My week as a general manager, soigneur, bus driver, and more at the Rás Tailteann
VeloNews editor Sadhbh O'Shea spent a week traveling around Ireland with her team from the Isle of Man, experiencing what makes cycling special.
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I’m going to let you into a secret, I’ve never felt nerves like I did when I was stood on the side of the road waiting with an armful of bidons to give to a rider passing by at nearly 40kph.
Over my 11 years of working in cycling, I’ve seen and done a lot, but until last year I had never worked for a team at a race so passing up bidons in a feed zone wasn’t in my repertoire. Thankfully, it all went smoothly, and I could show my face again.
I’ve been working for a project called Cycling Club Isle of Man since late 2020, and we made our debut as a squad at the Irish stage race the Rás Tailteann last year. As the name of the team suggests, it’s based out of my second home nation of the Isle of Man. I was born in Ireland, but I’ve spent most of my life on what we affectionately call “the rock.”
Also read: A race like no other: How the Rás Tailteann became a cycling legend
Our focus is on development and helping Manx riders get the experience of racing in big events and large bunches. The Rás is an in-at-the-deep-end sort of experience, but riders can learn a lot from it.
After a solid debut in 2022, we were invited back to this year’s edition, which took place last week. My usual role within the team is the chair of the board, but at the race, I would be the general manager, press officer, soigneur, occasional bus driver, and general dogsbody.
While big pro teams can afford to bring three or four times the number of staff than riders to a race, it’s a bit more all hands on deck at this level, as many of you will have experienced. Last year, we just had three staff, a sport director, a mechanic, and me.
This year we were lucky to have a fourth person in a photographer and videographer Joe Ricciardi, who also helped out with bus driving and soigneur duties. He was a friend of the team that wanted to help us out and we were happy with the extra pair of hands — as well as the top-notch media output.
We also had some brilliant support from local sponsors, who helped us out with just about everything we needed. Local car dealership Bettridges loaned us the use of a car and a van/bus, while bike shops Cycle 360 and Bikestyle gave us all the equipment we needed to keep the riders on the road.
N-Fuse Nutrition kept the riders fueled and the Law Trust ensured we had the finances we needed to pay for the trip. We also had some amazing kit from Pro Vision, which is run by Manx ex-professional Steve Joughin. He was the original Manx Missile in the 1980s before Mark Cavendish came along.
After a good debut with a handful of top-10 finishes, we went into the Rás Tailteann with bigger ambitions. However, anyone who knows the Rás will know that it is one of the most unpredictable races around. With small, narrow roads, a rolling road closure, and county riders that don’t give a damn about teams wanting to control the peloton, anything goes at this race.
And it did.
The race exploded on the first day with a 30-plus rider move going up the road and gaining some three minutes on the peloton. The race would ultimately be decided from that group, but the following days were far from boring.
Day 2 saw the bunch explode over a series of back-to-back climbs in the second half of the stage. While the climbs weren’t big, they just kept coming and tired legs saw people spat out the back. We had been on course for a good result until a rider rode into the back wheel of one of our riders and the wait for mechanical assistance meant he was out the back.
There were challenges for us in the support crew, too. Much of the Rás is ridden on the quickest roads available between towns so it can be very difficult to get around the race once you’ve stopped for a feed, especially if you’re waiting for a rider that has been distanced.
On stage 2, we got to the dedicated race HQ only to discover that the finish was about 7km from it and we had to jump back in the van for a panicked ride to the finish. We made it with about 10 minutes to spare.
When the race wasn’t on, there was still no rest with evenings taken up by filing a race report, publishing our social content, and prepping for the next day. We didn’t have a dishwasher, so all of our bidons had to be hand washed each evening, and so did the kit, though we usually let the riders do their own.
Stage 3 was probably the most chaotic, both in and out of the race. Shortly before the feed zone, one of the race motorcycles crashed while passing the bunch after its rear wheel blew out when it clipped a stone wall. The motorbikes are necessary to keep the race in its bubble, away from traffic, but the incident caused carnage.
Just one of our riders, Jamie Fletcher, managed to avoid coming down along with a group of about 20 other riders. Two of our riders, Marcus Christie and Mark Horsthuis, came down in the incident. Marcus actually collided with the motorbike as he was so close to it, while Mark came down further back.
Fortunately, none of them were forced to abandon and they could battle to the finish. Once the riders were through, we were in a race to the finish to meet the riders again, a difficult task given that the entire race averaged over 47kp/h. However, we wouldn’t make it this time after we were caught up in snarling Friday afternoon traffic.
Even if we had made it, it turned out to be a two-kilometer walk from the team parking to the finish. The riders had been there for some time when we eventually reached them. Not the best day all around.
Stage 4, the longest of the race, was certainly our strongest in terms of race performance with Marcus making it into an early break of 11 riders. When the cohesion between the group broke down, they were almost caught but he went off solo.
He is a rider with an amazing amount of power and he managed to pull out a minute on the chasing peloton behind, which was shifting at over 50kp/h at times. Unfortunately, he couldn’t hold them off and he was caught inside 20km to go but I’d enjoyed cheering him on, even if it was also stressful. I’ve spent my career trying to be as objective as possible, so it felt really different being able to truly cheer on a rider.
In the support vehicle, we’d had to leave before the race started because the alternative routes were too long, and we risked missing the race passing through the feed zone before us. I got a bottle to Marcus in the feed, which was no mean feat as the group was going very quickly.
Once the bunch went through, we were stuck behind the race and my role as chief navigator came into play as we took to the country lanes to get back ahead and to the finish in time. We weren’t going to miss it.
We did make it, but it was pretty tight for time again. The riders were 10k out as we parked up and rushed to the finish line.
On the final day, I made use of there being an extra pair of hands and joined our sport director Conor Davies and mechanic Paddy O’Brien in the team car. I’ve been in a few race vehicles, but never a team car so it was a new experience for me. It was as chaotic as I had imagined, made more so by the fact that the roads are not completely closed.
Despite the hiccups along the way, all five riders made it to the finish line, making them all Men of the Rás. A prestigious title for anyone who completes the arduous race.
There was a lot to love about being fully involved with a team at a race, but my favorite part was watching one of our riders, Michael Faid, fight to make it through each day. Michael only took up cycling two years ago after a difficult period in his life and was a late call-up to the team when someone else pulled out.
He had just 24 hours’ notice before we traveled but went all-in on every stage to get to the finish. As each stage progressed, he learned a little bit more, and by the end, he was closing the gap to the main bunch.
Michael also became a bit of a social media star with his funny comments and interviews, and a fan bought him a drink when he was waiting to enter the finishing circuit on the final day — the circuit was closed off eight minutes after the first rider with dropped riders later being allowed to come through to the finish.
Being at the race also gave me a chance to meet some of VeloNews’ Irish readers, which was amazing to do. Cycling is a big family and moments like those just exemplified it.
Relive our final day of the Rás Tailteann 2023. The guys put up a mighty fight last week, and we're so proud of them all. @rastailteann pic.twitter.com/JhJ6Tp8OtF
— Cycling Club Isle of Man (@CCIsleofMan) May 23, 2023