Jamie Busher: Man of the Rás

As I progressed through the club league and Cycling Ireland ranks I eventually became aware of the Rás. Anytime I ever heard it discussed terms like savage, suffering and brutal were mentioned. This was also the view of Sean Kelly also so it wasn’t to be taken lightly. At the end of last season I was upgraded to A2 which meant my goals for the coming season changed and the Rás was a possibility. Time was running out for me so it was a case of now or never.

Over the years I’d racked up quite a few stage races across the country but the only race I’d done which was comparable to the standard in the Rás was the Suir Valley 3 day and I’d survived that okay. My race schedule was changed to include Rás Mumhan and the Tour of Ulster. Down in Kerry I took a good kicking what with the savage racing, tough stages and extreme conditions. We had great support that weekend with Neal Hudson acting as manager alongside support from Ann & Helen Horan. After Mumhan I was questioning my own sanity and why I would voluntarily take a week’s holiday to be beaten up and down the country by professional riders. Fast forward to early May and I went better in the Tour of Ulster, the beatings didn’t seem as severe.

The club has a great tradition in the Rás and the experience from those that have gone before was invaluable in putting together a team. To even get a place in the team was difficult which is a measure of the quality of racers in the club at the moment, some counties would struggle to get 5 riders.

A huge amount of credit goes to those that were involved in the organisation and running of the quiz fundraiser, I won’t mention names for fear of leaving somebody out.

Below is an account of how things went from my saddle.

Stage 1: Dublin Castle – Multyfarnam (144km)

The team at the start (photo thanks to John Busher)

Stage one is a relatively flat 144km stage which was a neutral start from Dublin Castle out to Clonee. There is a huge Orwell presence in Dublin castle to see off the riders and we get an amazing reception when we are called to the stage for sign on.

We assemble at the gates of Dublin Castle and some rain drops start appearing to the dismay of the foreigners and race attire is reconsidered. After a 10 minute wait we are off and we swoop down the south quays making our way towards the Phoneix park. Again there is huge Orwell support in the park to cheer us on and the other county clubs are very jealous. On paper this is a relatively easy route but the first day of any stage race can be pretty mental and the Rás even more so. There is a large crash within the first 20km which spreads the entire width of the road and is 4 to 5 riders deep. I am caught behind the crash, wait for a moment for the riders to pick themselves up and wait for a gap to get through. Finally I manage to get going and immediately get in behind a line of riders. The front of the race is full gas as a break tries to establish and this represents a panic moment. I spot the Irish national jersey, some JLT and other pro jerseys so feel confident they will not let the race get away. I catch a glimpse of Manuel, and he has some mud on his shorts so assume he has come down in the crash but looks okay. The pros chase and take us back to the main bunch after a frantic 5 – 10kms. The speed for the first hour is 48kmph but is manageable on flattish roads with a big bunch of 180+ riders.

Just before Virginia and 62km into the race I hit a small pothole and suffer a puncture. The race is rampaging on a wide main road and with the wind coming from the left the race is grappling with the right hand side of the road so I have no choice but to pull in to the right which is not good considering neutral service only service from the left. I wait patiently for the team car which is a fair way down the cavalcade. Fionn jumps out and provides a swift front wheel change and the chase begins. Unfortunately it was a bad spot to puncture as the race was moving through winding, twisty, draggy roads through a town and towards the back of the cavalcade. After a 10km chase in the cars the ambulance passed me and I am resigned to bidding the race farewell for the day. A quick glance over my shoulder to take stock of the situation confirms I am indeed completely on my own with another 72km remaining in the stage. It’s a very strange sensation to find yourself completely alone on the road considering less than 2 hours earlier the excitement and fanfare in Dublin castle. No time for feeling sorry for myself, I need to get the head down and start making some calculations considering there is no leniency with the time cut which is 20% of the winner’s time and it’s liable to be a fast race.

After 10km I am joined by a Neagh rider and we begin to tap out a good pace. We crest the category 3 climb at 90km and pick up a rider from the Australian Pro team who has crashed on the descent and missing half his cycling bibs. The group becomes 3 and we finish together losing almost 30 minutes to the winner but glad to be lining out for the next day. Back to the hotel I hear Ronan suffers a crash in the closing stages but finishes strong. Stephen puts down a great performance and makes the splits to finish strong and in a good position on the A2 GC.

