Craic or get cracked: A week of chaos, glory and Guinness at the Rás Tailteann

Our man Ronan McLaughlin and his Foyle CC underdogs took on Ireland's premier stage race, and won.

Jonny Long
by Jonny Long 03.06.2023 Photography by
Jonny Long
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“Let’s go kill dead things,” comes the battle cry from the normally mild-mannered Ronan McLaughlin, Escape Collective tech editor, Everesting world record holder, and former Continental rider with An Post.

We’re having breakfast at a guesthouse in the western town of Tobercurry before the start of stage 4 where the staff, while slightly bewildered at the prospect, have quickly adapted to hosting a cycling team. They have been microwaving bags of rice, clearing away remnants of meals no sane person would eat. Jam with rice, bowls of plain spaghetti devoured in between dinner courses. Jars upon jars of various pestos and condiments are carted around like a precious resource as they make the carbs slip down easier.

In two hours, stage 4 of the Rás Tailteann will begin. For Ronan, this is his 10th and maybe final Rás. A home race from which Irish cycling tradition emanates, one inextricably tied to the culture of the people and the terrain of Ireland. 11 years ago, Ronan was racing his third Rás and after a 72 km solo breakaway was caught 150 m from the line. Ever since then he has been chasing that elusive stage win.

But there’s another reason for his appearance at the 2023 edition: it’s his local club Foyle CC’s 20th anniversary, and what better way to celebrate their longevity with a first-ever appearance in Ireland’s premier stage race.

At first, the idea was for it to just be a bit of craic – an Irish term for having a good time. Ronan has one kid at home and another on the way, as well as a job slightly more real than racing bikes and a lot less complementary to maintaining peak condition. However, after the five-man squad eventually took shape through various potential iterations, it quickly became clear the week would be taken a bit more seriously than the initial blueprint had promised.

Alongside club riders Connor Dooney (a former Irish national champion runner turned bike racer) and Sean Óg Harrigan (the youngest of the quintet at 21 and currently under contract with a Spanish squad) came two guest riders.

Joe Laverick rode for Hagens Berman Axeon for two years before forging his own path in 2023, going off solo as a privateer where he will race a varied calendar incorporating both the Rás and Unbound Gravel. Finn Crockett was third at the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and after a step-up to AT85 (formerly WiV SunGod – the biggest British domestic squad) was ready to push on as he climbs the pyramid of cycling. However, when AT85 suddenly and unexpectedly folded in March, the 23-year-old found himself with time on his hands. Then came the call from Ronan, and Finn was in.

From left to right: Sean McFadden, Finn Crockett, Ronan McLaughlin, Joe Laverick, Connor Dooney, Sean Óg Harrigan, Chris McElhinney.

A squad unlike any other. Two hitters accompanied by three strong riders representing their local club. Pulling into the car park at the start each morning, usually at whichever Gaelic sports club was closest, other teams had branded campervans, masseurs rubbing down tired legs and other various team staff camped under elaborate marquee setups. Not Foyle CC. While the team car did have the experience and tenacity of Irish scene veterans Chris McElhinney and Sean McFadden, the only other support came in the form of yours truly, driving a rented van down narrow country lanes, handing out bottles, sometimes on the descents after climbs…

The Rás is not a normal bike race. Splits go in seemingly the least opportune places and can then just stay away – everyone knows this is how it works. So, with 33 squads of five riders, of whom the vast majority of them are either not full-time, or full-time and not paid very much as they try to forge a racing career, there is a) not enough cohesion to always properly control proceedings, which allows for a chaotic style of racing and b) enough people in the peloton dreaming of a stage victory that the fight for the break is furious. What follows is the inside story of Foyle CC’s week at the Rás Tailteann, a bike race where the choice is simple: craic or get cracked.


Stage 1

I arrive off the ferry in time to meet Foyle CC at their B&B the morning before the start of stage 1. Ronan sends me the address and I’m suddenly forced to question whether I had underestimated the whole setup. I roll up to gated five-star accommodation set in luscious grounds, with a driveway lengthy enough that it could be used as a neutralised rollout. Inside, a table with a still mostly white tablecloth bears the remnants of the first of five breakfasts that will be demolished this week. After packing up the bikes and battling with an expensive bike pump that sort of inflates the tyres for you but also doesn’t (a Ronan purchase, of course), I jump in the van with Ronan and Sean Óg (as he is referred to throughout the week, to differentiate him from the other, non-Óg Sean).

After some smalltalk, a moment of quiet is alleviated by Sean Óg confiding in Ronan that he is feeling nervous before the start. This will be different to the races he’s used to in Spain, where tiny domestic riders, tinier than the already diminutive Sean Óg, blast their way past him up climbs in simple battles of watts per kilo. The Rás is a completely different beast, and a race he no doubt heard all about growing up. It’s punishing, hectic, and also means a lot to any Irish rider on the start line. Because it’s held in such high esteem, there is a pressure to perform, to become a Man of the Rás.

