Well here it is – The Junior Tour of Ireland. Perhaps the toughest race for juniors anywhere in the world, 5 brutal stages of around 100 kilometres (and a prologue) against some of the best teams from around the world – all taking place on the challenging terrain of Ireland’s west coast. This year’s entries included two sizable American squads and the Irish and Welsh national teams, along with a strong regional contingent. The four man squad from ERC comprised myself, Joseph Agnew, Stephen Walker and guest rider Alistair Merry (Discovery JCC). Directeur Sportif was (international man of mystery) Alex Coutts, who wore the yellow jersey in a previous incarnation of this event. Alastair Webb fulfilled the multi-faceted role of team manager, soigneur and terrified convoy accomplice of the afore-mentioned DS (40 mph crosswinds, alarming vehicular tilts whilst cornering and bovine road companions are not known to instill confidence in a car passenger).
Stage One – 6.2km TT
Prologue. No Time trial equipment allowed. Hill in the middle. Tailwind. Didn’t get caught by minute-man. Mission accomplished.
GC – 44th (+55″)
Stage Two – 109km
The real business began on Stage Two, a challenging route crossing the exposed landscape of the burren en route to a long coastal stretch before turning back inland to finish near the race HQ in Ennis. Nerves were frayed on the start line, as despite a reasonable prologue position I expected the calibre of rider to be extremely high. Thankfully the stage was conducted in bright sunshine and a relative lack of wind. From the beginning the pace was high, and I was consigned to the back third of the bunch, unable to move up without great difficulty. This was perhaps an equally mental and physical problem. The main obstacle of the route came with the category one ascent of Castle Hill.
Starting the climb near the back, I had to fight all the way up to hang on to the coat tails of the main group. Around 150m from the top I found myself gapped and struggling, and despite working desperately with three or four other dropped riders over the top, ours was the first group not to make it back into the peloton. A group of around 10 coalesced for the final 40km to the finish. Expecting to lose a big chunk of time, I settled in near the back, satisfied that I hadn’t embarrassed myself by being dropped too early. However, what could have been a gentle, tailwind assisted run in to the finish was turned into a living hell by a Leinster Development team car (yes I’m calling you out on this one), which decided to motorpace two of its riders in my group all the way to the finish. The result was three or four riders happily tucked in behind a car at 50km/h, and the other six cursing and suffering to stay on the wheels. I was one of the six. Eventually the elastic snapped and I drifted slowly out of the group towards my team car lurking behind. It was at this point that I realised that our convoy vehicle, despite being wholly inappropriate for such frivolous actions as cornering or braking, served as an excellent wind break. Therefore, a kind of strange cold war derny race evolved between me, sitting behind my team car, and the nine or so other riders just 20 metres in front. We couldn’t pass them, they couldn’t get rid of us. In the end, after riding only 500m of the last 40km without motorised assistance, I finished under three minutes down on the winner. Consider the fact that a rider dropped before me finished only 28 seconds down on the bunch and you will understand the power of drafting. And cheating.
GC – 53rd (+3’45”)
Stage 3 – 98km
Stage 3, a shorter and (on paper) less demanding loop took the riders away from the coast and into the countryside east of Ennis. Unfortunately, the rain was to play a feature all day after beginning around an hour before the start. The start was arguably the hardest section of the whole race, and after struggling to make it over the first climb I again settled in near the back of the bunch, but more comfortably than in Stage Two. The slippery condition soon made their mark, as crashes began to frequent every descent – “He who pumps his tyres to over 130psi on a rainy day acts in folly” – Aristotle (c~350BC). Fortunately I was able to avoid most of the trouble due to my excellent bike handl.. um.. due to being right at the back and having ample time to steer round any potential trouble. The final climb of the race was crested with just under 30km to go, and due to a fairly stiff headwind, remaining in the group was fairly straightforward. I wasn’t going to be winning any sprints, however, so the only real moment of note in the last hour of racing was an entertainingly failed attempt at a cyclocross remount from a rider who had crashed near the front of the peloton) for further visual approximation of what this looks like, click here: https://www.gifyoutube.com/gif/vZ9bO5). Finishing the stage in the bunch was a welcome boost in confidence.
GC – 45th (+3’45”)
Stage 4 – 116km
“What stage is it today, 11? 12?”
“What!? Are you telling me I’ve only done three stages?”
Well, two. You can’t really count 6 kilometres as a stage. In fact, you’re nowhere near halfway through the race distance yet.
“Thanks for that. Who are you again?”
Your inner monologue.
“Why are you here?”
For the purposes of a blog post that you’ll write about two weeks from now.
“Oh. Are you sure?”
Yeah! The readers love this kind of stuff, they’ll lap it up.
“If you say so.”
You should probably get some breakfast. Eight slices of soda bread should do you fine.
“Am I really doing this again?”
Yes, yes you are.
“How far this time?”
“Fantastic. Oh well at least it’s not going to rain.”
There’s also going to be gusts of up to 60km/h throughout the stage.
And a category two climb after 5 kilometres.
