The Rás, By Tom Daly

When Stephen Roche pulled off his Giro / Tour / Worlds treble in 1987, Eddy Merckx congratulated him: "Now, Stephen, we are equal." Roche looked at the Cannibal, smiled, and replied: "No we are not Eddy. You have never won the Rás."

The Rás: The Story of Ireland's Unique Bike Race, by Tom DalyTitle: The Rás: The Story of Ireland's Unique Bike Race
Author: Tom Daly
Publisher: The Collins Press
Year: 2003 (reissued 2012)
Pages: 342
Order: The Collins Press
What it is: A history of the Rás, Ireland's national tour.
Strengths: Packed to the gills with stories from Rásanna past, some of which can rival the stories told about bigger races
Weaknesses: In its re-issued form The Rás has been stripped of some of its statto delights and - sadly - no attempt has been made to bring the story up-to-date.

Bike races of all kinds have been used down through history to make political statements. It has been claimed, convincingly, that France, Italy and Spain have all used their Grand Tours as a way of promoting unity within diverse nations, while it is claimed of the Ronde van Vlaanderen that it is a sporting and political symbol of the disunity at the heart of the Belgian peoples. In most cases the attribution of such meaning to races is an attempt at rationalising history, the political symbolism is something that either the races later latched on to or has been ascribed to them by others. These races existed first as sporting and marketing exercises, and only later as political tools. In Ireland, from the get-go, the Rás wore its political symbolism publicly, proudly and defiantly.

A quick history and geography lesson for you. Ireland is an island that has been divided up into thirty-two counties. For most of the last eight hundred years its history has been intertwined with that of its noisy neighbour across the Irish Sea, Great Britain. A little under a hundred years ago Ireland got carved up after a War of Independence encouraged the British to leave Ireland to the Irish. But, breaking up being hard to do, the British held on to six counties in the north of the country, variously known today as Ulster, the Six Counties and Northern Ireland. That led to a Civil War in the South at the end of which the British still held on to the Six Counties and some still dreamed of a United Ireland.

Skip the story forward to 1947. Cycling in Ireland at this stage is governed by the National Cycling Association and the NCA considers itself to be an all-Ireland thirty-two county body. This was somewhat bothersome to the British cycling federation, who felt they governed the sport in the north of the country through the Northern Ireland Cycling Federation. So the British took their case to the UCI and the UCI told the NCA to confine themselves to the twenty-six counties or else. When the NCA told the UCI to feck off, the UCI fecked the NCA out of the international cycling family and banned all its licence holders from participating in UCI sanctioned events.

In 1949 a group of NCA splitters - including a couple of members of the McQuaid clan - grew bored of their international isolation, formed the Cumann Rothíochta na hÉireann (CRE) and promised the UCI they'd play fair and only concern themselves with the twenty-six counties. This was enough to ensure their re-admittance to the international cycling family. The NCA stayed as outcasts, their belief in nationalism stronger than their desire to win bangles and baubles internationally.

Skip forward to 1953 now. Road racing is taking off in Ireland and the NCA and the CRE are competing for the hearts and minds of people young and old taking up the sport. They're also competing with one and other to disrupt their rival's races, with tack attacks, road blocks and - on at least one occasion - an attempt to send a boulder crashing down a mountain and into the riders racing past below (later there would even be a bomb at an athletics stadium due to host a track meet featuring Fausto Coppi). Into this world the Rás was born, initially as a two-day event and then becoming an eight-day event the following year.

That first Rás, in 1953, showed its political roots by starting outside the GPO in Dublin, where the rebels held out against the British during the failed 1916 Rising, and by using as its turning point the memorial in Wexford to the men of the failed 1798 Rebellion, when Napoleon loaned Wolfe Tone a few ships and some soldiers in order to stir up some trouble for the British.

In the next Rás, 1954, the riders were taken north of the border the NCA's members disputed, into Northern Ireland. Two years later, in 1956, the race's passage through Northern Ireland caused a minor riot when the local police, the RUC, objected to an Irish tricolour being flown from the race's lead car. The upshot of which was the Rás being banned from Northern Ireland.

The link between Irish nationalism and the Rás was ever-present in the early years of the race, even without visits to the North. What wasn't present was much in the way of international competition. In the 1960s and 1970s this was rectified by the involvement of Soviet Bloc riders: Poland in 1963, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and then a full Soviet squad in 1970.

At the 1969 FSGT-organised GP de l'Humanité in France discussions had been opened with the Soviets with the aim of getting them to send a team from one of the smaller satellite nations to the 1970 Rás. With the Cold War in full flow and the Troubles in the North having kicked off in 1968 the Russians leapt at the chance to support a bit of revolutionary activity and, instead of one of the small satellite squads, sent a full-blown Soviet outfit.