Ronan assuages Sean’s worries, no doubt plucking pieces of advice given to him by others and HARD-WON-BY EXPERIENCE from his own racing days. Sitting in the passenger seat listening to the calming pep talk, I also feel more confident in Sean’s chances that he will get round the Rás in one piece, physically and mentally.

As we pull into the first car park of the week, Ronan starts saying hello to just about everybody that we pass by. This isn’t so much a race as it is a community. A Glastonbury festival of Irish cycling, only one where the smell of deep heat hangs in the air instead of marijuana.

As the squad nears a state of near-fully dressed, Ronan sits down in a camping chair, helmet and sunglasses on to deliver his pre-stage 1 team talk:

“I’ve done nine Rás, the one story I hear after stage 1 every single year is about the crashes and the carnage and everything that happens. I’ve always thought ‘what crashes? I didn’t see a single one’ because I kept myself at the front where it’s safer. Back of the bunch, 175 riders here, a lot of Rás first-timers, a lot of nerves, a lot of stress. Let’s focus on trying to be at the front. Connor and Sean Óg it’s your first Rás stage ever, just try to focus on positioning and eating and drinking every 10-15 minutes, no pressure on you guys today, just get through the stage. Most importantly, enjoy it. You’re not here to defend a pink jersey or get stage wins, you’re here to enjoy it. Try to take it in, it’s a big day to be starting the race and it should be enjoyable.

Sunglasses and helmet must be on when delivering a very serious team talk.

“Myself, Finn, and Joe, the three of us just try to follow the moves. The first hour it’s just going to be chaos, it always is. We’ll all be looking at the climbs, and this, that and the other, but the Rás can split outside a random phonebox across the road from a random petrol station. Just be prepared. Also something to be aware of, Joe and Finn, the break might go but the race is not over. At no point this week can you stop for a piss. It’s just not an option in this race. No matter how safe you think it is, it’s seconds from kicking off again. And when the race does disappear up the road, the second race behind starts again. You’ve always got a chance of coming back to the front, but if you stop for a leak you’ve got a chance of not getting back to the bunch. Even if you miss the move, keep fighting and something will come back. Even if it doesn’t come back you want to keep it as close as possible because with this race you can take today’s GC and turn it upside down and that will be tomorrow’s. It’s a Rás cliché but that’s how it works.

“We’ve got a good team here,” Ronan finishes, soundtracked by the hiss of a hairspray can that Finn’s spraying on his legs to keep his aero socks up (note to self: surely a good business idea would be aero socks that actually stay up). “There will be a lot of eyes on you, Finn, the rest of us can probably profit off that.”

On the drive to the start Ronan had said that at dinner the previous night they were all discussing who the potential favourites for the race were. Purposefully, Ronan didn’t mention Finn’s name, not wanting to apply any pressure. But it’s clear Finn has come here to achieve a result. While the rest of us chat our way through the minutes before the start, and everyone takes it in turn to ask Ronan where such and such a tool, or gel, or piece of equipment is in the bike gear warehouse that is the back of the van, Finn pops some noise-cancelling headphones on, and centres himself as he uses a resistance band for some last-minute muscle activation.

33 teams in the race means there will be 33 support cars in the cavalcade. By virtue of everyone from Foyle CC being busy the day before the start and unable to make the managers’ meeting, we’ve been allotted position 33 of 33 in the cavalcade. It’s a punishment in everything but name. This means should one of the riders puncture, the car could be half a kilometre behind on the road.

After a quick round of team photos, our official documentation of ‘pre-Rás’, the five riders roll off to the start, as do Chris and Sean in the team car, squeezed in alongside an untold number of spare wheels.

Meanwhile, I head to the top of the category-one Wolf Trap, the day’s significant climb, 4 km at 6 percent average, situated 20 km from the finish and, crucially, a place with enough uphill elevation for me to undertake my first ever bottle feed. With no live broadcast, the sole updates of developments in the race are provided by the Rás’ official Twitter feed. Every 12 minutes or so a notification pops up to tell of the latest development. Joe gets himself into the day’s move and then, as he passes me on the climb, accelerates as he tries to drop his collaborators. He ends up with just three others, and in the days to come rues the fact that this was the hardest part of the entire course and that it was probably the place where he could have maybe won the race had he put it all on the line. Racing is full of what-could-have-happened scenarios like this.

What has become apparent already is that the race will mostly be travelling on Ireland’s fastest roads, in order to accommodate the convoy and also for safety reasons (a rolling road block is far easier on main roads than country lanes), while I will be ducking and diving down all manner of back roads. In effect, I will be in my own race for the whole week, and with a peloton travelling at more than 45 km/h for most of the day, the 80 km/h speed limits of my detoured route will allow little room for error.