Thus transpires my frame of mind going into Stage Four, a sort of ambivalent trepidation with hints of resignation (and a smooth finish). Such was the force of the wind that it was decided to swap the front wheel to one with a shallower rim depth. Again, the start was frenzied, and my body reluctantly wheezed itself into motion with geriatric vigour. Thankfully, after surviving the first crosswind section, the race turned into a headwind up the climb. As a consequence, any acts of racing were provisionally suspended and the bunch crawled along at under 25km/h. Fortunately, this meant I could rest up and take it easy. Unfortunately, this also meant that everyone else could do the same. When the race turned back on to the crosswinds of the exposed burren cliff road, all manner of evils took place at the front of the group and I was left too far back to do anything other than suffer to stay on the wheel in front. In under 2 kilometres the race had been blown apart. I found myself in the second group down, with only a severely reduced peloton in front. My bunch ballooned in size as more riders dropped back until it numbered around 30. From then on it was a case of survival, with no prospects of seeing the front of the race again. Survival proved to be rather difficult given the strong winds and distance, but in any case I rolled across the line comfortably enough, having fared a great deal better than many other riders, and glad to see the back of the one day I couldn’t bring myself to look forward to.
GC – 44th (+17’36”)
Stage 5 – 101km
Stage Five was arguably the queen stage of the race (although the conditions on Stage Four made a strong case otherwise), including two category one climbs in the final 20km. The inner monologue was silent, my legs had begun to feel better again, all was well. My strategy for the day was relatively simple – be near the front on the climbs and see how far you can go. Considering that I had been consigned to the back of the bunch for the majority of the race so far, it was to my great surprise to find myself sitting on the wheel of the race leader on the ascent of the race’s first meaningful climb, after around 30km. I resisted the urge to ask for an autograph and settled back into the group to await the closing acts. A category three climb with 30km to go put me in discomfort, but not enough to dislodge me. However, the subsequent category one was a different proposition. After around 100m I reasoned that I wouldn’t be able to hold the pace so I dropped off early and tried to set my own tempo which I could maintain. This seemed to work as I found a pace-setting colleague and we crested the climb still in sight of the race convoy. I have already espoused the wonders of drafting, and on the descent we used it to our advantage. Screaming through blind corners at 70km/h a mere half metre behind the rear bumper of a car is both dangerous and exhilarating in equal measure. By sitting behind cars on flat sections and passing them on corners where we could go faster allowed us to carve through the convoy to such an extent that by the bottom of the descent, what had been a 30 or 40 second gap to the peloton had shrunk to under 10. A last desperate push allowed me to regain contact with the bunch just before 10km to go. All this exertion, whilst fun, had sapped me of energy and I fully expected to go out the back door on the final climb to the finish of around 1.6km. I did, but again, by dropping off early I was able to set a more manageable tempo and was catching riders towards the top. Despite not finishing near the front, this was probably my most enjoyable day of the race, and a real confidence booster after the trials and tribulations of Stage Four.
GC – 42nd (+19’12”)
Stage 6 – 77km
Stage was a criterium of sorts – seven laps of a circuit just outside Ennis – but with nearly 900m of climbing it was by no means a traditional course. Again, my legs felt better than the day before and as a team we were determined to get in some attacks to liven up the race and show our sponsors before the end of the week. I was in a good position when the flag dropped, but the familiar and inexorable slide to the back in the bunch duly followed. However, on most laps I managed to use the wide roads to drag myself back up to the front third and out of trouble. Heading into the last lap the race was all together and I found myself fourth wheel. Just as a previous attack was brought back, I decided that this was the time to have a go. I attacked on the right hand side of the road and initially nobody followed – probably more down to the fact that they hadn’t seen me all week than any physical superiority on my part. Almost as soon as I had got away the lactic acid began to burn and I knew the move would probably be brought back, but I was leading an international bike race in the final 10km, which was all that mattered. 2km after I made my move another rider bridged up to me and we worked as well as we could, but were brought back by the peloton soon after. I was convinced that this jaunt on the front would lead to a rapid capitulation and being shelled out the back but surprisingly I felt good when I was caught, and decided to have a go for the sprint. In the end I managed to finish 18th in a congested bunch – my best placing of the week by a distance. Better still, I was sure that my last lap escapade would land me a place on the TV highlights, as the camera motorbike had been following me for the entirety of my attack. Much to my dismay, however, I was edited out for the final cut, rendering the move a pointless waste of time. Still, I could reflect on a marked improvement over the course of the six stages – I had gained in confidence and had even animated the race (in a small way) during the latter stages. Having entered the race apprehensive about my prospects, I had finished comfortably in the top half. Most importantly, of course, I had enjoyed every moment.
GC – 41st (+19’12”)
The Junior Tour of Ireland is an event incomparable to any other in the UK. From the race organisation, to the communal atmosphere among the teams (who all stay in the same hotel), to the scenic backdrop of the racing, to the quality of international field present, the race is a cut above anything else on the domestic calendar. Both myself and the team would like to wholeheartedly thank Edinburgh Road Club and sponsors Martin Currie, Pearl Red, Bolland & Burke, Field & Lawn and Alpine Bikes. Special thanks go to The Bicycle Works for their kind offer of spare parts to see us through the week, Gary Sheehan mobile bike repair for mechanical support throughout the week, Alex Coutts for his invaluable guidance and support out on the road (and washing all the bikes every night) and Alastair Webb for coordinating the whole trip and ensuring that all we had to do was focus on the race.
Apologies if I rambled a bit, but there was so much to fit in