Stage 2: Mullingar – Charleville (183km)

Stage two is another flat stage with a category 3 climb late in the day at 117km, again this is a stage which shouldn’t represent any major issues.

Unfortunately Stephen withdraws from the race at this point due to a family emergency. It was a great loss both on and off the road to lose Stephen as he no doubt would have flourished when the race hit Kerry/Cork. We completed many a hard, dirty, rainy spin during the winter together and pushed each other so I was gutted for him.

The first half of the stage is predominantly on wide main roads and it was relatively uneventful. As we reach the 60km point the roads begin to narrow and the surface quality decreases. At the 70km mark I get my first proper taste of a Rás line out and it’s actually on a slight descent, when I lift my head I can see a drag on the horizon where the front of the race is doing the damage and it’s almost a single line. At the time I thought this is horrific but in retrospect to use earthquake terminology this was only a 5 or 6 on the Richter scale and there is worse to come.

After that intense period of racing the break has got away and the pros decide it’s time for riders to take a natural break, I push up towards the front in order to find a spot. Stage fright kicks in and I find myself hearing the revs of cars from the cavalcade, bottle it and immediately scuttle back to the safety of the bunch. My stall is set for the week, I can survive over long distances without natural breaks and dare not dethatch myself from the safety of the bunch.

At 117km we hit the category 3 Shallee climb and I have decent position into the climb sitting at least mid-bunch. At the halfway point of the climb I am still holding on to the front bunch but I’m slipping and Ronan is last man clinging on, Brian shouts some encouragement as he slips by to make contact with the bunch. My father is roadside providing static bottle support, I grab the bottle and push on chasing the lead bunch. At the top we have a group of 10 with about 50/60 riders behind. We chase hard on the descent and eventually get back to the bunch which contains Ronan and Brian. All the main players have since departed this group and Manuel makes it back also. Ronan forges on in a small group of 4 or 5 and makes up 3 mins on our group. The remainder save their powder and we roll back to Charleville in glorious sunshine.

Stage 3: Charleville – Dingle (133km)

Stage 3 was a short stage with a category 1 climb of Conor Pass late in the stage at 120km. At the breakfast table the route was discussed and considering the climb was so late in the day it was a deemed a safe day. As we rolled out of Charleville the route is familiar and we pass through roads that I’ve raced before in the Charleville 2 day race.

The race is super-fast from the gun and I’m regretting my rubbish position in the peleton, within 10km I’m experiencing a 7 on the Richter scale of lineouts. A wheel is dropped in front of me and a few others let wheels go and suddenly I’ve got the responsibility of bridging the gaps, I dig deep and try muster up the energy to make it back to the line. As soon as I make contact more wheels are dropped and I’m faced with the same scenario, elbows are flicked but there are no takers from behind so I maintain my pace with about 4 bike lengths to make up. Finally some riders come through and as soon as a gap appears I’m on the wheels and we are back to the safety of the bunch. That’s an unnecessary match burned so early in the race and immediately we are on a drag which further reduces any opportunity of recovery.

At 20km we hit a climb and a rider from the USA pro team crashes down in my path, I come to an immediate stop to avoid a collision. When I get going again there is a crazy scramble to regain contact with the bunch but it’s early in the race and with the speeds very high we watch the race slip away up the hill and out of our grasp. Manuel is caught behind the crash also and we regroup on the road later.

When things settle down it’s only myself Manuel and the USA rider on the road facing the prospect of 100km+ against the clock. Manuel then has a spoke issue and is serviced by the Nenagh car and eventually makes it back to our group which now has approximately 8 riders. We hoover up riders in front of us and some chase groups latch onto our group as it swells to 30+ riders.

The commissarie is informing us of the gap to the front of the race as it’s a tailwind stage and the front group are averaging almost 50kmph which presents a real time cut danger. As we approach the category 1 climb of the Conor Pass at the 120km mark we are told the time gap to the leaders is 20 mins which means we can easily make the cut and the climb is taken at a somewhat reasonable pace. We descend into Dingle and soak up the atmosphere. Declan Quiqley is MC on the stage and welcomes us to a sun drenched Dingle.

Six riders eventually miss the cut on this stage as a result of the roaring pace of the winning group (46.3kmph).