It’s only the first stage and I’ve already clocked a loss, forced to make do with a Twitter update every few kilometres telling me that Joe is still part of the leading trio as they head towards the finish line. In this day and age, I can’t remember having ever been this interested and invested in a bike race where I couldn’t watch the finale. Willing him on alone from the driver’s seat, little thumps of the steering wheel and “come on Joe’s” said to nobody. Then the result came in. Laverick third. Joe would be the first to say he’s not a sprinter, and third place and a few minutes’ advantage over most of the field on GC was a great return for day one. Plus, a trip to the podium for the polka dot climber’s jersey, which he would be collecting and wearing on behalf of the race leader tomorrow. A climber’s jersey is something else that Joe didn’t expect to have acquired at the end of day one.

After everyone gets home safe it’s a mouthful of Haribo and then back on the bikes to pedal to tonight’s accomodation. A true Irish guesthouse, where it’s an old couple’s family home in the middle of nowhere that they will be vacating for the evening – at no point do we find out where they ended up spending the night. Joe presents our hosts with his podium flowers and Sean sets about boiling rice for what we’ll call pre-dinner. Kit is collected from each rider and chucked in the washing machine – a hurried urgency is attached to the locating of all these necessities to complete the final tasks of the day before they can truly switch off and relax. A self-sufficiency required at this level because no-one else is going to do it for you.

Nothing to see here, just a bunch of fellas hanging out in an old couple’s house in the middle of nowhere in Ireland.

Eventually, everyone is washed and fed and so it’s time to head out to dinner. While Chris and Sean have already headed out to sample the local Guinness, presumably to check it tastes the same as the Guinness everywhere else in Ireland, three of us get in the front of the van and the other three are forced into the back, to crouch and pray that the speed bumps are kind. What those in the back miss during their windowless trip is a horse in a field in the centre of a village, walk up to the perimeter wall and nonchalantly knock over a bike that was leaning against said wall. I wish I was making that up, but it actually happened. This is Ireland.

Inside the restaurant/pub, it’s even more Irish than the horse in the village. Gaelic football is being shown on the TV by the bar even though its Man City vs Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals, and both the decor and clientele seem to exist in a time-warp from the mid-to-late 1900s. 

As we’re ordering, I ask if it’s impolite to order a Guinness, as I assume the other boys won’t be ordering any. But we’re not WorldTour racing anymore, Toto. My apprehension is pushed away by the rest of our group, and Ronan and a couple of others join in – a reward after a hard day’s racing. Ronan does, however, say that he will be having just the one Guinness (Guinni?) and not embarking on the traditional mirror stages to the day’s racing, called night stages. Tales are then told of famous nights out post-Rás stages, of riders falling asleep halfway in, halfway out, of hotel windows, waking up in the morning and starting the stage with small-to-medium hangovers.

After returning to the guesthouse, a message pings through on our WhatsApp group.

“Have you guys seen the polka dot jersey?” Joe asks. “Gonna pin my numbers on.”

“It’s outside,” replies Sean.

“In the flower pot.”

“Obviously,” says Joe.

Stage 1 Result:
1.Conor McGoldrick (Richardsons Trek)
2. Dan Gardner (Embark Spirit BSS)
3. Joe Laverick (Foyle CC)

31. Finn Crockett (Foyle CC), at 3-15
53. Ronan McLaughlin (Foyle CC), at 5-00
73. Sean Óg Harrigan (Foyle CC), at 5-55
77. Connor Dooney (Foyle CC), at s.t.

GC after Stage 1:
1.Conor McGoldrick (Richardsons Trek)
2. Dan Gardner (Embark Spirit BSS), at 0:04
3. Joe Laverick (Foyle CC), at 0:06

31. Finn Crockett (Foyle CC), at 3-23
55. Ronan McLaughlin (Foyle CC), at 5-10
73. Sean Óg Harrigan (Foyle CC), at 6-05
77. Connor Dooney (Foyle CC), at s.t.

Irish County/Provincial Team Overall
1.Foyle CC (Derry)
2. All human-VeloRevolution (Cork), at 1-55
3. Cycling Leinster (Ireland), at 4-04


Stage 2

I wake to the distant clanking of cutlery and I’ve not got off the bottom step of the stairs before our host appears to ask if I’d like any eggs. She is in the thick of it, thoroughly enjoy the chaos of hosting the team in the house where she once raised her family. There are photos of grandchildren on the wall, and the bedrooms still contain her children’s belongings, including VHS tapes!

As the boys get changed and prepare themselves for the day ahead, I’m tasked for the first time with making up the bottles. Soon, powder and water is all over the nice woman’s kitchen, who implores me not to clean up, judging my aptitude for tidiness to potentially be a mere catalyst to further mess.

We finally decamp and make our way to the start, where Chris picks up our new cavalcade number. From 33rd to 3rd, courtesy of Joe’s GC position.

I believe it was this morning when Joe and I debated whether bike racing was just a less relaxing version of camping.

Stage 1 brought us south-west from Navan to Birr, and now we’d travel in the same direction to Ennis in County Clare. It’s day two of haring across Irish country roads that no-one who didn’t live here would likely ever venture down. Everything is very green and everyone is very friendly. It appears that Ireland is basically one big village and everyone basically knows everyone. Sean Óg’s grandparents turn up at one point and get chatting to Finn, whose grandparents were from the north of Ireland and, shock, they knew of each other.