Previous Rásanna had been dedicated to men like Roger Casement and organisations like the Fenians. The 1970 Rás was dedicated to two men: James Connolly, the Scottish-born labour organiser who had been executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Rising; and Vladimir Illyich Lenin, the Soviet leader who had praised Connolly and the other men of 1916. The Russians thanked the Rás organisers for this kindness by going out and massacring the Irish riders.

Alexander Gysiatiknov took the first stage. And the second. And the third. After that he decided to share. With his Soviet team-mates. Yuri Lavrouchkin - who would come back in 1977 and win the overall - took stage four. Gainan Saidchuchin, who had been on four Peace Race-winning teams - winning himself in 1962 - celebrated his birthday on the fifth day with victories in both parts of the day's split stage (making it six for six for the Soviets). At which stage the Irish realised they were in serious trouble. Yes, the Polish and Czech squads had thumped the hell out of them in '63 and '68, but guys like Gene Mangan, Christy Kimmage (Paul's father) and Shay O'Hanlon had all been able to win stages along the way, it wasn't a total lock-out. These Soviets though, well they were embarrassing the Irish.

Mangan - himself a former winner of the Rás - was at this stage acting as driver for the Russian officials. The night that Saidchuchin's birthday was celebrated Mangan suggested to the Soviet team manager that it might be politically expedient to let the Irish win something, backing up his plea for some crumbs from the table with the warning that the Soviets might not be welcomed back if they hogged everything for themselves. Whether the Soviet manager took this threat seriously, or whether he was simply fed up with Mangan spoiling Saidchuchin's birthday party, an offer was made to Mangan: a representative from each side would arm-wrestle for it. If the Soviet lost, the Irish could have a stage win.

Mangan agreed, a representative from each side was found and a table cleared. The two men locked hands. Their arm muscles seized. And nothing happened. And continued to not happen. After about ten minutes of nothing happening both men were looking distressed. Something was happening. And what looked like happening was that the Russian was about to crack. Which is when the Soviet manger stopped things before the wrong thing could happen. Mangan claimed victory for the Irish. The Soviet claimed there was no outcome, it was an honours-even draw.

The next day Gysiatiknov took charge once more and won his fourth stage. Seven from seven for the Soviets with just three to go. Mangan continued to press his case for some crumbs from the table. The Soviets continued to ignore him. Mangan persisted with his pleas during the following day's stage, from Castletownbere to Dungarvan. With a sigh the Soviet manager picked up the GC sheet and, pointing to a name, told Mangan to send him up the road and, if he could stay away, he could have the win. Mangan was shocked: whether by luck or by design the Soviet manager had picked the oldest man in the race, Mick Grimes. No one knew his exact age but it was known that his son had ridden the previous year's Rás, so he was definitely getting on a bit.

The stage was already about seventy kilometres done at this point, with another one-forty to go. Mangan tried to protest but realised he was being played. If the Irish wanted a stage win, Grimes was going to have dig in and do some spade work. Some hard spade work.

And so it was that Grimes was allowed slip off the front of the peloton outside Bandon and built up a lead of three minutes coming into Cork. By Youghal, with still thirty kilometres to go, he was four and a half minutes to the good. Then he started to tire. At which point one of the Soviets leapt out of the peloton and started to chase. And so the peloton upped tempo and chased the chaser. Grimes' lead fell to four minutes. Then Three. Two. One. With just thirty-seven seconds to spare Grimes raced into Dungarvan and, throwing a clenched fist into the air, crossed the finish line. Forty-three seconds behind the chasing Soviet the peloton roared home. The Irish had earned their gift from the Soviets.

They didn't earn anything else. The Soviets won the remaining stages and Gysiatiknov became only the second rider in the history of the Rás to wear the leader's jersey from first to last stage (Shay O'Hanlon was the first, in 1962, and when he did the same again in 1965 he didn't just hold the jersey for the duration of the race: in three straight editions of the Rás he was the only man to lead).

* * * * *

The names in that story may well be unfamiliar to you, and therefore you can't rate the riders against others you do know, judge the scale of their achievements against benchmarks. And that, to an extent, makes stories like that seem unimportant. But, to my mind, a story like that can challenge some of the best other races can throw at it. Even as an Irish person, I'm willing to admit that the Rás isn't exactly famous the world over, a must-have notch on everyone's palamarès. But that alone does not detract from the stories it is capable of generating. And that is why a book like Tom Daly's The Rás isn't just for Irish cycling fans, is a book for all cycling fans: it's chock-full of cracking stories.

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