Life on the road as Rás team mechanic is no easy ride

It’s 12 to 14 hours each day of stress and terror and exhilaration all rolled into one

 

“Cable ties! Get two cable ties and stick them together!”

Brian McArdle’s yelling at me through the rear window of the car where I’m sitting, surrounded by spare wheels and bits of bikes and wondering what in the world he wants two cable ties for.

“My cleat broke in a crash,” he gasps, blood oozing from nasty wounds on his forearms and thigh and froth blowing off his lips as he cycles alongside the car at more than 50km/h. I can smell the adrenaline off him.

“Tie me to the pedal.”

I lean out of the window and wrap the cable ties around his foot as he clings onto the roof. He yanks his leg upwards, testing my handiwork. We realise simultaneously that, idiot that I am, I’ve managed to cable tie just his shoe, completely missing the pedal. So I have to get two more and do it again. Finally, success. He screams his thanks and sprints off to rejoin the peloton, as I sit down in shock, trying to process what just happened.

And what just happened was my first act as a mechanic on the An Post Rás. Baptism of fire doesn’t quite cut it.

But let’s go back a bit. I am an avid cyclist, with a lot more enthusiasm than talent. I also love tinkering with bikes, taking them apart and trying, usually reasonably successfully, to put them back together. But a mechanic I am not.

Thus it was with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to function as one for the five-man team my cycling club, Scott Orwell Wheelers, had entered into the Rás. But how could I say ’no’ to spending eight days tearing around some of the most beautiful parts of this most beautiful of islands in the wake of nearly 200 top cyclists?

For myself and Ken O’Neill, a fellow 40-something Rás virgin who’s acting as team manager and driver, it’ll be the closest we’ll ever get to riding it. He’ll forgive me for saying it, but our Rás years, if ever they existed, are past us.

Still, how much fun would it be to immerse ourselves in it? A lot, we reckoned, that’s how much.

And so it has proved to be, thus far.

Unique race

The beauty of the Rás is that while it features professional cycling teams, more than half of the field are amateurs. These are normal people from 18 to about 45, most of them with day jobs and families and all that that entails, pitting themselves against some the fittest human beings on the planet for eight stages through some of Ireland’s most challenging terrain. It’s a unique race and all the more magical for it.

The Rás circus, which consists of nearly 200 riders and 39 team vehicles, travels along the roads inside a moving “bubble” which is shielded by official vehicles, gardaí and motorbike outriders from the general public.

So insulated are you from real life that things like hanging out of a window shouting support at a gasping man in lycra as your driver is overtaking 20 cars on the wrong side of the road become normal after a while.

But tearing through busy towns in a long, honking stream of noise and colour, breaking untold red lights and skittering the wrong way around roundabouts still take some getting used to, especially when you are doing it all under the watchful eye of dozens of gardaí and hordes of waving schoolkids.

Essentially, my job is to look after the riders’s bikes,making sure they are in perfect shape before each stage. I then travel behind the race in the team car, ready to fix whatever issues the riders experience while out on the road, and then when they – hopefully – get home in one piece, wash and fine tune their bikes so they’re ready to do it all again the following morning. Simple, right?

Wrong. It’s 12 to 14 hours each day of stress and terror and exhilaration all rolled into one. Most of it fuelled by bad coffee and handfuls of Haribo jellies.

Worst of all, I don’t actually get to see very much of the race as I’m stuck in a car behind it. But I’ve loved every second. From the razzmatazz of the start in Dublin Castle last Sunday to the glorious vistas in Mayo and Sligo to the chaotic scenes on the criminally steep slopes of the Mamore Gap in Donegal where our car’s clutch and that of the ambulance behind us burst into flames, it’s been one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Rider down

That said, my heart is in my mouth every time the Race Radio in the car bursts into life. Which it does a lot. The chief commissaire keeps a running commentary during the stage, of who’s attacking, who’s being dropped. He calls your car when one of your riders needs a drink, or food, or a spare wheel after a puncture. Or, worst case scenario, has crashed. I now know the scariest words in the English language are “Scott Orwell, rider down”.

Our riders have endured many spills, loads of punctures, a few knackered bikes and several exploded wheels, not to mention lost a lot of skin, but all five of them are still, as I type, in the race. They are, in my eyes, warriors, one and all.

None will go home with the yellow jersey but, considering they’re all working full time, no longer in the first flush of youth and competing against some of cycling’s most promising young talent, not to mention some of Ireland’s finest professional riders, none of them expected to be.

To them, completing the race in Skerries on Sunday will be an achievement in itself. Nothing will make me prouder – and more relieved – than to see them finish and be named Men of the Rás.

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