Manuel Fontan: Man of the Rás

Sunday 22 May 2016, could be just another Sunday spin, but not this time, I am heading to Dublin Castle, An Post Rás Stage 1 is waiting for us. Most of the team cars are already there, I won't lie I am nervous and not the good type, trying to stay calm I spot the team car in the middle of the square, easy as there are Orwell jerseys all around. As I come closer I see Stephen Barry holding his son. That image turn out to be one of the best An Post Rás official pictures.

Stephen Barry and his son before the start(photograph with thanks to An Post Rás)

Before the sign on we head to the cafeteria Brian, Ronan and Jamie are there, a little banter helps to relax before we head to the An Post truck for the sign on. Still feels sort of unreal when I find myself pedaling across Phoenix park on our way to Clonee.

I can feel the nerves all around now it is not just me, the pace is frenetic and everyone is fighting for position, feels quite real now, when all of a sudden a couple of lads crash just in front of me, I manage to avoid the straight hit but I finally hit the ditch, everything is going fast, I don't feel any pain can only think about getting up and get back pedaling, the bunch id flying I need to get back, there will be time to check the damages later on.

We are lined up chasing the group, I don't feel any pain, weird I must be the adrenaline, that was a fast speed crash, after a min I realize my saddle is twisted 30 degrees left and it is sticking in my leg like a knife, 'don't stop' the car will fix it on the fly when we catch up. But getting back is taking more than expected, I try to bring the saddle back and it works, I can hammer again, we are close the cars are just a few meters ahead, Eoin Morton shouts at me to hold the wheel and I do so, just a few seconds after we are back safe, Eoin pass me saying 'This was fun', maybe for you I think to myself only 20k and I already hit the red for 10 min this is gonna be a long day. We are now cruising to Multifarham, got my breath back and the legs are not feeling so bad, I check myself and I can't spot any damage, just a second skin of country mud.

Photo with thanks to Valdis Anderson

This is Ireland and to make it clear we get into a hailstorm for a few minutes, I can hear some of the British lads 'F... Irish weather'

Only thirty km to go, I am not feeling very good my legs feel empty, not sure if it is the crash, the nerves, low temperature or bad feeding but I am struggling to hold the pace. I am fading away, Fionn and John reach me and tell me to stay calm, Brian is coming and there is no reason for worrying about the time cut, 'just get to the line'. Not bad for a first day, could have been worst you don't get away a crash without any damage everyday.

Mary and Ash are waiting for us at the line with our recovery drinks and after-race bags, as they will be doing the hole week, always there when we need them, I cannot express with words how much I appreciate their outstanding support. Little chatter at the goal before heading to the Hotel, we are all good, Ronan and Stephen did great finishing with the front group, Ronan involved in a late crash lost a few min but it was there anyways. Bad luck for Jamie with a puncture that cost him good time.

Back in the hotel we go through, what would be our daily routing, feeding, weighting, rugs, dinner, resting, all salted with a quick check on Strava of the stage data.

Day two it is early in the morning, we head down for breakfast, porridge, irish breakfast, fruit, bananas, don't want to feel empty today. Can talk about the 186km stage, the longest I have ever done, but the story of the day happened before that. I am going back to my room to pin my numbers Stephen ask me about Johh, he want to talk with him. After that he comes back to our room and tell us that he needs to leave, his father is really sick. This is the sad story of the Rás, Stephen encourage us to keep fighting and enjoying it, with a smile on his face we can feel the sadness in his eyes, when he leaves to join his family in a difficult situation. Best wishes for you and your family Stephen, this is your Rás too.

