It’s a week on since the Ras na mBan and I’ve finally found the time to sit down and tell you all how it unfolded….
For those of you who don’t know what the Ras na mBan is, its the women’s equivalent to ‘The Ras’. A 5-day stage race consisting of 6 stages (4 road races, a time trial and a town centre crit). It has an international field with riders from 19 different countries. The race has grown year on year and now has an extremely ‘world-class’ field. I use the term world-class as this year it had national champions, Olympic champions and even World Champions!
This was my second year managing the Cycling Ulster team at the Ras na mBan. I had a thoroughly enjoyable and successful first year, helping the team to Best County team, Best County Rider (Green jersey), top 3 on County Rider GC, 4th best team overall, 5th place on stage 4 and 12 overall on GC. I use the term ‘help’ quite lightly. As team manager most of my work is done before the race even starts. I am in charge of organising accommodation, nutrition, transportation, race entry and picking the team. I also study the stages, come up with the race tactics and motivate the team …..well I try to anyway.
My role this year was pretty similar to last year in that I looked after all the above, however, this year I also did a bit of PR for the team through the use of Facebook Live. Those who have seen the videos will probably have cringed, as I did myself when watching them back, but it was good to give the fans an update on how the girls did every day and a bit of an insight to behind the scenes.
The first port of call in preparing for Ras na mBan from a managers point of view is in picking the team. There were 8 women who declared an interest in being chosen for the team. A criteria was then set by the Women’s commission and myself in order to fairly select the team. The lucky riders were Claire McIlwaine (Phoenix), Eileen Burns (Ballymena), Katharine Smyth, Lisa Lamont and Sharon Bird (all Madigan). It is without doubt that all 5 girls were worthy of their place on the team and their results this season and in the Ras itself justified their selection.
The backup team was the same as last year, Jason Burns (mechanic), Conor McIlwaine (soigneur) and Mickey Murray (chef). I would also like to thank Richard and Lorna Maybin for their help with the team as well. They were there every day to help and support the girls before and after the stages and cheered the girls on at the side of the road. The Cycling Ulster team is always my favourite team to work on. With so many family and friendly connections within the team there is always great comaraderie and craic!
Now to the race…..
This can be a strange stage. It is the first stage, everyone is fresh, ambitious and ready to go. Those who are new to the race can be nervous and don’t really know what to expect. Unfortunately, in Ireland we are not blessed with big numbers in women’s races. So it can be strange to turn up to a race with over 100 female competitors. We had a mix of experience with Claire and Eileen competing in their third Ras, Katharine in her second, Sharon and Lisa both racing their first Ras. The first stage is always a tetchy one as all the jerseys are up for grab and a lot of riders wanting to stamp their authority on the race. It was a relatively rolly circuit with one Cat 2 climb. There were a number of strong teams working on the front of the bunch not letting any moves get away. Our girls did their bit on the front and we even had Claire in a 2-women break which was never given much time and reeled in pretty quickly. Claire, Eileen, Katharine and Sharon all finished in the main bunch on the first day. Lisa just lost touch on the climb and was then unlucky to get sent the wrong way by a marshal when chasing back on. None of the girls got up in the bunch sprint so the first green jersey of the race went to Eve McCrystal (Garda CC). The only mishap was Claire breaking her hanger meaning she had to use a spare bike for stage 2.
This stage is probably better forgotten about, but for the sake of the blog I will continue to write. The common theme with this stage is crashes. Little more than 10km in to the stage we had our first one. Going through a small town there was a pretty bad crash that brought down approx 15-20 riders. Some riders were pretty badly battered and bruised, including our Sharon. Sharon had been introduced to the continental style of riding the hard way. A rider shouldering in to her causing her to lose control of the bike and fall, bringing down others in the process. Sharon had a sore hip along with a number of cuts and bruises on her arm, leg and nose! Hannah Gruber (NCC Group Torelli) also was in a bad way and was eventually taken to hospital with concussion. Sharon decided to continue on, all credit to her. As we chased back to the main bunch we came across Lisa in a small chase group. It was obvious by the state of her jersey and the blood pouring from her elbow and knee that Lisa had also came down in the crash. Again, credit to Lisa for getting up and continuing on, battered and bruised. True women of the Ras!! We later found out Lisa had badly bruised ribs and getting out of the saddle was a real struggle due to the pain.
This stage was also full of climbs, two very long cat 2s that split the race to pieces. Claire, Eileen and Katharine were still in the front group cresting the second and last climb. The group had been whittled down to less than 30 women at this stage. Again our luck was out, Eileen getting her front wheel taken by a rider going for a gel. This put Eileen in to the ditch, knocked her handlebars out of place and badly cut her knee. It also caused her to drop in to the second group on the road and lose over 3 mins by the end of the stage. Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse we heard over the radio there was another crash in the front group. This time Claire coming off on a fast corner. There is a cracking video on the Stage 2 highlights of Claire crashing and then trying to ‘fix’ her saddle. We were stuck behind a group further back the road so by the time we got to Claire and tried to help her back to the cavalcade she had lost a lot of time. In the end Claire got back on to the cavalcade with 2km to go and was extremely unlucky to lose 18 seconds on the stage. Katharine was the only rider to finish in the top bunch of around 20 riders. Eve again was better placed in the sprint meaning she held on to the green jersey for a second stage.