Stage 4: Dingle - Sneem (156km)

Stage 4 is a long stage with some serious climbing involved. Considering my poor positioning on the previous stage I am determined to start aggressive and ensure there are no mishaps as happened on stage 3. I roll out of Dingle glued to the front of the race waiting for the flag to drop. County riders are nervous about the category 3 climb which occurs just 8km into the stage, any mishaps here and you are in serious trouble. We all make it over with the main bunch and can enjoy the scenery along the coast until we arrive in Killorglin.

Again I'm familiar with the roads from Rás Mumhan and we charge up the short but steep climb of the village. I knew what was about to happen next but a 8 on the richter scale of lineouts had me almost feeling sick, in Rás Mumhan this lasts for about 1 minute but today it was to continue for a further 2-3 minutes and riders begin to drop wheels.

The category 1 climb of Ballaghisheen greets us at 75km and the main objective of the day was to get to the climb with the front of the race and see what happens from there. The racing has been full on into the climb with the exception of a 10 minute period where the pros call a truce at the front of the race.

We all make it into the bottom of the climb with the lead bunch but further lineouts leading into the climb has taken its toll and the front of the race slips slowly up the road. Myself Manuel and Ronan ride the climb together safe in the knowledge there are a large number of riders behind us. My father is waiting on the climb and all riders receive some welcome roadside refreshments. The final 1km is a brute and I'm glad I’ve got a 28 cassette on the bike.

We descend together and start picking up lone riders. An Austrialian Pro joins our group and we manage to make contact with a group of 7 or 8 riders. The group settles to about 15 riders and we don't see any further riders from behind or ahead for the remainder of the day. The group works well with the majority of riders riding through and we make good progress over the Cat 2 climb of Coomakista and a further 2 Cat 3 climbs before arriving at the finish in Sneem.

Stage 5: Sneem - Clonakilty (148km)

Stage 5 is touted as a dangerous stage for the county riders as it contains the Cat 2 climb of the Caha Pass early in the race at 40km.

As with all the stages so far the pace is electric for the first hour and there is no respite. Regardless of terrain or weather conditions the average speed seems to be 45-50kmph in the first hour for all stages so far.

The race whips through Kenmare at 25km and out the far end of town on a drag we suffer what was probably the worst lineout of the week, its torture holding that single wheel in front and I'm adopting a strange new cycling style in an attempt to get the power through the pedals.

(photo thanks to John Busher)

When the race reaches the Caha Pass there are splits everywhere, again I experience that helpless feeling of watching the front bunch inch away up the road. The survival mode button is pressed and small groups are formed on the climb and subsequent descent. I'm in a group of about 8 riders but before I know it some of the group are ferried up the road on team car bumpers and I'm left with only a Waterford rider. We eventually make it back to a decent group which contains Manuel, the county riders begin to get organised and start working together. Ronan also makes it back to this group and we see no further riders from up ahead however the majority of the riders from behind join up over the remaining 100km and it’s a group of 50+ approaching the finish in Clonakilty. We are greeted by a big enthusiastic crowd in Clonakilty and as we pass through the finish line for the first time, up McCurtin hill the crowds ignite our bunch and they begin racing each other, ouch wasn't expecting that! After the Cat 2 ascent of McCurtain Hill there are some further lineouts as riders are eager to gain some bragging rights for the finale up McCurtin Hill.

Stage 6: Clonakilty - Dungarvan (158km)

Stage 6 is a stage which worried me prior to the race when reviewing the routes. Although the stage is absent of big Cat 1 or Cat 2 climbs it’s a constantly rolling course over a combination of uncategorised climbs and Cat 3's on tough dead roads.

I've given up all hope of an easy day as the GC is so tight, there is an assumption each morning that the first hour will be the usual torture fest where we hold onto the front bunch for dear life.

The race kicks off with the usual flurry of attacks off the front. Within the first 10km there is a crash and I get caught behind it. When I eventually get going there are gaps and I can hear other riders saying the Australian team are also behind so we are safe as they will ride us back on. That would normally be the case on a nice flat road but we are on a draggy 5km section of road @ 2% so unless the Australian team tie a rope around me and pull me up the drags they are of no use. Towards the top of the drags I'm in the red and the cavalcade is swallowing me up as I begin the descent, we've only covered 20km at this point so panic begins to kick in. Fortunately the break has gone up the road so I ride through the cars and find the main bunch at the bottom of the descent to my relief.