As another frantic day gets underway, I plan to leapfrog the peloton around the top of Loch Derg, but after the breakaway exploits of yesterday and a much flatter day today, the fight to get out front is immense. The peloton is ripping past with an average speed of 46 km/h – no attacks are sticking, everyone wants a stage win – and it becomes apparent that it’s going to be touch and go whether I make it to the top of the arranged climb to Maghera Mast, a radio transmission site, for another bottle feed.

On the winding roads beneath the loch, I am lost. I come across a passerby and pull up to ask for directions and she greets me like a long lost family member. Unfortunately, she has no idea where the Mast is, but no bother, as she’s calling her neighbour down the street who will know. Another man then appears out of nowhere who provides pinpoint audible directions and so I carry on my way. A hundred metres further up the road a woman is sprinting down the opposite way towards me. I slow down upon the realisation that this must have been the original woman sent to provide directions and she recognises the Derry number plate of the hired van as not being from round here. She confirms the man’s coordinates and I speed on my way. Around another corner, a couple of Garda Síochána (the Irish police service) motorbikes stop me. I had been driving the wrong way on the course, back towards the riders. He pulls me over and explains my mistake, then asking if he can trust me to leave the van on the side of the road outside someone’s house and not move until the race has passed – a lot of trust to put in a complete stranger but this is the chaotic nature of racing on open roads with a rolling road block.

I grab a couple of bottles and continue my way on foot towards the race and soon come across what is clearly the descent of the climb I was supposed to be at the top of. I’ve come this far so I might as well try and be useful, I think to myself, and stand by the side of the road on a straighter bit of the descent. They will definitely be coming too fast to take a bottle, but you never know.

You can hear the whirring of the peloton before it comes into view, and when it does, Finn is off the front, having hit out over the top, and has maybe 40 metres on the rest of the bunch. My hand is outstretched holding a bottle and he looks at me and shakes his head – both a friendly ‘no, thank you’ and also a ‘what on Earth are you doing there, you moron’. I count the rest of the boys through as they blur by, Sean Óg stretches out a hand for a bottle while tearing past and for a split second I think about it before remembering that if I step out a huge amount of pain will be delivered both to myself and countless riders – their preparatory shouts for me to not do that confirm the instinct that Sean Óg will unfortunately have to go without a bottle this time around. My mission has not been without merit, however, providing a laugh to Chris and Sean in the team car as they zoom past, smiling, and wondering what I was thinking.

When I get back to the van, the owner of the house I’ve parked in front of comes out to ask if I needed a cup of tea or the toilet, as I’d been pulled up for quite a while. You would not get this level of friendliness in Broken Britain. I politely decline as the job now is to make it to the finish line so the boys can get changed and hydrated as quickly as possible post-stage. One more quick errand beforehand, though, as I’m waved down en route by a race moto who needs help pushing a very elderly woman’s car out of a ditch – she had pulled over just a bit too far to let the race go past. One muddy shoe later and she is back on the road, and the Rás is still on its way to Ennis.

On the long, straight run-in to the finish line, the peloton is still large and intact, Australian rider Matthew Fox wins the sprint with our Finn taking 7th, his chain coming off in the last few hundred metres, so a top 10 is a decent result given the circumstances, although try explaining that to him. He is here for a result to bolster his burgeoning career and two days of external circumstance have robbed him of any likely shot at the GC and now another stage win opportunity is gone.

“The speed wouldn’t have been as fast if it had been a WorldTour race,” Joe says after the finish, slightly bewildered. “They would have had more sense than this.”

Ronan’s analysis is not forthcoming as he is battling some stomach issues, and is mostly concerned with getting to our accommodation as quickly as possible.

The boys hop back on their bikes and we head another 10 minutes down the road to the evening’s digs. When I arrive a minute later than them, Ronan has disappeared into the hedgerow to do as our ancestors did: shit in a bush. He still looks rather unwell upon his return, and after we finally get into the B&B, he retreats immediately to his bed and curls up in the foetal position.

Probably the weirdest B&B in all of Ireland. In the background: Ronan trying to explain the merits of his pump that doesn’t really work.

The B&B is an interesting place. While the rest of our accommodation for the week is generally hosted by incredibly warm folk, the custodians of this new-build, soulless, highway-adjacent B&B at the end of the universe, give the impression they couldn’t care less if we checked in or slept outside under the night’s sky. The advertised self-catering facilities include a kettle, airfryer and fridge, but no tap and sink, and another team also checking in to the hotel have discovered they’ve been given double rooms instead of twin rooms, ensuring their squad will have a much cosier night than anticipated. The apathy of the singular staff member on shift defeats the annoyance of the team manager who booked the accommodation and the battle is over. All that’s left is for a bunch of tired men in lycra to cram into the small dining area and fill the air with the scent of boiled rice once again while sharing tales of another day’s racing at the Rás.

Stage 2 Result:
1.Matthew Fox (Wheelbase Cabtech Castelli-UK)
2. Patrick O’Louglin (Team Ireland)
3. Matteo Cigala (Dan Morrissey-Primor Pissei-Carlow), all at s.t.

