The ‘Men Of The Ras’ 1992
If you were to catch me in a moment of reflection, I would most likely be reliving my days in Ireland, where as a young ambitious cyclist I first ventured in the spring of ’92. After spending countless thousands of dollars flying between national events on the Canadian circuit, I decided finally to test my mettle against the amateurs of Eire. Those who perhaps question Ireland as the choice of my cycle racing destination can rest assured this country offers a full calendar of fiercely competitive fixtures, with minimal travel demands or language barriers to deal with. While the entire season was truly unforgettable, the highlight will forever remain my experience in the 9-day international stage race known as the FBD Milk RÁS (pronounced ‘ROSS’).
The 1992 event was the 40th anniversary edition of a race formerly known as ‘An RÁS Tailteann’, begun in commemoration of Queen Tailtiu, a monarch of by-gone Ireland who introduced sport to the island as a distraction from the omnipresent strife that plagued the island’s pugnacious Celtic clans. While her intentions were undoubtedly noble, it must be said that the two-wheeled battles now waged on the roads of Ireland in her name must surely rival the ferocity of those legendary tribal wars.
The field for the 1992 RÁS featured teams from Italy, Belgium, Germany, England, Wales, the Isle of Man, as well as a full complement of domestic teams from throughout Ireland. As members of the Killorglin Cycling team, myself and fellow Canadian Bob Rogers were given the opportunity to ride for County Ciarrai/Lee Strand, a 5-man squad representing our adopted home, County Kerry. All expenses were paid by our sponsors, the Lee Strand Dairy Co-operative and the County Cycling Board, and two vehicles were supplied by Fiat Ireland. We were also fortunate to be under the able management of Irish cycling legend Gene Mangan, winner of the 1955 RÁS Tailteann.
The first three stages, traversing 160, 160 and 135 km respectively, appeared straightforward enough on paper. The terrain was generally flat to rolling, with only a few relatively minor climbs to contend with. The inclement weather, however, more than made up for the shortage of climbs. It seemed the gods of Irish weather were determined to live up to their notorious reputation. For the better part of each day, we rode through driving wind and rain, with the temperature hovering around 12 Celsius. And just when things appeared to be improving, the skies unleashed the hail. My hands became so numb towards the finish of the second stage that shifting gears was very near impossible, and some unlucky riders, dropping back to their team cars in the cavalcade to find warmer clothing, never made it back to the peloton. Some were to struggle in an hour or more off the pace.
It was during the third stage that I learned the hard way of the need to be aggressive when fighting for a wheel. The Italians split the bunch on the day’s final climb, and having fairly good legs that day, I managed to make the tail end of the dozen or so riders they were towing up the road. Hanging on to the last wheel by the skin of my teeth, I met up with a burly Irishman who, simply put, wanted that wheel more than I did. I was still picking myself out of the ditch as the rest of the trailing bunch passed me by.
The fourth stage, finishing in my adopted hometown of Killorglin, was the second longest of the race, 175 km into a blustering headwind. It also saw the first real sunshine of the race, somewhat ironic as Killorglin lies in one of the wettest regions of Ireland. Weather aside, the thousands of spectators lining the narrow streets of Killorglin were a welcome sight at the end of what had proved to be one very long day in the saddle. It also proved to be my best finish of the race; after puncturing in Limerick and narrowly avoiding a crash in Listowel, I managed to escape in a counter-attacking group with 6 km to go, eventually placing 16th on the stage.
It has been said that a worthy RÁS winner must first have conquered the mountains of Kerry, our rite of passage for the following 150 km stage. Before the relief of the finish in Skibbereen, we were faced with four consecutive 1st and 2nd category climbs, including Ballaghbeama, Moll’s Gap, and the infamous Tunnel Road, a task made all the more difficult by the narrow, twisting, broken roads of Kerry, some barely wide enough for automobiles. And if the climbs failed to scare everyone, I’m sure the descents did. The skill of the riders prevailed however, the only casualties on this day being one police motorcycle and one of the Belgian team cars, both missing acute bends and ending up on the embankment.
The following sixth stage was the longest of the race, a marathon 190 km over terrain which was anything but flat. On this sixth stage, I suffered like never before. After riding fairly well over the previous two days, I began the stage with optimism. But the culmination of ‘chewing the bars’ for over 800 km in 5 days had finally begun to take its toll. I was sure the stage would never end, which made the endless volleys of attacks and chases seem all the more painful. More than anything, the misery was psychological. It was clear my legs were lacking, but I simply could not fathom how these riders found the strength to attack repeatedly mile after mile, day after day. Digging deep into my reserves, I somehow found the strength to stay with the main bunch, and there was no sight more welcome than the finishing banner in Dungarvan.
The seventh stage from Dungarvan to Gorey was another long one, 162 km, the major obstacle being the first category ascension of Mt. Leinster. While this 6 km climb was no Alpe d’Huez, its effect on the tired legs of the peloton was devastating. Those following the race were afforded their first real glimpse of what separates the men from the supermen. It was also a day of bitter disappointment for myself, as I ruptured a bursa in my right Achilles tendon just prior to tackling Mt. Leinster. I finished the stage, just barely limping over the climb and the final 50 km with my one good leg, but by morning it was apparent that I could cycle no further. After completing over 1100 km of this 1300 km race, I was forced to accept the fact that abandoning was my only option.
Incredibly, the difficulties of the seventh stage paled in comparison to the stage which was to follow. While only 100 km in length, our omniscient manager had warned that the mountains of this stage made it the equivalent of a flatter stage of twice the distance. True to his warning, the four 1st category climbs of this stage effectively shattered what was left of the peloton, not to mention the spirits of many a rider. Some riders would lose close to an hour on this relatively short stage. For the Italians, however, it was a day of celebration, as they wrested leadership of the race away from the very talented, but very tired Irishman Stephen Spratt, a man about whom the legendary Sean Kelly reputedly once said “If only I had his class…”.
This left just the final day’s stage, which began with a flat, 40 km neutralised run into Dun Laoghaire, leading directly into a 50 km circuit ‘race’, designed more as a showpiece for the survivors of this torturous event. Unexpectedly, however, a fierce battle ensued yet again, and the Irishman Spratt succeeded in winning back the yellow jersey, joining an illustrious list of winners which includes one Stephen Roche.
To the rest of the survivors of this epic race, there must have been no greater relief than crossing that final finish line. For nine days, they had braved the rugged terrain of Ireland, persevering in the most appalling conditions imaginable. They had raced over 1,300 km, ascended 17 major climbs and visited nearly every county of the nation, often traversing bone-jarring roads more suited to livestock. Now it was over, and the relief on the ebullient faces of the survivors almost obscured the fatigue in their bloodshot eyes. Somehow, despite knowing full well the indescribable pain and suffering endured by all those brave lads, I couldn’t help but envy them. Standing in the sunshine beside the finish line in Dun Laoghaire, I resolved then and there to one day join the immortal ranks of the ‘Men of the Ras’.