Rachels Heaven & Hell at Ras Na Mban
5 CommentsTuesday, 15 September 2015 | Admin
Ras na Mban 2015
Wednesday: Dromoland to Barefield
On Wednesday afternoon, I made my way to Nenagh CC headquarters in Barefield, Co Clare. Majella, Sinead (Kennedy) and Sinnead (Oakes) had arrived before me and Monica (our guest rider from Orwell Wheelers) rolled up soon after. We spent some time settling in and discussing stage one, with team manager Kenneth and driver Bertie preparing the bikes. They weren’t overly impressed with the bikes’ cleanliness but they were soon sparkling and ready to go. We went to Dromoland Inn to sign on at around 3:30, feeling increasingly anxious as we saw teams with matching bikes and coordinated kit. We went through registration quickly, delighted to receive Ras na Mban caps. We then returned to HQ to have a final snack before race time.
We drove back to Dromoland Inn at five and did a short warm-up before assembling at the front steps at 5:30. A big group of Nenagh CC supporters were on hand to cheer us on, which was a fantastic surprise. Outbursts of “Go on Nenagh” drowned out other voices as we took our first pedal strokes. The first 4km were neutralized but the pace was still hot from the get-go. As usual, I found myself near the back in no time. I sometimes make an attempt to move up the bunch but invariably I find myself slipping back between riders. Proper positioning comes down to experience and confidence, which are two things I need to work on. Anyway, I’m happy enough with being behind the bunch, as that seems like a relatively safe place to be. Within 2km of the race actually kicking off though, there was a crash. Luckily, we all managed to avoid the domino effect of tumbling riders. The biggest challenge of the day was at the 32km mark. Although there were moments before that when I was under pressure, I arrived at our first categorized climb (cat 2) at Maghera with the bunch.
The top riders shot off at top speed. I was way at the back but managed to pass quite a few others on the ascent. I was actually surprised at the progress I made. I was even more surprised to see fellow Nenagh CC club members dotted along the route screaming out encouragement. I lost touch with the main bunch maybe 80% up the climb but linked up with a high-speed train on the descent. Those ladies were really pushing it on the way down. I left my customary gap, which made life difficult as I kept having to chase back on. Still, I regained contact on the flat and our group worked hard to chase down the main bunch, which we did. That was another pleasant surprise because I thought they were long gone. The last 15-20km were uneventful. There were a few surges on the drags but for the most part, I was comfortable. The stage ended in a bunch sprint and I was delighted to cruise in at the back. I flew straight over to the Nenagh crew to receive happy hugs. Sinead and Monica came in soon afterwards, followed by Sinnead (who had, in her words, “a very bad puncture”) and then Majella. Though Sinnead was frustrated by her ill-timed puncture, everyone was relieved to have finished in one piece.
Stage 2: – Coastal Nightmare
Thursday: Loop Head to Ballyvaughan – Coastal Nightmare
After a 90-minute drive to remote Loop Head, we assembled at the windswept start line at 11:30. Although we warmed up before stage one, nobody was interested in braving the elements any sooner than we had to. The neutralized section was roughly 5km and it was very tough. I was using my Zipp 808 wheels for the race, which have 82mm deep rims, and they certainly posed a challenge. The crosswind whipped at the bunch and I soon found myself off the back. I wanted to leave a small gap because I was somewhat wrestling with the handlebars but I ended up having to get out of the saddle a lot to regain contact. Anyway, that’s my inexperienced approach and I’ll deal with the consequences.
The first categorized climb (cat 3) was at 13km. We had all targeted it as one that we had to overcome with the main bunch. Mission unaccomplished! I was literally the back-marker as we rounded the first corner into the climb and, though I made great progress up the bunch, I had left too much work to be done. I thought I’d find a wheel on the descent into Kilkee but that was not to be. Unfortunately, the cavalcade was making its way past us as we were strung out. With cars on one side, a cliff drop-off on the other and a ferocious wind, my efforts were futile.
