A race like no other: How the Rás Tailteann became a cycling legend

If you’re not familiar with Irish racing then the Rás Tailteann may be new to you, but it is an event that has spawned legend in Ireland.

Better known as simply The Rás — pronounced raw-s due to the accent over the A — the race has been a staple of the Irish calendar since 1953.

It still draws big crowds of on-lookers and strikes fear into prospective starters and brings admiration for those who have completed it. The race claims the likes of Tony Martin, Jai Hindley, Sam Bennett, Simon Yates, and John Degenkolb, to name just a few, amongst its competitors. Bora-Hansgrohe’s Lukas Pöstlberger is a former winner of the race after taking the overall victory in 2015 the year before he stepped up to professional level. He beat Josh Edmondson and Ryan Mullen, who would also become pros soon after.

“It was one of the hardest races I ever did in my cycling career. It’s really unpredictable and you go with only five riders, and to control the county riders it’s very hard. Every day is full bloc racing, it’s long, hard, with the weather and the road conditions,” Pöstlberger told VeloNews.

“It’s kind of like racing in Belgium a bit. There is always the rain and the wind, and the road conditions are always difficult.”

Those who finish the race have the honor of being able to call themselves a “Man of the Rás” and there is a deep pride in earning that name. Past competitors and winners are often given a hero’s welcome when they return to areas touched by the race.

The yellow jersey group tackle Corkscrew Hill on stage 3 into Lisdoonvarna
The yellow jersey group tackles Corkscrew Hill on stage 3 into Lisdoonvarna (Photo: Lorraine O’Sullivan)

When Cycling Club Isle of Man attended the race this year, a team that I have been involved in creating, we received some free food at a restaurant whose owner was passionate about cycling.

For a brief period, the Rás was a UCI-ranked 2.2 event but it has been a national event for the vast majority of its history. You could be forgiven for thinking that the low ranking of the race would mean it’s relatively easy for riders on the cusp of turning pro to rock up and dominate all the way to victory, but it really isn’t.

“You could pick out a stage to say, that’s absolutely the Queen’s stage of the race and it’s bound to do untold harm. And we could get maybe two or three riders coming in within 20 seconds of each other and it hasn’t done the untold harm that everybody imagined it was going to do,” race director Ger Campbell told VeloNews. “Then the next day, you have a flat 140-kilometer stage somewhere and the break will go up the road and finish eight minutes up. That is the unpredictability of this race, and it has been won many times in situations like that.

“There’s been some anecdotes through the years of heroic exploits with some of the Irish county guys putting it up to the European guys on their day.”

Indeed, the 2022 race was won by a county rider for the first time since 1996 with Cork rider Daire Feeley winning the overall classification by 51 seconds.

Daire Feeley was the first Irish county rider to win the Ras since 1996
Daire Feeley was the first Irish county rider to win the Rás since 1996 (Pic: Lorraine O’Sullivan)

The small team sizes are only part of the puzzle that makes this a notoriously difficult race to control. Unlike in major UCI races, there is no predetermined etiquette or way of racing. When a break goes away, the bunch rarely sits up and lets them take the gap, it has to be hard won.

The usual ebb and flow hardly exists, and this year’s race, which saw a mixture of Continental, county, and top-level domestic teams compete, was all guns blazing from the start. Stage 4’s average speed of 47.7kph over 154km would have placed it just outside the top-10 fastest UCI-ranked races so far this season.

“It’s like nothing I’ve never done before. It’s a strange one with a mixture of continental teams and good teams and even county and amateur teams. It’s really unique,” ​​EF Education-Easy Post rider Owain Doull, another former competitor, told VeloNews.

“It’s hard, hard racing. Hard grippy roads. Sometimes the break wouldn’t go for 100-120km, and even when the break is gone, guys would still be attacking. It’s a weird one to try to win overall. It’s one of the hardest races ever to control, because one day the break will get 10 minutes, and then it’s a race between five to six guys who were in the break that day.”

One of the words used most often to describe the racing last week was “surging.” The pace is constantly fluctuating due to the relentless attacking combined with the repeated widening and narrowing of the roads. You can throw in the grippy asphalt and plentiful potholes for a little extra challenge, as if the riders needed it.