On a nice flat section Brian says this will your easy day on the Rás so sit in the bunch and enjoy it. The next 10 minutes is about the only part of the race where I can say it was easy, in total I reckon there was 15 minutes easy. We hit the windy gap Cat 3 climb at 30km and by Rás standards it’s taken at a humane pace.

The next 30km is extremely undulating roads and is not raced full gas but the constant rolling nature is taking its toll. On a very steep hill at approximately 90km Ronan is on the deck, he's back on his feet and appears to be okay.

The lead bunch has gotten away up the road and once around the crash I ride to the top with a chasing group. We make contact with the main bunch again, I glance down at my handlebar notes and there is another Cat 3 at 93km. It's a stinker of a short 10% climb and the legs finally submit as I am swallowed up by the cavalcade. It’s a double climb and find myself alone at the top and get some welcome bottles from our support team of Mary, Aisling and my father. Once over the summit I sit up, wait for riders to come up from behind and we have 50km remaining in the stage.

Ronan gets a bike change and manages to make it back to the group. Myself, Ronan and Manuel are in the group and we ride through honestly for the remainder of the stage. There’s a further Cat 3 climb before the finish but it’s taken at a conservative pace.

It’s agreed amongst the group that the two Dungarvan riders are allowed lead the group home for the final 2km and across the finish line into their home town which is a nice touch. Maybe fatigue is setting in but this was my most difficult stage to date and I am completely wrecked after the finish.

Orwell Ras Team (photo thanks to John Busher)

Stage 7: Dungarvan – Baltinglass (155km)

Stage 7 is another frightening prospect with three Cat 3 climbs and the Cat 1 climb of Mount Leinster. Again this stage contains lots of uncategorised climbs and I overhear some local riders saying that the first 50km are even harder than the previous stage. Brian Mcnally joins us at the sign on location to provide some support and welcome banter. A small band are playing some tunes on the start line in Dungarvan which eases the nerves before the lead car moves off.

Once the flag is dropped normal service is resumed and I drop down the cassette, dunk dunk dunk until finally I am again in my old friend the 11 sprocket. Pace again is 45-50 kmph for the first hour and there is a 3.5km uncategorised climb out of Kilmacthomas at 20km. The peleton rages up the climb at 40kmph and my heart is popping out of my chest as I become increasingly ragged, crucial to stay with the race here.

We make it over the climb and push on towards the first cat 3 near 50km. The break has gone at this point and the climb is taken conservatively for the first few km but towards the top the pace lifts and wheels begin dropping from mid bunch back. We stay with the front of the race, descend to a main road section with some roundabouts and then some immediate drags. Pressure has been building to this point with significant numbers already out the back and in trouble. The race lines out the drag, then boom rider’s limits have been breached and they let the race slip away. At first we can react, ride around and maintain contact but we are in negative equity here and its feels inevitable we will be gobbled up by the cavalcade. Brian gives us some pushes but there are climbs ahead and we tell him to push on and not let the race away. Ronan and I are in the cars on the next climb and eventually we have Fionn and Stephen alongside in the team car. With the help of the team car on the subsequent descent we make contact with a small group of riders which includes Manuel. With 65km covered and 90km remaining we make our way towards the beautiful village of Inistioge. Talk turns to any concerns around missing the cut-off and we are reassured by a former Rás winner within the group there is no danger.

I’m now on home territory been a Wexford native and the roads are familiar, I’m not sure if that is a positive or negative as Mount Leinster beckons. Yes the skinny pros are up the road but this climb is no gimme even in the groupetto and tired bodies are slipping out the back. Big crowds are on the nine stones carpark to watch the suffering and we all collect some refreshments at the summit curtesy of my father and sister who are on bottle duties.

After the descent of Mount Leinster riders are reluctant to ride the front and this results in some handbags for the remaining 40km. Bernard English is roadside in the final 10km shouting encouragement to the Orwell Riders. We finally make it to a wet Baltinglass where Eddie Dunbar has taken the stage win for Ireland and the worst of the suffering is over.

