Tyrone teenager makes his mark on the Under-23 circuit after announcing himself with Strade Bianchi victory
When Darren Rafferty rode his first race, a kids cyclo-cross event in Belfast back in 2012, he admits he didn’t set the world alight.
He did enjoy the experience enough, though, to convince his dad Gary to bring him to a few more that year and a few years later he began competing on the road too with his local club, Island Wheelers.
As an under-16, the Coalisland kid earned a place at the Youth Olympics by winning all three major underage stage races in the country: Rás na nÓg, the Kanturk 3-Day and the Errigal Youth Tour.
After finishing eighth in the road race there, he ended his season with third overall at the five-day Youth Tour of Austria.
His first season as a junior, however, was almost wiped out by Covid restrictions and his second year began badly when he crashed in the Hilltown Grand Prix in middle of May last year, breaking three ribs and a wrist.
“I wrecked myself,” the 19-year-old winces as he recalls the incident. “I hit a pothole on a descent and was flung onto the road. I was off the bike completely for about a month and then did three turbo sessions a day for two weeks.”
A return to competition though saw him smash the junior 10-mile time-trial record before leaving for France and a summer stint with Team 31 Jollycycles, where he took seven wins and 11 podium places in two months before finishing fourth, just two seconds off a medal, at the European junior time-trial championships.
“I had probably the best two months I could have imagined,” the Tyrone teenager admits.
“I enjoyed the lifestyle, the racing and did pretty well – unexpectedly well.”
Rafferty’s results saw him snapped up this year by one of the biggest U-23 teams in the world, Hagens Berman Axeon, a squad that has conveyed 40 riders into the WorldTour in recent years, including Cork man Eddie Dunbar.
His season began in Croatia in March and by the end of May the 2021 national cyclo-cross champion had secured his biggest victory to date, partly thanks to the bike-handling skills he had perfected in the mucky fields and parks of Ireland.
The Italian Strade Bianchi one-day classic gets its name from its unique sectors of ‘white roads’, strewn with gravel and dust, that force the peloton on a gruelling, undulating meander through the vineyards of Tuscany.
Having quickly become one of the most prestigious events on the cycling calendar, this year’s 156km-long U-23 version had an Irish winner for the first time ever.
“I’d done a block of Italian races before Strade Bianchi and felt really good that week in training,” says Rafferty of the lead-up to the race.
“I knew I had the legs to get a decent result somewhere along the line within the next month. Obviously, with my cyclo-cross background, I was looking at Strade Bianchi as a possibility, but it worked out way better than I could have imagined.”
The first half of the race, however, didn’t exactly go to plan.
“I spent the first half an hour trying to get in all the breaks, wasted a lot of energy and managed to miss a nine-rider break that went with nobody from the team in it,” he admits.
“The gap went out to two minutes really quickly and I thought the race was over.
“Then, (Team) Bardiani started to ride and they kept the beak at two minutes until the halfway mark, where we hit the hardest gravel section – two-and-a-half kilometres long at five or six per cent. I knew that was the moment. If I was going to get across, I had to do it there.”
When Rafferty set off in pursuit of the break, he was joined by three others who all had a different agenda.
“They all had team-mates in the break so, at the start, they wouldn’t help until I opened the gap and then we rolled through for about 40km to get across.”
When the two groups merged to form a baker’s dozen up front, Rafferty manipulated the odds in his favour on the penultimate climb before calmly playing out the finale.
“We turned left with a couple of kilometres to go and went up this 800-metre long, 20 per cent climb and I jumped away with a guy from Tudor Pro Cycling.
“There were just two of us and I thought, ‘I’m either going to come first or second here, so I might as well go for first!’ I didn’t pull a turn, sat on, waited, waited, waited, and then, with around 500 metres to go, I attacked up through the town and managed to hold on to the finish at the top. That was probably the best moment of the season so far.”
Last month, Rafferty was part of the team that helped British rider Leo Hayter to victory in the Baby Giro, the U-23 version of the Giro d’Italia.
Although he was sick after two stages and he was reduced to a helper’s role.
“It was a different role for me but it was a great week, the best result for the team of the season,” he says. “I learned a lot there and hopefully I can get a better result personally next year.”
After finishing sixth in the U-23 time-trial championships and 27th in the road race amid the sweltering heat of Portugal ten days ago, Rafferty was third and took the catch sprints jersey on the opening stage at another highly regarded U-23 stage race, the Giro Della Valle d’Aosta, last Wednesday before fading slightly during the five-day race in the Alps, to finish 12th overall and third in the young rider classification.
“I had a few rough days leading into it, with three flights in 30 hours,” he says.
“My luggage didn’t make it, so I’d no suitcase. I’d no Wahoo or heart rate monitor so I just rode on feel the first day, got in the break and gave myself a chance.
“I got to the final climb in a nice group of five, which split in two on the climb. I was really suffering at that point but went over the climb in second and just got caught on the descent by (overall winner) Lenny Martinez at the start of the descent and just about managed to hold on for third.”
A four-and-a-half-hour tailback through the Mont Blanc tunnel afterwards didn’t do much for his recovery.
“Stage two was tough,” he says. “I was pretty happy with stage three but I had a real rough patch on stage four, the queen stage.
“It was 170km with 4,550 metres of climbing and I lost a lot of time and dropped from eighth overall to 12th. I managed to hold onto that on today but it was a really tough five days of racing.
“We did over 15,000 metres of climbing in five days, so I’m pretty happy to be there or thereabouts with a lot of good climbers.
“I think you learn more with every race, you get more experience and can judge a race a lot better, judge yourself a lot better. There’s been days where I felt good and days where I’ve felt really bad.
“There’s still a bit to do but it’s nice to see that I’m not a million miles away and I’ve got another few years at U-23 if I need it.”