For those in the club who race, whether it be club league, open races or vet races, there is something special about a stage race. It’s the nearest thing your average racer gets to feeling like a pro. Forget turning up to a Sunday open race; the buzz, the nervous... it’s all about the next three days. The stages. Who’s going to do what and what position they will have in general classification by the end of the day.

Driving to Cork Saturday, I give Jules Cantwell a lifelong friend a call. He’s the whole reason I’m heading down here. I ran marathons before I joined Orwell and it was this man who convinced me to get a bike on the bike-to-work scheme four years ago. “What’s the goal he asks?” With no hesitation, I reply to win a stage. It’s my turn.

I’ve meet many great people in the racing scene within Orwell (you know who you are) and we all talk about the “Stephen Barry way to win a race”… BREAKAWAY. The weekend is going well for Orwell. Eoin Ahern is second in GC after putting in a savage ride on stage one. A sub-12 minute 8k time trial Sunday morning and this man blows it out of the park by picking up a win on stage 3. Eoin is now second in GC a couple of seconds of first to a guy from Lucan CC, Kilian Doyle is putting in savage stints every stage for Team Orwell and we are two minutes up for the team prize. The Orwell stamp is well and truly punched on this race.

Seventh in GC Bank Holiday Monday, I’m up having breakfast in our beautiful hotel that Ken O’Neill reserved. Dave Mc comes in and I ask him the lowdown on what is to happen on today’s stage. “Protect Eoin at all costs; if a break goes, you go, Eoin only pulls the trigger with 1k to go. Ideal scenario we get you the stage and Eoin in yellow for the weekend.”

It’s just after 8.30am and I can feel the nerves and adrenalin tap open. Ken O’Neill is across the table giving out: “You can do this, Graham. You have the legs, and you have proved that in the club league and by your previous performance in Stamullen. You close every break and go for the win, what’s the problem?” NO PRESSURE. I now hear the words from Jules Cantwell echo in my head – “It’s your turn, Graham.”

So much for Ronan Grimes weather predictions: “16 degrees the sun splitting the stones.”At the start, I look up and there is a huge grey cloud above, One thing I hate is being in a bunch when it rains. I broke a collarbone last year and ever since I’ve a fear of the front wheel going out from under me in wet conditions. I wish my team-mates well and I tell them we have this, Killian and Eoin look in good nick after a tough three stages under the belt.

We are off, three laps 67.5k, steady as she goes pace. I look around and I know there are a lot of tired legs within this bunch. My mind flashes back to Charleville 2015, the tired legs on stage 3 and I was still in the mix with a sprint to go. The talk in the peloton is the second lap will smash this race up. I’m secretly looking forward to this. The bunch pulls out of Kanturk and I see this guy fire of the front straight away and I’m laughing to myself, calling him all the eejits as there is so far to go and this is a lumpy stage. I remember Dave Mac’s words so I come to the front and pick the pace up to close it.

So... here... we... go – 5k into the stage and there is a small climb and again I see this lad a couple of bikes to the right, No.11, out of the saddle, giving it the beans up the climb. He’s a few metres up the climb ahead of the bunch and I say to myself, “Close this.” I’m out off the saddle as I close him down at the top of the climb and I look behind. That’s easy 20 seconds right there. I let a scream at him that we can make some time on this decent. Afterburners on down the hill, I glace back and I see we have opened the gap by another 20. “This is it Graham; this is the break.” We turn left onto the N72. Great surface but the hailstones start to fall. I’m so glad not to be in the peloton. It’s me and No.11 from Slieve Luachra CC. This young lad has 10 years on me easy and I’m thinking, “This guy is my patsy; I’m going the suck the wheel of this fella!” Seconds pass and I soon realise this lad hasn’t got it. Jules words echo in my mind – “In order to stay away, you need to get into TT mode for at least 4-5k.” I strike a match, out of the hoods to the drops and I put the hammer down like never before. Couldn’t even see the Garmin as to what watts I was producing. I didn’t care. Zone 7 plus for at least 10 minutes towards Banteer. I look behind and realise that this guy from Luachra thinks I’m the patsy. Let’s just say for the benefit of being diplomatic in this report, I told him in the nicest possible way at the top of my voice with a bit of bad language thrown in that if he doesn’t work he can go back to the bunch.