Stage 3 – Up and Down… and Up Again
Friday: Scarriff to Scarriff
There were weather warnings in place for Friday’s stage so we were mentally preparing ourselves for a tough day in the saddle. The two positives were: (1) if anyone is used to riding in wet weather, we are; (2) the route was almost 35km shorter than Thursday’s stage. We focused on those factors as we assembled in the downpour at 11:45. We warmed up on our turbos because the neutralized section was only 700m and then we were straight into a long climb. Although there were three categorized climbs written in the programme (one cat 3 and two cat 2s), the race profile was actually all up and down. We counted up to seven climbs. The bunch was blown apart on the first ascent. The cavalcade flew through, which made chasing on the descent very nerve wrenching. Again, I lost control on one bend and ended up cycling off the road on wood chippings. Thankfully, I managed to stay calm and re-direct myself onto the road. After some sprinting, I found myself in a group of five. We took the course at our own pace, which I found very comfortable.
The main challenge was descending. I have a tendency to brake when I shouldn’t so I relocated to the back and took the downhills at my own pace. Although it’s not the best strategy, I was confident that I could chase back on the flat, which I managed to do each time. A group eventually came up from behind (with Sinnead) and we later caught a few up front (including Monica), making our bunch pretty big. I did my best to stay sheltered on the remaining climbs and I was relieved to safely get through all the descents. We eventually passed a sign saying 11km to Scarriff. The road surface at that point was smooth so it was plain sailing to the finish. A few riders surged at the front but we crossed the line as a group. More Nenagh CC supporters were on hand to offer congratulatory hugs, which were gratefully received.
Stage 4 – Against the Clock
Saturday: Barefield to Barefield.
An 8km, out-and-back time trial was on the cards Saturday morning. We started in reverse GC order, with the first rider off at ten. I used my aero helmet but no time-trial bikes were allowed. I kicked off at 10:40, with Sinead and Monica just finished and Sinnead still out on the road. I went hard, using my usual checks to gauge my effort: heavy breathing that I can hear and legs feeling under pressure. I could see my heart rate but I didn’t let that guide me. We had driven the course after breakfast so I knew exactly where the turnaround was. I crossed the finish line after 13:06. In the end, the winning time was 12:19, making me 28th in the stage and fourth Irish rider. Not too bad at all…
Stage 5 – No Speed Limit
Saturday: Ballyalla to Ballyalla, criterium
As Saturday afternoon wore on, we all became increasingly nervous about the ten-lap “crit”. Though Sinnead and Monica had done one before, we were all relatively new to the format. We did our best to line up as close to the top of the bunch as possible but that didn’t help too much. At the klaxon, everyone exploded out of the saddle. I’ve never before gone so quickly from zero to such speed. The route had three corners: a very sharp one (at roughly 45o) at the top of a small hill and two 90o turns off short but fast descents (one being particularly narrow). We had driven the course before, which helped, but the first lap was still mayhem. There was a roundabout to negotiate as well, lest you think it was all plain sailing on the 4km route. I was at the back (or more accurately, out the back) for the entire 40km. At each corner, everyone braked, which obviously had a more dramatic knock-on effect towards the back. It took serious effort out of the saddle to sprint to a wheel every time.
My parents had come to watch this stage and they were located at the acute corner. Other Nenagh CC supporters were strategically dotted around the course so the encouragement was constant. As the laps ticked by, I became cautiously confident that I might finish with the group. The efforts were huge to keep in touch but I figured that if I’d done it for five laps, I could do it for five more. In a crit, if you’re a certain distance off the back of the bunch, you’re pulled from the course and given an estimated finishing time. I really didn’t want to be removed so that was an extra incentive to keep in touch. With about 1.5km to go, there was a crash at a very narrow patch with gravel on both sides so I had to unclip and walk around it. It was definitely disappointing to be held up so close to the end but I remounted quickly and went flat-out to the finish. Since the incident happened within 3km of the finish, those who were in the main bunch were given the same time, meaning I was not affected in terms of the result, which was fair. Unfortunately, Sinnead had come down and had to be taken to hospital (as a precaution) after she rolled over the finish line. Sinead and Monica put in monumental efforts in the stage as well but were pulled separately before completing the ten laps.
