Iron men line up for test of body and mind

The Kerry Group Rás Mumhan takes centre stage this weekend with the 500-plus kilometre stage race attracting a massive field of more than 170 riders.

Four stages over four days and 23 categorised climbs will make this a difficult assignment for seasoned riders — never mind a weekend warrior such as myself. There are four previous winners on the start list and several teams coming from as far away as Italy and the US, making it one of the most star-studded lineups in recent memory.

So a four-day gruel-fest over some of the most difficult roads in the country awaits. Mainly ‘dead’ roads; they are narrow, potholed, snaking paths of misery. If anyone tuned into the Tour of Flanders last Sunday, those roads the pros rode are not too dissimilar to what’s in store for the next four days. But unlike Flanders’ roads, Rás Mumhan roads are flanked by the hostile Atlantic and that means crosswinds. In the past those conditions have caused massive time gulfs within the field.

Crosswinds are almost worse than headwinds for riders. With headwind at least it’s easy to stay upright. A crosswind is different; it buffets you side-on and it’s very difficult to control a bike on the flat, let alone a descent.

Factor in those potholes. That rain. That loose gravel. That need to be up the front because if a crosswind does hit, it can shred a peloton and end your ambitions in the race.

Everyone wants to be in the top 30 riders for fear an attack breaks, but 170 riders trying to get into that top 30 only means one thing: carnage.

But it should be exciting too. This is the race with the summit finish on the Conor Pass. It’s the Alpe d’Huez or Mont Ventoux of domestic cycling.

It’s on the second day, tomorrow, and legs should still be relatively fresh but with this 5km mountain of rock to pick our way up, there’s no place to hide, tactics go out the window and it’s every man for himself.

There will be a gallery of onlookers up there; curious tourists, team support, and keen cyclists. It should be quite a spectacle. This stage will tee things up nicely for what Sunday offers. You won’t win the stage there, but you can lose it within five kilometres of the start — it’s that hard.

The stage takes in 142kms around some of the most remarkable scenery the country has to offer.

The race distance is one thing. It’s the speed and the relentless attacks from the gun that give it its brutal reputation. The most impressive show of strength I’ve ever seen on this race was here two years ago when Neil Delahaye from Dublin rode away from a front group of 13 riders and soloed his way to Waterville. Upwards of 10 different teams tried chasing him down but none could match his sheer horsepower.

Monday is a bit more manageable at 100km; two 30k loops followed by 10 laps of the town. It’s pure ecstasy for the riders racing up that hill in Killorglin, seeing the guy with the bell wondering is it this lap he rings it on.

My team is made up of our team leader Dave Kenneally from Macroom — a guide dog trainer based in Cork (he was part of the Irish junior team at the 1998 World Championships which was won by Mark Scanlon); Bryan Long, a dentist from Glountaune based in London; Ryan O’Donovan is only doing his Leaving Cert and makes his debut in the race, while Donncha O’Brien from Skibbereen has stage-race experience, having rode the Rás in 2006.

You have to be prepared for this, mentally as much as physically. Maybe even more so mentally.

Like a true legend of Irish cycling, Padraig Marrey. Marrey has more Rásanna to his name than most and doesn’t show any signs of letting up. He’s a postman in Ballinrobe and recently went down to Carlow for the Des Hanlon classic. 160k of uphill, undulating torture — perfect training for Rás Mumhan. Shortly after the flag dropped his bike seized, he was out of the race. So he faced for Ballinrobe with a replacement bike and rode the seven-and-a-half hours, pulling in close to midnight, so he could be ready for Rás Mumhan.

A race for madmen. Let the mayhem begin.

* Brian Canty will be providing nightly updates from Rás Mumhan on our sports blog at irishexaminer.com

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