On previous editions of Rás Tailteann, the late Mick Lawless drove the broom wagon, a big red van with a broom strapped to the side signalling to onlookers that the riders in front of him were the last ones to be swept up on their way to the finish each day.
As well as a kind word, a quick wit and a van full of provisions for tired riders, the inside of the broom wagon held space for their bikes if it came to that, while the outside was adorned with various bumper stickers.
One of those infamous stickers read: “Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.” While a handful of previous Rásanna have been won by one or the other, this year’s race was won with a hint of both.
The Cork All human VeloRevolution team that took overall victory on Sunday with Daire Feeley, included three riders; Timmy O’Regan, Richie Maes and Mark Dowling, who have over 50 years of racing in their legs between them.
Although none of them can be classified as old, 35-year-old Dowling reckons he alone has ‘80 or 90’ Rás stages under his belt, and the squad have accumulated enough knowledge between them to have a trick or two up their sleeves.
“Plans on the Rás just go up in smoke,” says the son of legendary boxer Mick Dowling. “You just have to plan as the race unfolds in front of you. Having 90 stages in the legs and head, you learn a few sneaky tactics.”
Richie Maes ended stage one fourth overall courtesy of a mid-stage time bonus, while his teammates finished in the same time as stage winner Matt Teggart of Ulster in Horse and Jockey.
“The big thing the first day is to avoid mishaps and finish with the leaders,” says O’Regan.
Stage two saw Maes become virtual race leader on the road when he and Feeley infiltrated a large breakaway on the way to Castleisland, a route the Killorglin native knows well.
“I didn’t have any ambitions to be in the yellow jersey because I knew the finish of that stage was brutal,” says Maes.
“We needed at least two minutes of a head start with 10km to go – which we didn’t have. I know the roads, so I told Daire there was a dirty climb coming up in Ballydesmond that wasn’t in the road book. I told him to keep his powder dry until then, make his move there and try get a head start on the last climb. He was caught on the line but was still in the game.”
When stage winner Louis Sutton, of the Spanish Brocar Ale team, took over the race lead with Feeley a minute back in eighth, some might have thought the race was over, but the next day Feeley got into the move that turned the Rás on its head.
“I started talking to Daire about the Lisdoonvarna stage a month ago,” says team manager Aidan Crowley, a Rás veteran who won the team classification six times with Meath Cycleways.
“The way I ran the team was down to Brian Connaughton, Philip Cassidy and the late Seamus Kennedy,” he says. “When they managed us on the Rás they constantly told us to watch for opportunities like they did when they won the Rás in their day. That would have been beaten into me by all three of them.
“We knew how important it would be to be on the front when we came off the ring road from Limerick to Adare and it just so happened that it was raining then. What a lot of others didn’t know was how bad the road to Newport was.
“The break on stage two wasn’t committed, but the one on stage three was. It had Darnell Moore, Luke Smith, Conor Hennebry, Adam Ward, Daire and one of each of the English teams so the only big teams that missed out were the Dutch and Spanish. By Birdhill, we were four minutes up.”
The youngest rider on the Cork team, Vlad Evseev, had some idea of the Spanish squad’s firepower having worked there earlier in the season.
“I trained with a few of the Brocar Ale guys up in Sierra Nevada,” says the 24-year-old. “We knew that Sutton was obviously strong and Tom Martin was very strong but their big mistake was trying to control the race with their whole team on the front.
“As the stage panned out you could tell the Spanish team couldn’t control it,” says O’Regan. “They tried to control it in the traditional way, which doesn’t really work with Irish riders. We knew then Daire had a great chance and by the end of the day he was in yellow.
“I’d been up the road with Daire for 100km the day before,” adds Maes. “So, for him to do it a second day in a row, I knew he had super condition.
“That was the turning point of the Rás. In the last 30km the Spanish couldn’t do more than 20 minutes at the front and the time gaps were going out when they were at the front. I knew Daire had the strength to bring it home.”
Finishing second into Lisdoonvarna, behind Adam Ward, Feeley was the new leader of the Rás with two days remaining. Still, there was calm in the camp.
“I’ve been on teams over the years where we’d sit down and go through a number of different scenarios but, to be honest, it just leads to nerves,” says the race winner. “Basically, what we did was go to dinner every evening, had a bit of banter, loads of craic and a few words about what we had to do the next day.”
With an average speed of 47.2kph, stage four saw incessant attacks on Feeley’s yellow jersey but experience told the Cork squad how not to defend the race lead.
“The reason the Rás speed is among the highest in the world is because breaks just go and come back all day,” says Dowling. “Even guys who have no chance of winning the stage will attack just to get up the road for a while. You can’t control that.”
“We just had to let the racing happen, allow no lulls in the race, let the attacks fire off,” says Maes. “If there was a lull, one of us went to the front and rode, not to attack, but just to keep the pace high. We put one man on the front if we needed to while the others took turns recovering.”
With the stage won by Rory Townsend in a bunch sprint into Kilbeggan, Feeley became the first man on this Rás to retain his yellow jersey.
His team had managed to keep things together despite being without O’Regan for 50km as he fought to regain contact after somebody’s front wheel sliced the skewer off his rear wheel and it came loose.
With Feeley 51 seconds clear of nearest rival Sutton going into the final stage to Blackrock in Louth, a quieter than usual team car made the trip to the start. Even the usually boisterous Crowley was silent.
“It’s very strange for Aidan to be quiet,” laughs Feeley. But he too was feeling the butterflies.
“He was nervous,” recalls Maes. “I roomed with him all week and at the start of the last stage I said ‘Daire, you’re not trying to win this on your own. All five of us are here, so relax.”
“We were expecting an ambush,” admits O’Regan. “But by Jaysus we were ready for the fight! We were all ready to give it 100 per cent from the off, keeping the speed high.”
“What we wanted to do was keep it together to the circuits,” says Maes. “Because we knew the circuits would be full-on and the race would be so fast it would be very hard to attack then. When Daire got up the road there, it took the pressure off us. If he was caught we were ready to go again.”
As Kevin McCambridge took stage glory, Feeley avoided a crash in the last kilometre to cross the line surrounded by his teammates and claim the first Irish victory in the Rás for 14 years. His Cork All Human VeloRevolution team also won the county team prize, beating the international squads in the process.
“It’s not solely me who won the race,” says Feeley. “Those four lads deserve every moment of success they get and they deserve to put their hands up. They were brilliant all week, never put a foot wrong.”
“Some teams don’t look great on paper,” says Maes. “But on the road, they work well together. (Stage one winner) Matt Teggart came up on Sunday and said we were flawless all week. It’s nice to hear that from other people.”