Connor Pass, that is what goes though my mind as I cycle to the barrack for sign on stage 3. This was my big mistake, bad positioning at the start combined with a few crashes and everything lined up, after a while my legs are gone and I find myself dropped with 115km to go. Don't panic!!! just keep pushing. The legs are coming back, I am closing the gap, can see the bunch slowing in the next little climb I am getting there, another crash!!, some cars block the road, I can see Brian McCrystal on the ditch I know he is gonna make it back, there are a few Asea lads waiting for him, I sneak through the cars and try to reach him, is my best chance, I am so close, the legs are burning again, come on!! just a few more meters!! Brian is now back on his wheels flying away, no way I can hold that pace. Alone again, the cars are flying on the right side of the road. The team car reach me and they tell me to stay calm and find a group. I can see some riders fading ahead, I am hitting the red but I hold on for a while to reach Jamie we are in trouble, working together for a few km trying to reach a bigger group, after a little down hill I look back and I find myself alone. What should I do it is too early to wait for riders behind, I decide to keep pushing until the next climb, if I don't get to a group by then I will go steady waiting for Jamie. Look back again and the Nenagh car is drafting three riders, is time to wait for them. We keep working to get back to a bigger group when I hear 'Orwell something is wrong with your wheel', and indeed it was, a broken spoke, the car is just there so I get the wheel on the fly but the skewer is wrecked, I manage to close it and back to the chase, again with the Jamie and the other two lads we can see a bigger group ahead. Still in danger, the broom wagon keeps telling us about the time cut. No laughs in the laughing group, Jamie and I moved to the front to work the hole day before getting to the Connor pass, with 10k to the start of the climb another shout warns me 'Orwell your skewer is open' need to stop again to get a new skewer, it was quick this time but the group is flying, need to chase for 5k at max to get back. When we hit the bottom of the climb we are only 20 min down, that is good enough to get to the finish in time after a tough climb and a fast decent. Ronan got there a few seconds ahead of us, an Brian Mc did a phenomenal ride holding the pace of the front group.

Days 4 and 5, lot of climbing this days, with the day 3 lesson learned I am hitting the bumper at the start, The firs two hours are hectic, high pace everyone fighting to keep position, legs are feeling good, keep pushing is the only thought. Day 4 heading to Bealach Oisin, things are moving fast we are going across narrow roads, when the pace slows down and I see some riders stopping for a leak. I feel relieved, maybe we will have a steady approach to the Cat 1, so I decide to join comfort stop. As we are getting back I feel like the pace is getting a bit high for a leak stop, I wasn't wrong, we are going through the woods and the bunch is lined up before I can realize, the Ireland team is back of the group, my only thought is keep pedaling, keep pedaling, we are about to leave the wood section when someone unclips an blocked the narrow road, couldn't be worst timing the climb is just one kilometer ahead, I go ahead but the gap is to much for me, I try to stay with the cars, but a puncture of the leader stops the cavalcade. The cars are passing one at a time in a slight down hill before the climb, no possible shelter. The road is getting stepper and there we are Jamie, Ronan and myself. We are safe enough, just need to keep steady to the top and regroup in the downhill there are more than 40 riders behind us, with to thirds of the course convered. I hit the top first just after starting the decent there is a crash on the right side of the road, some pros involved, after a fast decent we reach another pro rider and a couple more lads, we work it out to a bigger group, and kept a decent pace to get back home, as the race goes on, the cars bring back to our group most of the riders behind, no much more to tell about day 4.

Same story on Day 5 just different climb Caha Pass, a bit of a climb. But this time the climb is early in the stage so it is crucial to stay with the bunch until we hit thi start of the KOH. After breakfast I head for a warmup, the first few kilometers are slightly up hill with a couple of sections that might get very tough if the bunch lines up and you find yourself at the back. All good we have managed to stay in good position and about to start the Caha Pass climb. After a few hundreds of meters the bodies start fading away and I don't have the legs to get back to the group, I keep going to the top a decent pace, after that chasing and regrouping and save all the way home.

Day 6, I heard a few time, that after the a few days things slow down, everyone is in the same boat, tired legs ... After three hilly stages I wish this transition stage make all those comments a reality. . Again I fight to get a good spot at the start, things are moving on, and I can't see any tired legs, the lads are pushing, we fly over the first few kilometers, the boys are trying to breakaway. I wish they do, and the wish comes true but Eddie Dumbar is in the break, no possible worst scenario than a GC contender in the break on a transition stage.

The pace is mental for the two first hours. No rest, I need to concentrate to keep feeding properly. All the Orwells are doing fine. After 90Km we hit the second categorized climb of the day, the bunch breaks in peaces I manage to get in to a small group and we ride consistently back home. When we finally arrive to Dungarbar Mary is waiting with our recovery drinks, Brian did well again finishing with the front group, Jaime and Ronan are just a few minutes behind. Another day and all the Rás men are safe home. This was the toughest stage of 2016 Rás for me, an early crash of Asea and UCD force me to work hard in the first hour, when I was about to get my breath back just at the start of a climb, It was really hard to get to the group I finally rode with back home.

