Latecomer Shaw relishing chance to live the dream for as long as he can
Damien Shaw is getting goosebumps. He's just in the door of his Mullingar home after the last big training ride before the Rás and is greeted by his own familiar grimace.
Rás booklets have been delivered to the homes near this year's route and the back page is filled with an image of Shaw pulling hard on the way into Skerries last year. It's enough to get the hair standing on end ahead of today's race start at Dublin Castle and sparks memories of last year. Three podium finishes at the race were followed by a brilliant National Championship victory. The offer from An Post-ChainReaction soon followed.
"It was like I was playing for Mullingar Town and now I'm with a League One or Championship club in England," he says. Not that many football league clubs would take a shot on a 32-year-old fireman who only took up the sport at 25. He could earn more money if he stayed with the day job, but when opportunity knocked he had to answer the door.
Shaw is still based in the midlands but flies in for races with his An Post team. In between, he remains a familiar face on the domestic scene. At home he's a marked man given little rope by his rivals, but on the continent he's a rookie still learning the ropes.
"I knew it was going to be tough," he says. "Fitness-wise, I'm kinda pleasantly surprised. There's just an awful lot to learn; tactics and bravery, things I haven't been exposed to before, because I had the tools to get myself out of situations. In Ireland, brute force will get you through a lot.
"I suppose it's a little bit frustrating for me and for them. The managers know I have the capabilities but I don't have the experience, I may as well be a gosson. It was hard to jump straight into the (Étoile de) Besseges race at the start of the year where you have the big French teams. They have their sprint trains, they're doing it week in, week out and I don't think I've even been in a proper bunch sprint in Ireland."
At his age he knows he won't have the luxury of serving a long apprenticeship.
"The most encouraging bit of advice I got is from a local guy, who doesn't know anything about racing on the continent, but he said the fact I'm able to explain what's happening is a good sign. It's not that I'm clueless, blind or overawed. I kinda know what's going on. I can see what's going wrong and I can see what's going right. It's just a matter of working on it."
Shaw should have been racing in Belgium last week, but a crash in Luxembourg left him with an injured hand. Not that injury stopped him from making his mark in last year's Rás. He had to be talked into starting it after a collision with a race motorbike a few weeks earlier left him nursing a broken shoulder. He started not knowing if he could compete for an hour, a stage or the week. Three podium finishes helped to repay the faith his Asea team had shown in him.
He'd love to go a step further this week and get a stage win, but as part of a strong outfit Shaw knows he has a team role to play for his manager Kurt Bogaerts.
"I could have a very different Rás to last year, obviously making the podium a couple of times was good for me and good for domestic riding, but the standard expected from an An Post rider is if you're in that position you have to win the stage.
"It's pressure and I enjoy pressure, but this year I could be on the front for half the stage. If I'm asked to do that I'll do it, no problem. It is something I'm getting paid for. If your boss tells you what to do, you'll more than likely do it. It's the same for me."
His enthusiasm for racing hasn't been diminished by this more professional, controlled structure. Shaw knows the opportunity could be short-lived and he'll inevitably have to return to "reality" again.
"I like what I'm doing and it's brilliant to be racing in front of crowds, every time you go to a race there's people on the streets, the roads are closed, it just makes it feel like an occasion, rather than a race finish on the side of a road, up a hill in Wicklow."
This week, however, a sense of occasion is guaranteed and the first few days promise to be "really special" as he wears the national jersey in his home town, which hosts the second stage. He knows the progress he's made over the last 12 months can also help motivate the familiar faces he'll line up against this week.
"I race every other week in Ireland and I just see myself as one of them yet in the space of a few months, with a few good results, you can make big steps and it can be inspirational."
Sunday Indo Sport