plays for Irish League side Portadown).
Matthew’s grandfather Noel was a prolific winner on the national scene who – unwittingly – played a leading role in one of Irish cycling’s most controversial episodes, at the 1972 Olympic road race.
Teggart was representing Ireland in Munich when a group of NCA riders (barred, of course, from racing for the ‘official’ Ireland team) gate-crashed the race in protest at the sporting and political division of Ireland. One of the NCA men, John Mangan, winner of the Rás that year, even ‘led’ the race for a spell before dropping back into the peloton, where he proceeded to engage in a war of words with Teggart.
The Northern Irish rider was then allegedly pushed off the road by the NCA protesters, his Olympic dream – and the reputation of Irish cycling – in tatters. The Munich debacle, which took place just days after the Black September terrorist attack, represented a watershed for Irish cycling’s political squabbles: the negative publicity it generated proving the catalyst for two-wheeled peace talks by the mid-1970s.
Matthew, who won the race named after his late grandfather in Banbridge earlier this month, has his own history with the Rás, winning a stage and wearing the yellow jersey at the Big One in 2017.
He repeated both feats this year, taking the opening stage’s bunch sprint into Horse and Jockey and with it the overall lead. Installed as a favourite after his stage win, and therefore heavily marked, Teggart – despite his obvious strength on the hills – could only watch as the race went away from him the following day, and eventually finished fifth overall.
“Obviously the overall would have been nice, and it was my main target,” he tells me at the finish in Blackrock. “The race was so unpredictable, and I think the biggest mistake I made looking back was winning the first stage! It is what it is though, and I’m happy enough.”
Cycling Ulster's Matthew Teggart chats with police officer – and former Irish champion and Paralympic gold medallist – Eve McCrystal at the finish
Teggart, of course, is well aware of how important the return of the Rás is for Irish cycling.
“It’s absolutely brilliant to see the Rás back on Irish roads,” he says, as his girlfriend patiently waits behind us with a bouquet of flowers fresh from the podium ceremony. He’s a popular boy, Matthew, having spent a good twenty minutes after the stage chatting to spectators, most of whom are wearing the yellow, black and red colours of his home club, Banbridge CC.
“You see there today, the finish. If you get a good day, here in Blackrock or Skerries [another seaside town which hosted the final stage of the race between 2008 and 2018], it’s class and some atmosphere.
“And because you’re with boys you race with week in week out, every night in the hotel it’s always good craic. There’s just a buzz about the whole place, everyone’s in good form.
“It definitely is brilliant to have the Rás back. And it’s so well-supported, it gets such a good following and it’s so prestigious.
“To have won a stage again and have another day in yellow, it really is an honour.”
Men of the Rás
While Teggart’s teammates give chase into Blackrock for the race’s final lap, I make my way along a rolling, country road lined with houses. Most of the front gardens have some sort of furniture in them, ranging from deckchairs to kitchen stools. Who says you can’t be comfortable watching a bike race?
Watching the race in style...
Some of the chairs are vacant as I pass; presumably because the owners have nipped into the house quickly, in between visits from the peloton, to pop the kettle on or grab another beer.
One family has brought a garden table, adorned with snacks, to the edge of the drive. Across the road, an elderly woman leans against her wall, gazing lazily down the road for a sight of the riders.
Ahead at the next corner, a family waves a yellow and blue Roscommon GAA flag in support of race winner elect Feeley (now nestled safely back in the peloton), while a young girl jumps up and down when the bunch passes as if her favourite team has just scored a goal.
20-year-old Tom McCambridge, back in stellar form after a nasty crash in Belgium and a bout of Covid-19 earlier this year, leads the peloton by ten seconds. He’ll hold them off all the way to the line for an impressive solo win. Mere yards behind, best of the rest Teggart bangs the bars in frustration.
But while Feeley, McCambridge and the rest prepare for their close up along the seafront, the Rás continues on for several groups of riders cast asunder by the leaders’ blistering pace.
Over the next twenty minutes, small groups, sometimes a dozen-strong, sometimes only three or four, dive into the corner, each rider fighting for the wheel in front, counting down the moments until their five days of pain and suffering end.
As one of the larger groups of stragglers brakes in anticipation for the sharp right hander, at least four or five minutes after the peloton has passed, a young boy – of no more than four or five – silently stares at the cyclists as they zoom by.
Once he’s found what he’s been looking for, he quickly runs back to his mother, who’s been taping the race on her phone.
“Daddy, there’s daddy!” he shouts, grabbing her arm. “I spotted daddy!”
On Monday morning, I imagine, he’ll tell all his friends at school that his dad’s a man of the Rás.
The UCI status and international field may be gone – at least for the timing being – but the Rás retains its charm in 2022 because, like any iconic Irish sporting event worth its salt, it endures as a link between the local and the national, the neighbour and the hero, the traditional and the modern, the parochial and the epic.
And long may it continue.
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