Race the Ras 2012

Contributed by Justin RobertsRace the Ras is one of a series of guest articles by contributors from the wider motorcycling community. Justin is based in Tipperary and is an enthusiastic Triumph owner who contributes regularly for the Triumph Owners Club Magazine. In the past he has written for vintage machinery and photographic magazines including Irish Vintage Scene and British Journal of Photography.

Although ‘An Post Ras’ may have a slightly poetic note to its name, especially if pronounced as the native language intends, there is very little that is poetic about the 1200 km of cycling involved, unless of course it is the romance of terrible battles and blood drenched gladiators that is being called to mind.



A blood drenched gladiator from the main Ras event.


Started in 1952 the national race celebrated its sixtieth year in 2012 and with the enthusiastic backing of it’s new sponsor, An Post, (the Irish Post Office) the anniversary year saw a terrific sporting event take place that was avidly followed by the nation. Not so well known but of equal importance in many eyes is that alongside the main race there is a secondary bike run known as Race The Ras which, in its own words:

…consists of sponsored amateur cyclists riding the same route of the An Post Rás, on the same day as the Rás itself but starting off several hours beforehand.

A very succinct description of precisely what it is, and it was something of a privilege to be invited along to help marshal the run on a bike of my own although you can’t begin to imagine how thankful I was to have a motor fitted where the others had pedals.

There were three of us for most of the time and our task would be to ensure that the riders could proceed with as little delay and as much safety as possible over the route which started off at Dunboyne, heading south to Kilkenny before swinging north through Tipperary, up in to Limerick and Clare and on to Galway and the wild country of the Connemara that lies beyond, A distance of 280 miles and that was just the first three days!


Arthur on the left, David on the right.  I’m the one stood behind the camera.


The three marshals were Arthur,  David and myself with David being the lead man in the bikers section. I was on the 955 Sprint whilst David was on a Suzuki V Strom 1000 which are both sensible bikes for the job. Arthur on the other hand brought along his Honda Valkyrie and boy did we ever struggle to keep up at times for it seems that nobody had mentioned to him that it wasn’t actually a Blade so that was how he rode it.

Unfortunately I could only help for five of the eight days, so missing out on the first Sunday I joined in on the Monday as the pack sped through Co Tipperary which, incidentally, celebrated 100 years of ‘that song’ in 2012 and whilst on the subject of music I enjoyed one of those unexpected other worldly moments that Ireland is so good at providing.


Bannana Shot

The Ubiquitous energy source fitted to each cyclist as they set off.


Having got well ahead of the pack I paused at a place called Shervey Mountain which any road atlas would flatter by remarking upon its presence at all such is its size, so most don’t. Comprising of no more than a couple of houses, a barn and an abandoned pub I was stood by the bike assimilating the quiet solitude and turning blades of the ubiquitous wind turbine upon the horizon when all of a sudden there broke upon the air the purest of voices singing an unknown lament and if an angel with golden harp on a shimmering cloud had slowly materialised before me it would have seemed the most natural of occurrences. I know not from where the voice came or who was singing but just as my curiosity was striving to be sated the pack appeared over the hill with lead car in full flight and once more I was on my way. That’s the trouble with reality, it can be just too darn intrusive at times.


Lead bike of the main posse arrives in Gort.


So off we went and onwards we traveled over a KOM (a King Of the Mountain climb) and down into Newport, Newport became Birds Hill and Birds Hill stretched to Ballina where there waited the bridge over the Shannon to Killaloe and from Killaloe we were to turn right for Scarriff, or so I thought as I heroically jumped off the bike to direct the riders in a northerly direction.

Errr…., actually that should have been a left for the GAA club and lunch! Well nobody told me as I was prepared to sheepishly explain to the assembled cyclists as they wolfed down the ham sarnies and bananas but my sin was never mentioned so either they were impeccably well mannered or just too busy enjoying the pain to remonstrate. It turned out to be pretty much an even split between the two as I would gradually realise over the coming days.


Killaloe, Monday.


Now it has to be said that Ireland is a beautiful place and it also needs to be admitted that some parts may be more beautiful than others with the recent miles over the Silvermine Hills being something of a fanfare for the glory that was to come, the road from Killaloe to Scarriff is the start of the fulfilment of that prophecy.

Sweeping up and down alongside Lough Derg it eventually leads to the pretty little town of Portumna where a fleet of river cruisers await hire by visitors from near and far but our route was to turn us west long before that place, out of the Shannon valley and in to Gort, the finish for the second stage.

Gort is something of novel town in that whereas many places will have a sprinkling of recent East European settlers Gort does things differently in having a population that is over 30% Brazilian with mass held in Portuguese every Sunday. There are also signs for a bikers Church hanging from the occasional lamp post but time didn’t allow for further investigation of this noble cause. The town was fully booked for the night so leaving the cycles at the local GAA club our group were bussed out to Kinvara along roads lined by the distinctive grey boulder walls that are such a feature of this area of the Burren region. This outcrop of bare limestone that is unique to Europe (unless you include what was Yugoslavia) is worth exploring for a day or two especially in spring when the many rare plant species are flowering, but enough of the travel brochure already, the drama of the morrow awaits!.


