An Post graduate Shaw determined to make most of late breakthrough
The fireman who turned pro at 31. Instantly you know there's something different about Damien Shaw's story. Scratch the surface and it doesn't disappoint.
How many pro riders started cycling at 26 in an effort to keep fit? Or would go on a stag night days before riding the national championships, which he would eventually win? Then almost turn down the chance of a full-time deal because his girlfriend was "not really happy" about it?
A "unique rider" says Sean Kelly, his new team manager at An Post-Chain Reaction, and an unlikely journey.
Shaw enjoyed a blistering domestic 2015 with Team Asea, collecting three podium finishes in the Rás and the coveted national road race title along the way. The real reward was the call from Kelly and Kurt Bogaerts, the team's directeur sportif, to join the Belgium-based Continental team.
Last winter he was training on an indoor turbo in Mullingar dreaming of the sun. Now he's sitting in the opulent lobby of the Hotel Diamante, yards from the beach in Calpe where the team are enjoying warm-weather training under blue Spanish skies.
"It does bring it home," Shaw says facing out to the January sun. "You look out and see the big team buses. . . even the fact now I can finish training and I can walk away from my bike. It will be cleaned for me, my bottles will be washed out. The fact that I have extra time on my hands will help me to kick on another level."
It's the small advantages of a full-time set-up. Last year he was still working as fireman on a retained basis, at least until injuries got in the way. And although he wasn't required to clock up the hours, it did restrict his movement - he couldn't leave the area, he was constantly waiting for the phone to ring.
"You're under stress, whether you know it or not, you're under stress so the relief of that stress is the biggest advantage I have now," he says.
Despite that strain and several heavy crashes, he delivered in spades in 2015. Just two weeks before the Rás, Shaw was knocked off by a motorbike in a race in Ulster. He was still recovering from a broken shoulder at the time.
"The boys were good to me. I started the Rás without knowing if I could compete for an hour, for a stage or the full week. But they (Team Asea) still took me and hopefully I paid them back," he says.
Although a stage win remained elusive, the top-three finishes eased the pain and he wouldn't have to wait long for a stand-out victory. On the last weekend in June, Shaw showed he had class beyond his amateur status as he rode away from a field of internationals to claim the national title. But again the backstory was hardly routine.
"I was on a stag on the Friday before the Nationals," he admits.
"I makes me sound like a weirdo, but I was best man for my best friend and I couldn't miss the stag. But the lads who had just got me through the Rás were saying 'you have a great chance' and they were trying to convince me not to go, but I went. I left it to the last minute. I did the TT (time trial) on the Thursday night and flew to Edinburgh the following morning. I'd one good night. . .
"But, see if I get nothing else across to the some of these boys," he says casting an eye towards his, mostly, much younger team-mates. "It's that you don't have to be so straitlaced. You can have a life. If you drink, you can have a few drinks, you can enjoy yourself. If you're relaxed you'll perform better."
His results are hard to argue with and it's a mindset endorsed by Kelly, who has been impressed with how at ease Shaw has been in his new environment - "a super cool guy," Kelly describes him. But having a life outside cycling can make other things a little more complicated. It left Shaw in two minds when the An Post offer finally came through the door.
"It was a lot to give up," he says. "Do I give up work, do I risk my relationship really? (My girlfriend) is not really happy about me cycling, never really has been too much. I've been away how many times.
"She's a Spanish girl living in Mullingar, she came to Mullingar for me and there's me now spending two weeks in Spain. I've been doing this for two or three or four years. But this is on another level.
"But again there was a lot of trouble going on during the Rás, when I had all these injuries and she was trying to get me to stop. And even this (training camp) she didn't want me to do this at all. So that's why I'm really determined to make it work."
After waiting longer than most to get his shot at this level Shaw has no difficulty when it comes to self-motivation for a season he will split between Mullingar and wherever An Post send him to race. He mentions a top-three in September's Tour of Britain as a major target for the season. Races like the Ras will be there for him in 10 years' time, the Tour of Britain won't. For now though he'll settle for any chance he can get.
"I know I can get fit myself, fitness has never been a problem," he insists. "Opportunities is what I need and that's what this team is great for, they really punch above their weight.
"I just need to knuckle down and take any opportunity from next week through to September/October. I am a hard worker, I am willing to really over-extend myself to get a result. I'll go deep, I've learned to go deep. You have to convince yourself to go deep.
"The power of the mind over the body is huge. I used the fact that this is just a one-year thing (as a motivation), that I can really just focus in on the hurt."
It may have been a slow burner, but a fire burns inside now. And it's the one flame this fire-fighter has no intention of extinguishing.
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