7. Finn Crockett (Foyle CC), at s.t.
35. Joe Laverick (Foyle CC), at s.t.
62. Ronan McLaughlin (Foyle CC), at s.t.
72. Sean Óg Harrigan (Foyle CC), at 7-23
93. Connor Dooney (Foyle CC), at 10-29

GC after Stage 2:
1.Conor McGoldrick (Richardsons Trek)
2. Dan Gardner (Embark Spirit BSS), at 0:04
3. Joe Laverick (Foyle CC), at 0:06

17. Finn Crockett (Foyle CC), at 3-23
54. Ronan McLaughlin (Foyle CC), at 5-10
68. Sean Óg Harrigan (Foyle CC), at 13-28
81. Connor Dooney (Foyle CC), at 16-34

Irish County/Provincial Team Overall
1.Foyle CC (Derry)
2. All human-VeloRevolution (Cork), at 1-55
3. Cycling Ulster (Ireland), at 5-00


Stage 3

This morning at breakfast I find Ronan sat at the table with an empty gel wrapper. Turns out the nootropic gels he’d been consuming mid-stage (supposedly they help you concentrate better) had 200 mg of caffeine in them. Add five of these to the caffeine gels he’d already consumed, as well as the morning coffee and caffeine shot pre-stage, and he’d ingested at least 1200 mg of caffeine. Two days in a row. A quick Google reveals that this is a toxic level and can be enough to induce seizures – so an al fresco bathroom visit and stomach cramps were a welcome alternative. It’s a relief that his problems weren’t anything more serious than taking enough caffeine to kickstart an elephant’s morning, and everyone is soon laughing about his mistake.

Stage 3 is even flatter than yesterday, yet the boys remain determined to take the race to the rest of the field. Joe’s six seconds to make up on GC need to come from somewhere.

As I race to the feed zone, based outside a bar in the middle of nowhere, I stop at the service station. This may seem an irrelevant detail but one of Ireland’s hidden gems – not the Aran Islands, not Giant’s Causeway, not the Cliffs of Moher – are the hot food counters at Irish petrol stations. In the morning, you can get a ‘breakfast roll’, filled with bacon, egg, sausage, hash brown, black and white pudding, you name it. In the afternoon, you can get a hot chicken fillet roll, breadcrumbed chicken steaks sliced up and served with melted cheese and whatever you want to add from the salad bar. So iconic that popular songs have been written about the innovation, and to anyone working or following a bike race, a god-send and a level up from the dilapidated, limp offerings from the motorways of France. At one Irish service station, they have rotisserie chickens turning on an electric spit in between the watermelon vapes and bottles of vodka. It’s different out here. Ronan is slightly disappointed that this is one of my main takeaways from the week in his homeland, but when you’ve got a good thing going don’t knock it!

Magnificent, isn’t it?

Anyway, back to the race’s feed zone. At the top of the hill where the soigneurs have assembled to hand out bottles, I bump into Sean Óg’s parents who are travelling along with the race and kindly also helping out. Everyone makes small talk as the race nears, school children emerging at one T-junction to see the race pass by on their home roads. One car tries to emerge from the junction we’re stood in front of and the driver asks what’s going on.

“A bike race,” I reply.

“A black race?”

I repeat myself a couple of times and she finally, thankfully, correctly hears the word bike and begins patiently waiting along with the rest of us. I don’t enquire what exactly she thought a black race may be, which is probably for the best. Soon all potentially racist motorists are forgotten, as Ronan is zipping past with his arm outstretched, and WHOMP, the bottle is taken into his chest and he is on his way to being hydrated. Later on he commends the strength of the bottle handover and I’m comforted in knowing if this writing stuff doesn’t work out I could pivot to being a full-time water boy.

By the finish line the mood has changed somewhat. A race motorbike has slipped on the course and crashed some riders, while with fewer natural selections on the course, the closing kilometres are also marred with chaos as too many fresh riders jockey for the same piece of tarmac. The wind conditions too helped keep the race together throughout the day – almost every day the route changes direction and the wind follows suit, much to the dismay of the team. Almost inevitably, a big concertina fall happens just outside of the 3 km safe zone. Matthew Fox wins a second sprint in a row and this time Finn is up to third place, edging ever closer to a victory but still frustrated and immediately picking over what he could have done differently to have crossed the line first.

Eventually, the entirety of Foyle CC make it to the van, Connor having crashed hard mid-stage and very much worse for wear, while Ronan was caught in that finale pile-up and heading off to the attendant ambulance to get patched up. It is only in the aftermath debrief that everyone can catch their breath and begin to collectively piece together the action, and they are incensed. The boys say they were moments from splitting the race up for Joe’s and their benefit, catching out a number of big names, when a race motorbike dragged the groups back together. Later, a video is sent down the chat showing a rival GC team towing one of their strong support riders back up the field, past other groups on the road, to the back of the peloton. Admittedly, we get fined €40 for assisting one of our own following a mechanical, but as ever in the sport of cycling, what could be seen as splitting hairs and technicalities is taken as an affront to the unwritten rules that actually govern the roads. And, of course, when you bend the rules it’s a re-balancing of un-earned misfortune, but when your rivals do it it’s cheating, pure and simple.