Left again on the road back into Kanturk, I can’t see the peloton; I grab a bottle and a Jaffa cake. I’m feeling good after the lumpy N72. Me and Mr Luachra have 5k to Kanturk. Not the best of friends at this stage as I’m pleading with him to take the front and do a stint. No response from him, I pull him to Kanturk where he then takes the lead on a right left chicane turn through the town of Kanturk. I can hear people scream “Go on, lads”. Go on, LADS? What lads? This fella hasn’t done a tap. We come to a long climb up the town of Kanturk and I’m like Chris Froome spinning the legs cadence above 100 and I know there is more in the tank of the Scanlon fella. Lap one complete, I finally blow a gasket. “Mr Luachra, you dig in or get off my wheel.” With a few other words thrown into the mix, he gets the message. I’m on my own.

Graham on the attack (photograph with thanks to Maura Moriaty and Kanturk Cycling Club)

Up the climb into a headwind where I broke away on lap one, I can see the peloton is about 30 seconds behind me. The rain is absolutely belting down. I don’t care. I can’t be part of that group in this weather. Tired legs and bad weather, I knew heads would drop within the peloton. I’m up and over the climb heading to my second stint on the N72. I start to believe in what I’m doing. I’m over halfway through the race, I’m thinking of the lads I train with from the club, the GBAL lads who I pal with. We all think the same – breakaway is the way to win a race. Halfway down the lumpy N72, I hear a car-horn. I look right – Dave Mac hanging out the window of Stephen Rowan's Volkswagen Golf. “42 seconds,” he shouts at me. “go, go, go, go.” I snap back to the task at hand and I absolutely gun in for the remainder of this road. Turning slowly left, I take my time in the greasy conditions as I head back into Kanturk. “Beep, beep.” Another roar. They can’t even see you. I drive on as I wolf down a hand full of soggy jelly babies. Left right chicane into Kanturk and I see Eddie Dunbar holding marshal flag, shouting at me to “Go on, lad.” Up the hill, I’m on the final lap. I take a look down the hill and I can’t see the peloton. I realise now with that climb ahead of the bunch that this is mine to lose. The legs are starting to hurt, I can hear the crowd cheering and clapping me on. I take a drink from my bottle. I realise with another full bottle onboard this is weight I don’t need to carry so I fling it to side of the road. Like something you see the pros do on Eurosport (I secretly always wanted to do that in a crowd). Beep, beep. Jellies. “You are away, Graham. You are riding yellow.”

I think of my team mates and what they are doing. I know Killian knows the score. He’s old school A4. He rides for the team. He will be riding out front with the breaks on, slowing the peloton for me to stay away. I know Eoin is second in GC but at this stage all I’m thinking is get to the line first. It’s my turn.

Last lap and I find it hard to concentrate. I’m thinking of loved ones who I promised one day I would do this. The countless Saturday nights of taking it easy in order to turn up to open race Sunday fresh as I could to take home some points. The countless times at Sunday breakfast when I told them I feel I could do something today only to come home empty-handed. All the support they have given me. All the belief. It’s payback time.

Ten k from home, the commencer passes – 32 seconds bunch chasing hard. I need to pick this up. Bang … 53/11 and I am pumping my legs like never before, I can feel the pain in my thighs, I don’t care I’m riding like a man possessed. I want this so much. Gasping for air, drinking rainwater, I’ve my Bernard English race-face on. As I pass the 4k Kanturk sign, I keep saying to myself, “This is your turn, this is your turn.” Dave Mac is nearly falling out the window of the car roaring at me – “You’re riding in yellow – go, go, go Graham. “ I roll into Kanturk with the echo of “You’re a min up, Graham, a min up.” I’m not even thinking GC; I’m thinking 60k on my own. Stephen Barry who?! Left, right chicane through Kanturk up the final climb, I know it’s mine. I’ve nothing left in the tank; I can’t even get out of the saddle to climb. I always wanted to cross the line first, both hands in the air, but to be honest I’m that tired I can’t. Ah, well. Next time.

Graham with Eddie Dunbar of Kanturk Cycling Club

Acknowledgement: We made a mistake in this article by originally referring to the rider in the break with Graham as a rider from Youghal Cycling Club. This was a mix up as it was a rider in a different club from Munster. We would like to apologize to Youghal Cycling Club for this error and for anything that members of Youghal Cycling Club may have heard about this subsequently.