National Congcentration

"To Hell or to Connacht" (Cromwell, 1652) is a phrase that would suggest a harsh inhospitable and uncompromising environment awaits them upon their arrival west of the mighty Shannon. And while Olly might of had a point, the roads are indeed heavy, the wind does indeed blow that bit harder and the rain that much wetter but hell for me was not the brutal landscape of beautiful Connemara. Hell for me was failing to do what i promised myself I would do some 12 months previous in Cong at the very same race. I would come back and medal (secretly dreaming of winning) as my main season target. This perhaps unhealthy fixation on one race, the proverbial eggs in basket scenario was bred on the back of winning the team prize with a group of honest hard working talented lads I'm now lucky enough to call the competition (friends). All of them that day were good enough to win and wear that national jersey but for one reason or another it just didn't go our way and i had hoped to right that wrong. Unfinished business needs fixing.

With 12 months to kill I set about building badgers over the winter. With the help and guidance of Aidan Hammond I got stuck into some long winter miles around lovely Lucan, nice and flat, nothing to write home about but perfect for building up an appetite. Effort was to be measured in snot not watt and the frequent sight of their blue and yellow strip sent mucus production into man-flu territory, reminding me of my school days. A county Limerick man attending the CBS in Tipp town (behind enemy lines) is character building to say the least. Six months cycling around Lucan does strange things to a man so for the remaining months the plan was to race tough hard races where chances of results were slim, Mayo 2Day, The Des Hanlon, Gorey, The Nenagh Classic, Kanturk 3Day and Suir Valley etc. were all penciled in as a means to an end. None of them disappointed and I was very much the nail, getting hammered most days.

At the start of the race. Photograph with many thanks to Robert Justynski and to organisers Cunga Cycling Club.

But that was to change, or so i hoped. Fast forward to Cong. I left work Saturday at 6pm and drove straight to Cong taking the scenic route via Frenchpark, Castlerea, Ballyhaunis, Claremorris. Stupid Nova FM and their distractingly brilliant music, i missed the M6 turn off. Got into Cong under the cover of darkness about 10pm for operation redemption. Only 52 at sign on the next morning which would make the race unpredictably interesting. With the numbers of two fellow A3 SV3D competitors scribbled on my wrist and the motivational words of Busher McNally & Barry in my ear I had a plan and a little prayer.

Lead out car was driven by no other than King Kelly. I was on the bumper (not roof rack) when he stuck his head out during neutral saying someone had a mechanical so if i wanted a P%$$ (nature break) now was the time or save it for my chamois later, true story. Down came the flag and away speed Kelly from the bunch, rolling back the years Sean? A break (containing one of my marked men) went up the road within 10km, no-one seemed concerned but me. This young lad finished in the bunch most days at Suir Valley and had X3 good riders with him, one of which was a STCC rider who had 5/6 team mates left in the bunch to nullify any attempted chases. I tested the water, and made an attempt to go after them but my move was met with a chorus of HUP HUP HUP and so the games began. Reverting to plan A I sat in, stuffed my face, rode top 10, followed dangerous wheels and waited for the KOM. Which is aptly named the Lough Na Fooughy Leg Breaker on Strava (strava segment here). We caught sight of the breakaway on the hill and there was a collective release of breath from the bunch. In a complete swing of circumstances from the same time last year I found my self not swinging off the back but in a group of 7 leading it up Lough na Fooughly at a very conservative pace which i was sure to earn me an ear bashing from club mates. We caught the break comfortably in the end outside Maum with little to no matches burnt.

The second lap was somewhat different an the pace grew noticeably as sporadic attacks went off the front but non of note. The main players were keeping their powder dry for the KOM. I was 3rd wheel into the KOM and predictably the fireworks went off as soon as we crossed the bridge onto it, the usual suspects attacked and I went with, making a selection of 5 splitting the race, few matches used here alright. Both men id written on my wrist were present as was a strong Mego Raw rider and also the eventual winner from Tralee. We rode hard over the top but thats where it ended, the descent was there for riding but lads were on the brakes and 3/4 riders were able to tag back on. Some 15km later and it was all back together coming into Cornmona. Four brave souls (Lakelands and others) attacked here but with the danger men still in the bunch the writing was on the wall ... bunch finish.

There are two uncategorised little stingers (Segment Carrowgarriff, Co. Galway, Ireland and Ardaun Climb) left before the 6km run into town which were not a problem on lap 1 nor naively not of worry to me on lap 2, until that is i had to go up them. Out of nowhere the warning lights started to flash and with that my hopes of a result was cramping worse than my two quads. Disaster. Negative thoughts flooded my mind ... you fool, you did too much second time up the kom, you were told it would all come back together, what did you do that for, you thought you were being a hero, you didnt drink enough water, you arrived down to Cong too late last night, you ate breakfast too late. Then the excuse making ... its not your day, never mind no one is expecting a result anyway, thats bike racing, there's always next week. But id been through the ringer with similar thoughts a few weekends previous on my home roads up the Vee and Christ the King in Aherlow. Enough's enough, now was the time to fight like badger and tell my legs shut up, go hard or go home with my hands swinging.

My get-away sticks held up and before I knew it we were on the run in. Id rehearsed this last 5km over and over in my head weeks before hand. Position position position. Then all of a sudden the unmistakable sound of wheel rub, brakes, roars and carbon colliding. Smash bang scream came from over my right shoulder, but by the beard of Zeus id gotten away with it. I later found out Conor Murnane was brought down here and if it wasnt for this I'm sure he would of podiumed, he is devastatingly quick in a sprint. The Tralee guy (eventual winner) went for broke soon after but I wasnt worried, the run in last year averaged 49km there was no way he could hold off the bunch ... or could he (he did, fair play). The bunch stalled a few times in remaining 4km, lads you hadnt see all day coming to the front and then getting stage fright when getting there resulting in the speed yoyoing hence Tralee's epic win. Fortune favours the brave.

Gold was gone, negative thoughts returned. 1km remaining. Screw this, its not worth it, bunch sprint = carnage. Shut up, your here now you might as well give it a lash, the season is over, just do it. (All this swirling around in my head within a matter of milliseconds). Ok, lets do it ... shit or bust. Approaching the pinch point bridge 400m from the finish is where id planned to open it up. Here we go, 3rd wheel into & over the bridge - GO GO GO - Out of saddle - pull the bar tape off - burning blood filled my legs - pass the two guys on their left - first into the sweeping right hander - hold the inside line (cheers Geary) - keep the power down - hold hold hold ... ... ... Silver. Happy days!

The Finish. Photograph with many thanks to Robert Justynski and to organisers Cunga Cycling Club.

Just after the race. Photograph with many thanks to Robert Justynski and to organisers Cunga Cycling Club.

Photograph with many thanks to Bernard English