The point is made, however, that the number of riders helped back to the front of the race definitely contributed to the crash near the finish. Also, with so many county teams represented, its partly in the race’s interest to not have a bunch of riders getting shelled early each day and a significant proportion finishing OTL. This is not a knock on the organisers, they have much bigger and more important priorities than the desires of a singular team, and arguments of the course not being hard enough or the finals being too busy are necessary conditions for a historic race trying to get back on its feet after a few years of financial hardship (it didn’t run in 2019 due to a lack of sponsors – and that was pre-pandemic).

The three most deserved McFlurries, possibly ever.

Regardless, at our guesthouse in Tobercurry that evening, Ronan calls up one of the commissaires and makes his case for how the spirit of racing should be being carried out. Along with tech editor, Everesting world record holder and former Continental rider, you can add master at diplomacy to his real world palmarès, as he manages to calmly make his case while banged up and bruised and hungry for dinner.

“I’ll have a Guinness as last night was the first night I hadn’t had one and the next day I crashed,” Ronan says when the waitress comes over, logic that would be proven infallible by the end of the week.

Stage 3 Result:
1.Matthew Fox (Wheelbase Cabtech Castelli-UK)
2. Dillion Corkery (Team Ireland)
3. Finn Crockett (Foyle CC), all at s.t.

34. Joe Laverick (Foyle CC), at s.t.
62. Ronan McLaughlin (Foyle CC), at s.t.
72. Sean Óg Harrigan (Foyle CC), at 7-23
93. Connor Dooney (Foyle CC), at 10-29

GC after Stage 3:
1.Conor McGoldrick (Richardsons Trek)
2. Dan Gardner (Embark Spirit BSS), at 0:04
3. Joe Laverick (Foyle CC), at 0:06

15. Finn Crockett (Foyle CC), at 3-23
52. Ronan McLaughlin (Foyle CC), at 9-24
61. Sean Óg Harrigan (Foyle CC), at 13-58
104. Connor Dooney (Foyle CC), at 39-59

Irish County/Provincial Team Overall
1.Foyle CC (Derry)
2. All human-VeloRevolution (Cork), at 1-55
3. Cycling Ulster (Ireland), at 4-35


Stage 4

With Sunday’s final stage 5 a very flat affair, and today’s stage 4 from Charlestown to Monaghan only slightly less flat, reaching up to near the border with the north, there is a renewed will to try and take the race to every other team and turn it in favour of Foyle CC. Ronan gives an impassioned breakfast speech/planning meeting that concludes with the aforementioned (and now iconic) “let’s go kill dead things” line. Sean Óg is a particular fan of this one, and admits later that he spent the opening kilometres trying to remember the exact phrasing of it – always good to have a means to while away the hours.

We get to the start and unload all of the bikes and have a sit down in the camping chairs, collecting ourselves before another day of chaos, and the atmosphere amongst all riders and teams is muted. There are people wandering around with bandages and broken arms in slings, and the attrition of three straight days of frenetic racing, the last two having no discernable breakaway, is starting to stack up. Connor Dooney had made the decision the previous evening not to race, having suffered a likely concussion in his crash on stage 3. He spent stage 4 in the van with me, and maybe that was enough to make him want to go home, or it was too hard watching the race go on without him from a literal passenger seat, so he got a lift back up to Derry that evening. Not the way he would have wanted his week to end.

Maybe it was the lethargy from the field that allows for a looser stage, with attacks going off, and even a lone break from the Isle of Man team’s guest rider Marcus Christie, who raced Bradley Wiggins’ old bike in the 2021 World Championships time trial event after buying it from a classified ad in a magazine. He stretched his lead to nearly a minute with less than 45 km remaining, but soon succumbed and the bunch regrouped for another sprint finish. Fun fact you don’t get at WorldTour bike races but you do at the Rás: the best excuse for not pulling? ‘I can’t chase, I’ve got work on Monday’.

In the finale, a slightly curved uphill ramp, seemed well-suited for Finn, who could use some more separation and less chaos to finally nail that stage win. While Matthew Fox was finally beaten into third, Crockett couldn’t get around Dillion Corkery, who used the road well, let’s say, to take a much-needed stage win for the Irish national team.

This one doesn’t really need a caption, the image says it all.

Another day of the GC remaining unchanged, another day of Finn coming ever-so close to a stage win. Taking the positives, there was one more chance tomorrow, with Joe still third on GC, and Foyle CC still at the top of the county team rankings. The evening’s accommodation was lodgings owned by a magnificent pub on the edge of a babbling brook, where music was being blasted out to celebrate a Holy Communion or Confirmation (this is Ireland, after all) and dinner served in a dark hall with a taxidermied deer head on the wall and a stuffed fox strolling across the mantlepiece. Ronan’s wife, Rachel, and their daughter joined us for the final night, a welcome reminder that there was still a world outside of the Rás. Tonight, everyone had a Guinness at dinner, apart from Rachel, who is due to give birth this summer.