The platoon lines up for the start of stage 2 in Horse and Jockey
The platoon lines up for the start of stage 2 in Horse and Jockey

a little history

The story of the Rás Tailteann tells a story about the history of Irish cycling and the country’s sporting past in general. Rás means race in Irish and the Tailteann name was added on as a nod to the Tailteann Games, an ancient festival that is claimed to have started around 1600 BC.

At the time it was created back in 1953, Irish cycling was deeply divided with three separate governing bodies operating on the island of Ireland. The National Cycling Association (NCA) had been expelled by the UCI in 1947 after it refused to relinquish its claim to governance over Northern Ireland.

Two years later, a new body called the Cumann Rothaíochta na hÉireann (CRE) was created. It would govern just the Republic of Ireland while the Northern Ireland Cycling Federation was also created, both were subsequently recognized by the UCI.

It was the now unrecognized NCA that created the Rás in 1953 and members of the other organizations risked being thrown out if they competed. A rival Tour of Ireland, which attracted far fewer Irish riders, was created the same year — it would run until 2009 and counts Sean Kelly and Marco Pinotti among its winners.

It wasn’t until 1979 that a new body called the Irish Cycling Tripartite Committee was created to connect the three disparate groups before they were eventually merged in 1987. The changes in 1979 opened the door for one of Ireland’s biggest racing exports to compete at the Ras before he turned professional.

“Stephen [Roche] rode the Rás in 1979, which was probably his last amateur year in Ireland,” Campbell said. “Basically, it was his last big gig of him before he before his amateur days ended in Ireland. That was a very important edition of the Rás because Irish cycling through the 50s and 60s was filled with all sorts of fallouts and politics. Within the Republic of Ireland, you had two Federations. You had a UCI international recognized Federation, and then you had, I suppose, the rebel 32 county organization which wasn’t recognized by the UCI, but that was the association that the Rás was always connected to, the rebel association, the NCA.

“It ran that way from 1953, up to 1978, and then an agreement was reached between all the parties involved, that the federations would come together and race in 1979. And as they say, the rest is history. It hasn’t looked back since. But, you know, if it was a year later, Stephen Roche would never have been entitled to enter because he was in the wrong federation at the time.”

Nicolas Roche never rode the Rás, unlike his father, but he was a DS at this year's race
Nicolas Roche never rode the Rás, unlike his father, but he was a DS at this year’s race (Photo: Lorraine O’Sullivan)

Cycling Ireland now governs cycling in the whole island of Ireland and the previous divisions have long gone.

Despite its popularity, the Rás Tailteann has struggled financially in recent years and the 2022 edition was the first time it had run in four years. The race had enjoyed an unbroken run since its inaugural edition but its future was put in doubt when long-time sponsor An Post (the Irish post office) pulled out at the end of 2017.

Contingency funds helped the race happen in 2018 as a non-UCI event, but the pot of money had run dry and with no new title sponsor on the horizon it had to pull the plug on the 2019 race. Plans were in place to bring back a scaled-down version, which would see it reduced from eight to five days, in 2020 but COVID-19 put paid to that.

With some help from Cycling Ireland and a few jersey sponsors, the organizers brought the five-stage race back for 2022. There is still no title sponsor, but Campbell hopes that this year’s showing will help to attract some interest from sponsors.

“We had to start somewhere,” Campbell told VeloNews. “It’s three days less than it has been for 30 years. But it was undoable, we didn’t have the money to go the extra three days, we didn’t have the money to put it under the UCI calendar, and we didn’t have the money to attract the UCI Continental teams that would have come for the last 10 editions or whatever.

“To me, it was never that important it was on the UCI calendar to be honest. I suppose going forward, we have no idea whether we will be in a position to go back on the UCI calendar. But at the moment, it’s not a huge issue for me, because we’ve had some huge names here in the past in the Rás, Tony Martin, Mark Cavendish, John Degenkolb, whatever but they were never big names when they were here, they went on to become big names.

“If a rider from Holland wins a stage, that’s all it really matters to the ordinary bystander on the side of the road that a Dutch guy won, whether he’s a member of a UCI Continental team or not. That’s the way the Rás has always been.”

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