Photograph with thanks to John Busher

Day 7 Mount Leinster is the big name in the paper but at this point I already know that thing will get tough much earlier. The climb is late in the stage and we will be in a group by then, It is mandatory not to fade away in the first half of the stage. The pros didn't help with that, the pace was really high, Brian Mc in the other hand did. He was the strongest man in the team no doubt, and concerned about our worries he stayed with us doing an incredible labor as Route Captain, looking after us. With about 70 km to go after one of the Cat 3s there is a slight uphill and the bunch break into peaces. Brian reach me saying that Ronan and Jamie are ok and not far behind, we are good so I shout him to go for it, and so he did.

After a few min I manage to get to the group where he is, leading with no one turning, I can see him going away. I though that was quite brave as there were no groups on sight ahead. At the end of the day I knew this was his particular tribute to Patrick O'Brien RIP.

Heading up Mount Leinster we are already in the groupeto I find the pace slow as I don't have compact as many riders but 38-25, I don't want to piss anyone off so I keep pedaling quite to the top where John Busher is waiting for us with spare bottles. No matter who hard the stage is John always manage to put a smile in my face. Thank you John for all your help, positive attitude and the wonderful pictures as well. At the top we are 20 min down, nothing to worry about. We start the decent, we are close to the valley when I go flat in one of the steepest sections of the road. Not very nice as I can't put my arm up to warn the other riders and we are moving at 70km/h. The vibration is huge but I keep control and no one reach me from behind. The Waterford car is just behind us and I get a wheel from them, they help me for a couple of Km and I am back in the group. It is a big group with more than fifty riders, with a few km to go some start attacking the groupeto, but a few lads chase them down lining up the group.

Not very nice after a tough day. The last three Km are steady and we are all there one more day, with just one to go. We feel relieved as the worst has already passed. Back in the Hotel we are waiting for dinner and the Pros are relaxed joking, we can see the leader having a Guinness pint.

With the GC almost decided day 8 is meant to be a relaxed day until we get to Skerries.

Photograph with thanks to John Busher

Last Day we are almost there only 150km to go. The atmosphere is relaxed in Kildare Farm, no sounds of rollers all around, we even had time to get a coffee after sign on. After 6km neutralized the bunch go into cruising speed, the pace is high until the break goes and things slow down. We are holding a decent pace of 44km/h with the break 1 min ahead. Everything goes smoothly until we get to the Cross of the Cage, the circuit is so close and everybody knows, they are all fighting for position, my only though is 'no crashes today'. When I cross the line at Skerries for the first time I had mixed feeling, never seen a crowd like that roaring and at the same time my legs are burning. I thought crossed my mind for a second 'stop you already made it' but I here a 'Go Orwell' and the weakness banishes, there are thee laps as so I will do. In the firs climb I am passing many tired legs, Ciaran Power blocks my progression for a few secs, I pass him and jump to another group, we are not far behind from the bunch just a few meters. A tirol lad flicks his elbow asking for a turn, I am cooked he is riding at 40km/h uphill, but I hammer it and manage to turn, I am exhausted flicking my elbow madly but no one is turning, the Tirol lad hammers again and all the lads jump into his wheel I don't have anything left so I keep pedaling at my on pace, as the slightly go away, when we turn left into the headwind downhill I know it is over, I look back and a see a big group coming. Jamie and Ronan are at the front turning I need a few sec to get my breath back and then I go up too, we need to keep it fast for another lap, and so we did. After the second pass across the line we know we got our final and we ride strong but steady to the finish.

This is a poor narrative of what this week meant to me. A incredible achievement I will never forget, as I would never forget those who helped me in the way. John, Mary, Ash, Fionn, Stephen, Brian, Ronan, Jamie, Stephen, my family and my coach Paoulo De la Fuente and many others
Thank you so much for the outstanding support.

I am an an expat in a foreigner country, being a Man of the Rás makes me feel a little more Irish. Thank you Ireland for all you have given me.

Jamie Busher and Manuel Fontan cross the line (photograph with thanks to Caroline Kerley)