Back at our accommodation (Chris and Sean stayed in rooms at the pub, where the music didn’t quiet until 2 am), the nightly activity of wind analysis and route recon via VeloViewer was undertaken, all before the final day at the Rás, and the boys still hungry for a result.

Stage 4 Result:
1.Dillion Corkery (Team Ireland)
2. Finn Crockett (Foyle CC)
3. Matthew Fox (Wheelbase Cabtech Castelli-UK), all at s.t.

29. Joe Laverick (Foyle CC)
47. Sean Óg Harrigan (Foyle CC)
78. Ronan McLaughlin (Foyle CC), all at s.t.

GC after Stage 4:
1.Conor McGoldrick (Richardsons Trek)
2. Dan Gardner (Embark Spirit BSS), at 0:04
3. Joe Laverick (Foyle CC), at 0:06

15. Finn Crockett (Foyle CC), at 3-23
50. Ronan McLaughlin (Foyle CC), at 9-24
56. Sean Óg Harrigan (Foyle CC), at 13-58

Irish County/Provincial Team Overall
1.Foyle CC (Derry)
2. All human-VeloRevolution (Cork), at 1-55
3. Cycling Ulster (Ireland), at 4-35


Stage 5

The final stage start car park of the Rás, the final filling of a dozen bottles, the final unpacking of all of the bags from the van before re-packing them all again half an hour later. The final petrol station, the final breakfast roll. The only difference was the family and friends gathered around our little setup area. Ronan walked off to the start line, bike in one hand, daughter in the other. This was probably his final day at the Rás as a rider. He was doing his best to soak it all in.

Setting off from Monaghan, a south-eastern route took us back to the east coast to Blackrock, coming close to completing a five-day circuit of Ireland’s midriff. In the first 90 km to Blackrock, Finn got himself into the day’s move, and by the time they arrived at the finish town for the five finishing circuits, it was looking likely the winner would come from the dozen riders who’d freed themselves off the front. After the finish line, which they’d pass through four times ahead of the actual finish, the riders snaked back up the coast for a kilometre before a slight rise back into a residential area where the final feed zone was. Chris and Sean passed in the car, Sean once again, like every time this week, with his head stuck out the window, smiling maniacally at the countless people he recognised, the only person in history to have enjoyed the fresh breeze of a car journey more than a golden retriever.

The first time Finn passed, you could tell it was his stage for the taking. No visible exertion, looking around at his rivals to gauge their energy levels, the group was soon whittled down to just five riders. Standing behind the finish as the sprint unfurled, a couple of different red jerseys emerged at the front of the group, but when Finn sat up and let out a roar that could probably be heard back across the channel, it was unmistakably, finally, a stage win for the Scot and for Foyle CC.

You may have a favourite rider you follow, or a national team you root for at World Championships and Olympic Games, but if you’ve never had someone you know on a personal level, even for just a week, cross the finish line of a bike race first, I can’t more highly recommend figuring out a way to make it happen. The elation and outpouring of joy is electric. Slightly similar to your football team scoring a goal in a very important match, but in that game you know one of two teams has to win, whereas in a bike race the odds are usually stacked against you, and more often than not, there is at least one person quicker.

Finn is beaming, and being congratulated by many as the peloton comes across the line two minutes later. For Joe, it’s a tough one to take, he’s undeniably happy for Finn but he’s lost his third place on GC and slipped to sixth as Corkery (the stage 4 winner) has pulled off a spectacular breakaway raid and ridden himself into the yellow jersey on the final day. Richardsons – Trek, who led the race all week, have let it slip at the last, maybe paying for the necessary efforts all week of defending yellow, but their anguish is palpable.

Ronan rolls in, having ‘had a mechanical’ within the final 3 km to ensure he gets the bunch’s finishing time but allowing him to soak in (probably) his last Rás stage all alone. He is maybe happier than Finn, shaking his teammate around and giddily screaming ‘yes!’ over and over again.

The podium ceremony is joyous, as the whole team gets up, including Chris and Sean, to hoist the silver platter presented to the best county team. Finn then has media and sponsorship duties to do, having to sheepishly perform looks around to camera, unfurling his best Blue Steel, while we all watch on.

As the race is packed up, we sit along where the finish line was only a couple of hours before and eat fish and chips on the wall above the beach before we say our goodbyes.

Stage 5 Result:
1.Finn Crockett (Foyle CC)
2. Jack Crook (Richardsons Trek-UK)
3. Matthew Fox (Wheelbase Cabtech Castelli-UK), all at s.t.