The queen stage! Mount Leinster! After stage 2 we wanted a less eventful day. Jason and Conor had a lot of work to do the previous night fixing broken bodies and bikes. We weren’t so lucky however, Eileen again coming down in a crash and Katharine getting caught up in it. Katharine was able to get back in to the bunch without much bother. We had to stop and service Eileen ask she had bent her shifter in. We quickly got that sorted and got Eileen to the back of the cavalcade where she was able to use the cars to get back in to the bunch. Earlier in the stage a lone rider had gone off and gained up to 1 min 40 secs on the bunch. This was ambitious as it was arguably the hardest stage of the week. Claire again was active at the front getting in to another break, this time 9 riders strong. Eve however noticed the danger and along with a couple of other riders worked hard to bring back the break before it got too big of a gap. The stage was raced at quick and steady pace as all the riders knew about the Cat 1, 10km Mount Leinster climb which would ultimately decide the outcome of the stage. A strong group of 10 riders got about 5km before the climb and had around a 1 minute gap starting the climb. The GB team rode strong at the front in to the bottom of the climb where stage winner and eventual race winner Elinor Barker set off to catch the whole break and win the stage with over a minute gap. By this stage all 4 of our girls were scattered all over the climb. Most importantly Katharine was up front, in the third group with Eve battling it out for the green jersey. We had hoped this was the point in the race where Katharine could get the better of Eve and hopefully take the green jersey. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Eve dug deep and was able to stick with Katharine and eventually outsprint her at the top to retain the green jersey. Katharine did fantastic, she gave it her all and finished in the top 10 on the stage. Claire finished approx 1 minute back inside the top 15. Eileen rode hard up the climb so did Sharon both losing time on the front group but finishing strongly on the stage. Lisa also did really well to tackle the beast of Mount Leinster.
We had a number of strong testers in the team, none other than the newly crowned Irish Champion, Eileen Burns! It was a tough 11km TT with strong crosswinds. Lisa and Sharon both rode strong TTs moving themselves up on GC. Claire and Katharine both put in top 20 performances on the stage, with less than a second separating them! Eileen was our best placed rider on the stage finishing a fantastic 12th! When you consider the team strength of the field this is some result. The TT was a great stage for the team as all 5 riders were able to move up on GC. Katharine had cemented her place in the top 10, Claire had moved up to 12th and Eileen up to 34th. Due to their crashes Lisa and Sharon were still further down the GC.
After this stage our hope of winning the green jersey had all but gone. Eve put more time in to Katharine and had shown her strength that she was not going to give the jersey up.
The crit! The most dreaded stage by the majority of the team, probably due to the memories of the horrific crash from the previous year. This is also a type of racing that none of the girls had practise or took part in all season. Maybe something to note in preparation for future years. Following on with the trend, we had a crash inside the opening neutralised lap. Claire coming to grief with a bit of road furniture and coming off. She managed to get round to the pits were Conor and myself were able to get her back going. Unfortunately Claire had suffered a mechanical that were never noticed at the time which later found out had hampered her performance for the rest of the stage. It was a ferociously fast paced crit with a lot seasoned pro crit riders none other than Alice Barnes and Elinor Barker. The GB riders pushed the pace which caused splits all over the bunch. Lisa was the first to be pulled along with Claire, Eileen and Sharon pulled a lap later. Katharine excelled in the crit, which really showed how good her bike handling is. She finished comfortably in the main bunch, even threatening to get away at one stage. The stage was won by Bella De Gast, the winner of stage 1. The pink jersey who had won the previous two stages finished in third place and had all but tied up the pink jersey. We lost a few spots on GC but with one stage to go still had Katharine inside the top 10 and were on course to win the Best County Team for the second year in a row.
The final stage of a long hard weeks racing. By this stage the bodies were badly bruised, they were sore and completely exhausted. The fact that it was only one stage left was what really kept the girls going. The final stage was just under 60 mile with one cat 2 climb, but it is extremely tight, technical and steep at the start. The girls were familiar with this stage and knew were to be at the right time. Lisa’s injuries had taken their toll and she was on the back foot from the start but had got in to the ‘grupetto’ of around 25-30 riders strong. Katharine again was up front battling hard. Riding hard up the climb to try gap Eve, but to no avail. Claire, Eileen and Sharon all riding strong finishing the final stage in the front bunch. At one stage Eileen and Katharine tried to get up the road, we heard over the radio that the green jersey was struggling to make it over to them, but fair play to Eve who never let Katharine out of her sight and deservedly took home the green jersey along with a top 5 placing on overall GC, which is absolutely incredible. Katharine just lost her place in the top 10 on GC finished 11th, being over taken by Bella De Gast, winner of two stages. Claire lost nearly 7 minutes in the crit meaning she finished 42nd overall, Eileen 50th, Sharon 62nd and Lisa 87th. In terms of the team, they won the Best County Team by nearly 90 minutes and were 10th team overall.
The girls were dreadfully unlucky this year, Sharon and Lisa did well to finish the race and get back on their bikes after stage 2. Eileen suffering two bad crashes at vital times in the race. Claire losing over 20 spots on GC because of one crash. This is stage racing, bike racing and these are the things that happen. I have to say though, I have massive respect for these girls. It takes a MASSIVE commitment to be fit enough to complete a stage race never mind be able to compete at the top end of the GC against a world class field. All 5 girls riding in the Cycling Ulster team are amateur bike racers. 3 of them work full time, they have kids, husbands, commitments. They were able to go toe-to-toe with the best female bike racers in the world and show that they aren’t that far away. This might come across as controversial….but you hear alot of men riding the Ras to become ‘Men of the Ras’ but in reality most of these lads enter the race just to take part. There is no doubt there is a high quality field at the Ras but how many National, Olympic and World Champions take to the start line? How many of the men that competed at the Ras are now off to the World Championships?
What these women achieved, not just the Cycling Ulster girls, but the rest of the county riders who did well at the race is unbelievable. I feel extremely privileged to be part of the team and encounter first hand just how dedicated and talented these women are. I am also very proud to be an Ulsterman and to have these women represent our province. I look forward to seeing what these women achieve over the coming years, it will be great to see Eileen competing at the World Champs in Norway!
Until next year…..