Stage 8: Kildare – Skerries (148km)

The final stage of a long stage is supposedly a procession/celebration however with the GC still tight and having witnessed all that has gone before I’m reluctant to relax or take anything for granted, there will be no Champagne just yet. Again the Garmin rarely shows a speed of less than 50kmph and the predictable lineouts are experienced particularly after passing through small towns. With a flat parcours through Kildare the mission today is get to the circuits in Skerries with the front of the race.

A Rás stage is never easy regardless of terrain but with such a flat route through Kilcock/Dunsany and little wind the pros would need some superhuman efforts to split the bunch. Racing is hard and 100% concentration is still required but it’s pleasant compared to the torturous climbs of Kerry/Cork. Just before Dunsany the break has got away and the bunch rolls along at a pedestrian 42kmph and all Orwell riders have made the finishing circuit in Skerries with the front of the race. First time up the Black Hills section of the circuit and I’m feeling pretty good and towards the top I’m wondering what all the fuss is about the climb. We descend in towards Skerries, through a small estate before a massive cheering crowd greets us on the main street. The atmosphere is electric and this only serves to ignite the front of the race as riders empty every last ounce of energy to put on a show.

Second time up the Black Hills and it’s an entirely different story as it feels like a Hors Category climb with the increased intensity. Brian shouts encouragement as wheels are dropped but again the front bunch disappear out of sight before a group is established, racing is still hard with all riders keen to give everything in the last stage of the race. Bernard English is again on hand to dish out encouragement and bottles on the hill.

Ronan, Maunel and I are prominent at the front of the chase group driving the pace in towards the finish which is a common feature of the second half of the race.

We pass the finish line for the final time into a sun soaked Skerries. Friends, family and fellow club members are at the finish which is much appreciated by the riders. After the medal ceremony we all assemble on the sea front where a few beers are consumed curtesy of Dave Mc/Jen Sheridan and the gang.

The team at the end (photo thanks to John Busher)

Last Words

In the days following the Rás I dropped my frame into a bike shop for some repairs. The mechanic asked me what my favourite stage was as if referring to flavours of Ice cream or tracks on a eagerly awaited album release from a top band. I gave him a puzzled look and decided against giving him a blow by blow description of all the suffering I’d just gone through. Turns out he was a county stage winner in years just gone. In retrospect I did have a favourite state and it was stage 4 which contained the cat 1 climb of Ballaghisheen which was like something from the set of Lord of the Rings, a close second was Stage 7 through my home county of Wexford with my family on top of Mount Leinster to cheer me on.

As each stage passed a pattern emerged for the county rider’s at my level, survive with the professional/international teams as late as possible into the stages. Study the routes and mentally pinpoint a stage in the race where you would be happy to be still with the main race, survive dig deep and hope you make it to the finish without incident. It was nerve wracking at times and doubts clouded my mind. That’s where my fellow team mates of Manuel, Ronan, Steve and Brian came into play.

A nice aspect to the race was sharing the hotels with all the other teams. Heading down to evening dinner I’d wonder what muscle bound monster was putting down the hurt at the front of the race but I’d only witness some underweight blondie headed kids from summer bay sit down to dinner and nibble on some lettuce leafs.

Aishling O'Connor and Mary Brady (photo thanks to John Busher)

Sometimes cycling is a blurred line between an individual sport and a team sport. My week on the Rás has confirmed that cycling at Rás level is very much a team sport and most of that team never actually turn a pedal. Aisling O’Connor/Mary Brady were the swannies on the team, we were blessed to have such capable and good humored ladies looking after us. I’d done numerous stage races prior to the Rás but never have I experienced that level of care and the difference it makes really is massive to the riders.

I’m well accustomed to my father supporting me in races but he put in a big shift on the Rás week. A man that can do it all from, mechanic, photography, feed zones, driver, motivator and generally a positive person around a race. As always I give a nod to my mother up above on crossing any finish line and more so with the Rás.

Fionn (photo thanks to John Busher)

Each evening and morning Fionn was out making sure our bikes were purring and looked after us on the road along with Stephen in the team car, it was a great team effort. It was also great to have the team car and bus with us.

After finishing (photo thanks to John Busher)

It all began with a table quiz organised by the club and attended by club members so for that I’m very grateful. It’s a great club that can bring riders from club league level to riding the Rás and Orwell has continually done this. Overall the Rás was an immense experience for me and I count myself very lucky to have made the finish in Skerries as many other didn’t due to crashes, mechanicals or missed time cuts.