32. Joe Laverick (Foyle CC), at 2-39
59. Sean Óg Harrigan (Foyle CC)
66. Ronan McLaughlin (Foyle CC), both at s.t.

GC after Stage 5:
1.Dillion Corkery (Team Ireland), in 16-32-22
2. Cormac McGeough (Good Guys Racing NYC), at 2-12
3. Conor McGoldrick (Richardsons Trek), at 2-17

6. Joe Laverick (Foyle CC), at 2-23
12. Finn Crockett (Foyle CC), at 3-01
47. Ronan McLaughlin (Foyle CC), at 11-41
53. Sean Óg Harrigan (Foyle CC), at 16-15

Irish County/Provincial Team Overall
1.Foyle CC (Derry)
2. All human-VeloRevolution (Cork), at 4-34
3. Cycling Ulster (Ireland), at 6-55

As Ronan drops me and Sean Óg back to my car at the first night’s guesthouse, I ask him if he thinks he is actually done with this race.

“I do genuinely think so, yes, with that kind of racing,” he says. “I don’t know, like … I love the Rás, I could do that forever; it’s just everything that it takes to be in shape. I don’t want to do it not in shape so…”

Best to finish it like you did, then, with a stage win and county team prize?

“Yeah, I could do it for another ten years trying to get a stage win but it’s never going to happen.”

A melancholy but with cause, despite all of the overwhelming positives from the week. The madness of cyclists is the desire to win. The real victory is to know when you’ve won without crossing the line first.

When we get back to the first, five-star guesthouse, we regale the proprietor with tales of our success, to which he replies: “It must have been the breakfast I gave you that first morning!”

Sean Óg and I bid Ronan goodbye, and we final two set off for Dublin. I’m getting the ferry back across the sea and Sean Óg is off for a night out – probably at Copper Face Jacks, the unofficial home of the Rás after party. Fun fact: the top question asked on Google about Copper Face Jacks is whether it’s just farmers who go here – with his mates who’ve spent the week racing the Rás for the Irish national team.

At times over the past week, Sean Óg has shared little glimpses of his life. The state of Tinder in Spain, how he did a brief stint at fashion college in the hope he could maybe end up working with a cycling brand but became disillusioned when he was tasked with the homework of creating handbags. He also told me how when the team manager of the Dutch squad he was racing for as a junior was dropping him off at the airport to head back home following an unsuccessful stint with them, this adult man told him he might like to try a different sport. Whoever that guy was, he couldn’t have been more wrong. Cycling is about adventure in spite of the obstacles put in front of the rider. 21-year-old Sean Óg is one of countless embodiments of that spirit.

Sean Óg is getting increasingly concerned I’m going to miss my ferry, and so as we drive up alongside the river before the left-hand turn into town he says it’s fine to drop him out here, as he’s spotted a dock of electric Lime bikes on the pavement. The cycling never stops. Sean Óg pedals off into the distance for his night out, I make my way onto the ferry where the rest of the UK contingent of the Rás sit mostly in silence, tired before the start of another working week. The next morning our Foyle CC WhatsApp chat sputters back into life. It’s before 9am and Sean posts a photo of himself holding a paint brush with a ladder leant against a roof. “Back to real work today,” reads the caption. Joe is near the end of his 13-hour flight to Vancouver for the Belgian Waffle Ride. Real life continues but the Rás is forever. And so are hot chicken rolls.

Addendum: Things I have learned about bike racing

They eat jam with rice. They eat a lot of rice, in fact. They eat a lot of pasta, smothered in any type of pesto they can get their hands on. You can be hanging out by the bus before or after the stage, turn around and suddenly one of them is stark bollock naked, in the midst of getting changed from one thing into another. Off the bike, they are nearly always in a state of undress. They will piss anywhere also, and often. If they accidentally consume enough caffeine to give a regular human a seizure two days in a row, they will shit in a bush, wipe their arse with a dock leaf, and then go lie in the foetal position on the bed of one of the weirdest hotels in Ireland, where the staff seem to care neither whether you live or you die, let alone whether you are enjoying your stay.

It is always important to carry yourself with humility as a bike racer, and that it’s a currency that speaks louder than how good you are or how many wins you’ve got your name next to. It’s immensely tough to deal with coming close to winning but not doing so, as you are in these positions so rarely during a career.

The lifeblood of cycling is the people who offer their time, energy and sometimes even money just for the love of it. For no financial reward or guaranteed glory, but just to be involved in something bigger than themselves. Something that means something, even if no-one is sure exactly what that is. There are whispers that the Rás may be struggling for some sponsorship again next year. If you’re someone with a marketing budget, or just a bunch of cash lying about, there are worse ways to spend it.

Finally, I would like to say thank you to a few people. Firstly to Ronan, for allowing me to tag along and see the other side of a bike race for the first time, and for putting together a great group of people to spend a week with. Those Foyle CC boys of the 2023 Rás are the second who deserve thanks, for being able to race their bikes very well while also being great fun, and welcoming me into the fold. Thirdly, to the Rás and everyone who ensures it keeps ticking along. Finally, to you. For making it this far through what has amounted to an exceedingly lengthy article but also for your continued support of Escape Collective, that allows stories like this to be told. Hopefully it’s made you want to go out there and see what a bike race that isn’t the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix is about. It certainly did for me.

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