Going green…..the Ras is coming!

It is a matter of fact, immovable and some would say incontrovertible, that I have a lengthy part-Irish ancestry to my name. It’s a long story, and given that this is not a website that concerns itself with the specifics of genealogy, I shall not attempt to digress down that particular route. However, my experience of childhood comprised many long drives from Suffolk, through west Wales, followed by sometimes exciting and messy ferry crossings to Rosslare, and then followed again by night-time cruises to Cork for family visits.

I have also heard many cycle-related stories from my father regarding his notable excursion on a fixed wheel racing bike resulting in many missing teeth, and other anecdotes regarding cousins who rode in various frightening and sadistic sounding road races.  And I have never yet got round to checking whether these stories related to the greatest Irish road race of them all…..

No, I don’t mean the Tour of Ireland.  There is another road race, more legendary among the Fenian cognoscenti, some would say as real and bloody as the cobbled hell that is Paris-Roubaix.  I’m talking about the Rá s – more correctly referred to in these corporate sponsored days as the FBD Insurance Rás, the 2010 iteration of which is due to happen from 23rd to 30th May.

The Ras, or correctly ‘An Rás Tailteann‘ in Gaellic, is a race which inspires deep respect when talked about by those in the know.  Whilst these days it attracts a field of respected and reasonably well-known amateur riders from all over the world, it was for many years dominated by some of the greatest and most legendary names in Irish cycling, and this included some real characters too.

Starting this year in Dunboyne, west of Dublin, the race takes a circular route around the country in roughly 150 km stages over eight tortuous days before finishing in Skerries, north of the city.

Colm Christie, the first Ras winner

Colm Christie, the first Ras winner

The race actually began in 1953, at which point it was a two-day race which was won by Colm Christie, left.  By the following year, it had blossomed into an eight-day race, and by all accounts was a portent of the place cycling had assumed within the culture of Ireland.

In social history terms, you must remember that the country was in those days a quite backward, mainly rural country only just beginning to recover from the shattering events that had scarred it, and as such the population, especially in rural areas, was generally very poor.

The bicycle was a very common mode of transport, indeed the only viable way of getting around for the majority who did not own a car.  Such it was that reports of 20,000 people lining the route in Tralee, Co. Kerry, were common. The archives of the race state that:

“At one point a train actually stopped on the line and passengers got out to watch the race go by.”

Faced with such a level of popular support, the race went from strength to strength.  It has assumed a place in the culture totally unlike, say, the Milk Race or the Tour of Britain has in the UK – it’s an event thought of in the same tones of reverence that the French reserve for the Tour de France.

It was 1958 when perhaps the most colourful character in Irish cycling was to come to national prominence.  That year, a man called Mick Murphy won the Ras.

Mile a Minute Murphy‘, as he became known, was already well-known within Irish amateur racing circles, but it was not just his prowess in winning races that had made him notorious.

Born into poverty in 1933 in Caherciveen, Murphy led a childhood life of gruelling deprivation in common with many rural Irish of his day.  Dreaming of an escape from his miserable upbringing, and, legend has it, motivated by his remarkable mother’s strength in the face of such adversity, his first foray into the adult world was in a Circus troupe, wherein he carried out various stunts and acts that he learned on the job.

While the circus no doubt educated Murphy in the ways of life, he also became a runner, and applied his fearsome, no-holds-barred approach to the sport.  It was after this that he took to a bicycle and began to compete in local cycle club races.

Murphy developed a skill and determination for cycling, which eventually saw him nicknamed ‘Iron Man’ and feted in the annals of cycling legend.  But the way in which he approached his life – described in the short sentence – ‘I attacked the bike‘ – seems extraordinary to us now.

Here was a young man who gave everything he had, seeing the sport of cycling perhaps metaphorically as well as literally a way out of his situation.  It’s a reminder of the fact that our sport presents a canvas of toughness and suffering – and in these pre-drugs days, the men who practised the sport at a serious level often lived like tramps and stole to survive.  There were no multi-million contracts and team buses in those days.  Murphy recalls:

“The dogs in the street knew my style . . . the more they waited for me to shatter, the stronger I got.”

'Iron Man' Mick Murphy in his prime

'Iron Man' Mick Murphy in his prime

The Irish documentary maker, Liam O’Brien, who made the documentary ‘Convict of the Road’ on RTE, summarised his subject thus:

Well the legend goes a bit like this: he trained with weights made from stones, he made a living as a circus performer, on one stage in the 1958 Ras, after his bike had broken down, he stole an ordinary bicycle from a farmer and chased down the leading pack. It’s said that he rode for three days with a broken collarbone, that he would cycle for forty miles having completed a grueling stage just to cool down, that he drank cow’s blood and ate raw meat. It said he was indestructible.’

You can listen to the full documentary here, and it really is worth a listen:

Convict of the Road – RTE

Another memorable rider, perhaps in terms of success the most notable of all, is Shay O’Hanlon, (Séamus), the rider who has won the most Ras events of all, having ridden in the race up until 1984.

In 1962, O’Hanlon completed the race wearing the yellow jersey a whole 20 minutes ahead of the nearest following rider.  He cruised into Phoenix Park in Dublin, the rest of the race being not just out of contention but pretty much in a different race.  There’s something wonderfully Irish about that – the potential for the race to become so wildly out of kilter that a twenty minute gap can open up at the front.

The modern Ras is in many peoples’ eyes still the Irish ‘Tour de France’.  Still taking in the rough, untended rural lanes with grass growing along the middle, the race offers the full range of scenery that Ireland is famous for.  And whilst the leading rider may not be fuelled by raw meat and blood in his bidon, it’s still worth watching.

The Bike Show – Legends of the Ras:

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