The crit was definitely one of the hardest sessions on a bike I have ever done. Again, positioning was key… and mine was terrible. Still, I kept with the main bunch (which had around 75 of the 98 competitors) so I was delighted. It’s definitely the type of thing you could improve in, though I wouldn’t be too eager to sign up for one in the near future. There were very few lulls in pace. I was either sprinting out of the saddle or sprinting in the saddle, grabbing a few deep recovery breaths when I had a wheel to hold onto. Having more skill and confidence on the corners wouldn’t go astray as well…
Stage 6 – And Then There Were Three
Sunday: Dromoland to Ennis
With Sinnead ruled out of the final stage, our team was reduced to three riders on Sunday morning. The route featured two major climbs, one at 17km (cat 3) and one at 55km (cat 1). I was very happy with how my week had gone to that point so I was really focused on maintaining my overall position in GC. I had been floating in the high 50s most of the time… and sitting in tenth in the Irish rider classification. After the time trial, I moved to ninth so I was a bit nervous about undoing the week’s work by missing an important break on the last day. Anyway, that didn’t happen, thankfully.
The bunch flew over the first climb and I lost touch for a while. I did my best to power on the descents and flat, which was made trickier by the heavy rain and slick conditions. Still, I re-grouped with those up front and stayed with them comfortably until the next climb approached: a 10km ascent on narrow roads with gravel and grass along the middle. My position was better than usual at the start of the climb and I passed quite a few others early on. A few unexpected Nenagh CC supported dotted along the route spurred me on. It was very steep for about 1km and then continuously rose and levelled for the remaining 9km. I’d say I fell off the main bunch about 2km from the top. I was at my limit so there wasn’t much I could do. A few of us were together at that point so it’s possible we could’ve chased on had we coordinated our efforts. With the rain and rough surface, however, it was difficult to do that. I settled in with the chase bunch and we powered on at our own pace. There was a “20km to go” sign at the peak and it was largely downhill from there. There were a few drags but they were very manageable. The main challenge came when we were strung out in a line due to the cavalcade squeezing by. It’s not a secure feeling when honking cars speed by sodden, high-speed bikes but fortunately everyone stayed upright. I almost enjoyed the last stretch into Ennis. I knew I was home safe and it was a great feeling. Though Sinead had dropped off the bunch at the first climb, Monica was with me throughout so I had Nenagh company crossing the line.
Sinnead and Majella were waiting behind the barriers to greet me when I dismounted. After excited but delicate hugs, I put a towel around my shoulders and soaked up the atmosphere (and rain) for a few minutes. Sinead zoomed by in no time, bringing Nenagh CC’s race to a finish. After a quick change of clothes, we returned to the podium to watch the top riders receive awards. We were given finisher medals too. It was then back to team HQ to pack up and return to normality…
Monday: Back to Reality
So, it’s now Monday afternoon and I’m in the office in UL. A lot of work piled up over the last six days so I came in at seven today. My body feels great but I’m a bit sleepy. I’m going to take a week or two off training and then get going again. It’s a bit of an anticlimax to be back to reality after such a high-flying few days. Our set-up was so professional: team house, manager, driver, physio, bottomless food supply, tireless supporters… Lining up against full-time riders and completing such a variety of stages was a great challenge and also a wonderful honour. There were a few moments when I didn’t enjoy myself at all (“Coastal Nightmare”) and a lot of instances when I was nervous/scared/unsettled (every descent and tight corner). Then again, there were times when I couldn’t believe that I was actually in the Ras, flying up and bombing down hills. I certainly wasn’t competing for top honours and will never be at that level… but I proved to myself that I can hold my own pretty well. In the end, I was 51st in GC and the eighth fastest rider. I was consistent across the board, in that I performed well in each stage. And I stayed safe, as ordered by my parents, Damien and Sheila, and boyfriend, Eoin. Their support, and the texts from my brother, was tireless through the Ras, as they were all through the triathlon season.
Special thanks to my wonderful Nenagh CC teammates: Sinead, Sinnead, Majella and Monica. I wouldn’t have gotten through the challenge without you. Let’s not talk about next season just yet please… Massive thank you to everyone who supported us all week, either with texts, shouts from the course or a visit to HQ. Lastly, thank you so much to Kenneth, Pa and Bertie for being such a professional and committed support team.
Next up? Nothing just now… Thank you for reading. : )