Fractured femurs, punctured lungs, broken jaws, dislocated fingers and smashed collar bones are just some of the injuries Dr Conor McGrane has had to deal with during his six years in the role and you’d have to wonder what the lure of such a high-pressure job is.
“I just love it,” the Dubliner reasons.
“The Rás is an incredible race and it’s great to be part of. I’m part of a great team and there’s a great group of volunteers who are really dedicated to cycling and love the sport and just put their hearts and souls into it. It’s a pleasure working with them,” he continues.
Dr McGrane, with the backup of the Dublin Red Cross — two ambulances and four Emergency Medical Technicians — are charged with treating injured riders throughout the eight-day race.
A GP in Balbriggan for the other 51 weeks of the year keeps Dr McGrane busy, but no week demands as much of him as the Rás.
“The race starts at 11am, so my day starts at around 10. I’m available at the sign-on for anyone who has an illness or wants to see me; if they’ve a sore joint, need some painkillers or if they need a bandage put on, I’m there. During the race we follow directly behind the main peloton and stop at any accident or for anyone who requires medical treatment during the race.
“Some of the injuries would be fairly minor like coughs and colds and sore throats but then you do see the odd serious injury like broken bones and head injuries. We’re supposed to be prepared for any eventuality,” he details.
To that extent, he carries “more equipment than an average family would going on holiday for a week”.
“By far the most common injury is a thing called road rash which is abrasions riders get after falling off when travelling at speed. It’s a horrible injury and you get a large area of deeply grazed skin with dirt and muck and stones embedded into it. That really requires deep cleaning and scrubbing and can be quite painful. Riders will continue but might have trouble sleeping at night.
“The next most common injuries are muscle strains and overuse injuries. Usually that’d happen when someone comes into the race with a pre-existing injury and push themselves a bit far and it gets worse over the race. Some others would develop it on the race because they might be a bit under-trained and just push themselves too far,” he explains.
But it’s that very essence of the race that keeps bringing him back; seeing riders going to the very bottom.
“The Irish amateurs are basically competing against future world champions. This race in the past; Danny Pate came second, he’s riding the Giro d’Italia now, Tony Martin won the race a few years back (2008) and is the world champion now, Mark Cavendish rode this race in 2005 and was roundly beaten by some of the great Irish riders at the time.
“It’s just the way the county riders are; they really are inspirational. It’s great to see the professional riders here but they’re paid to do it and it’s their job and their career. But to see the Irish amateurs compete and take the race to the pros — and beat them, like Conor Dunne did last Sunday, is inspirational. One of the UCD guys crashed badly during the week but got up and was determined to finish — he almost collapsed at the side of the road, couldn’t pedal another metre.”
Dr McGrane has seen some of the most ghastly sights imaginable. Like the time in 2009 John Veness (Surrey league) crashed at 50mph coming off the Connor Pass and broke three ribs, punctured a lung, a collar bone as well as mangling his face. Or a year later when the race was stopped following a pile-up outside Carrick-on-Shannon when a jeep ploughed head-on into the peloton.
“That was very grim,” McGrane says of the latter. “We knew there would be no fatalities but we had a lot of fairly badly injured cyclists that day.”
Some riders lost teeth, one lost part of his finger, there were so many carted to hospital that the race had to be stopped because there were no remaining ambulances. An ugly gig, but he’s not one to turn away.
“When a crash happens you look at everyone on the ground first, and the first thing you look for is cyclists who aren’t moving,” he says. “After that you go to the people shouting in pain, and after that you make calls on who looks the worst. Cyclists are a hard bunch so you’ll find a lot just get up and get going again, or at least try. Quite a lot of the time when you stop at a crash there’ll be 10-15 guys down and by the time I’m up to them, 8-10 will be back up and going. But some can’t continue.
“That is the hardest part of the job — seeing badly injured riders who can’t go on. It’s quite distressing to see someone badly injured, but that’s the nature of the sport. Usually you get about 120 finishers (from 180 starters). Most of the withdrawals would be from injuries, some people just become unwell, others get injured.”
And on wet days, he admits he’s on high alert.
“I’d normally see twice as many as on a dry day; just because the roads are more greasy and brakes don’t work as well. The busiest day I ever encountered was a wet and windy day when the race went into Cobh. The road was treacherous and I treated 26 people that day,” he recalls.
McGrane has the unenviable task of pulling riders from the race. “The odd time you have to tell a rider that and it’s heartbreaking. They always argue with me and try to go on anyway. But they’re a danger to themselves and the others because very often they’ll be concussed and not in a fit state to make a call on whether they can go on.
“Having said all that, I think the Rás is probably the best run race in Ireland. It’s probably one of the safest because it has the highest level of backup, the marshals and garda escort are second to none, they really are amazing and awe-inspiring what they do.”
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