Kinvara. All peace and quiet whilst the main race stayed in Gort.


Westport was the destination for Tuesday and to arrive safe and sound there were the twin challenges of the Galway ring road and various steep climbs. Unfortunately one of the cyclists clipped a kerb whilst passing around the city and fell resulting in a nasty arm fracture, the only positive news being that it was no more than 400 metres from the Hospital. A short hiatus in proceedings and then we pressed on and out into the Connermara a land famous for its hardy ponies and rugged scenery.

Glaciated and steep yet near wholly cloaked in Gorse and Purple Moor Grass the area exudes a darkness that can make the toes tingle and the pulse race, until that is you cross the pass from Maam Cross towards the Bridge at Maum and here, from the top of the ridge, you may often see a hillock in the valley, a moraine deposited by the ice that never fails to be sunlit whenever I travel this way, an oasis of light in a chasm of shadows and with keen anticipation we wind down the slopes to embrace its lonely cheer.


Departing Maam Cross. The local school waving us on our way.


There is a school, who kindly turned out to cheer us on, a garda station and community centre all neatly bundled together at this spot and it was here that we took of our repast for ahead lay another climb to the head of Lough Nafooey which is unremarkable as mountain roads go until, that is, the stream you are following disappears without hesitation or warning between two rocks on your left and the road you have followed diligently for the last few miles delivers you to a vista so open and unexpected that you may be in some danger of involuntarily dismounting your steed.

The babbling brook that was your gentle companion has now become a waterfall of noteworthy magnificence whilst the cosseting vale breaks into an open glacial valley holding a lake of renowned purity some 2.5 miles long and half a mile wide. If you ever get this way and have the time, stop, and ponder the moment, it will refresh your love of life. The descent to lake’s western end is via a narrow strip of tarmac that zigs a bit and zags a little more until you cross the picturesque bridge at the cataracts base and then it’s up and along the northern shore.

Hard work

The pain of competition, Gort.


After such a stirring of the soul a gentle cruise to the next point of direction would have been quite in order but a few slippery looking blobs of cow poo suggested that the road ahead may hold some hazards yet for the slick shod cyclists behind.

Following the trail for a further mile or so I was rewarded with discovering the source of the rich organic matter littering the way, a small herd of skinny cattle was being driven amiably along in front of a jeep whilst its jovial driver listened in to the local service announcements on the radio. Gently pottering alongside his window I enquired if he had far to go since there was a pack of cyclists fast catching up. “Oh that’s alright” he happily replied, “market’s not ‘til Thursday”.

Somewhat bemused by this response I tried again by genially pointing out that very soon he would likely have forty odd cyclists parking uncomfortably close, if not actually within, the posteriors of his fine beasts. ‘Jaysus’ he exclaimed and immediately hit the horn and revved his engine whereupon the tails of the animals rose as one and another two inches of goo were deposited on the hitherto pristine stretch of tarmac. Thankfully they were turned into a field just as the pack approached and all the farming lads waved cheerfully as we passed through which was pretty much the reception we got throughout the week.

It’s good to report that almost without exception everybody we met took pains to welcome us and cheer us on, mainly, I think, because they thought that we were the actual race, but we didn’t want to spoil the effect by being too scrupulous with such minuscule details.


Enda Kenny’s nixxer.


The rest of the way to Westport passed with little incident other than at one junction I was stopped outside a house checking my oil which was beginning to show signs of rapid depletion. From within a emerged a fellow offering not only tea and biscuits, but also some spare oil from his BMW to top up my engine for which he would not accept a cent. Bikers, eh, salt of the earth..

Westport, another day done.

Westport. That thousand yard state.


To say that Westport is all about Croagh Patrick would be something of an exaggeration but the mountain is never shy of showing itself once you are away from the bustle of the town. Lying to the west it rises above everything else on the horizon and besides being the place for pilgrimage, it is from which St Paddy is said to have banished the serpents. Not a bad day’s work from the man upon reflection and the July pilgrimage attracts thousands from all over the world who ascend the slopes as a demonstration of their appreciation.

Appreciation of a different sort though was required as Wednesday was meant to be a ‘rest’ day for the cyclists, not that they weren’t cycling anywhere it’s just that no muscle pummelling hills were on the route which after a long drag out of out of the town settled down to a slog to Sligo. This particular city holds the unfortunate reputation of being Europe’s wettest but it kindly showed no reason as to why that should be so as the pack passed down to the bridge and then up and out towards Bundoran, that coastal resort not without its charms.

Before we get to there though we must pass along the coast north of Grange, a road which can at times afford spectacular views of the Atlantic rollers crashing into the beaches and shoals, catch it after an autumn storm with the sun showing through vibrant purple clouds and the air as clean and pure as you’ll ever know and you will be rewarded with such richness in the colour of the all you see and so much excitement in the slow tumbling of the waves that you will surely swear there is no more beautiful place on earth, and I doubt there is except, maybe, for the coast of Donegal further on.


Sligo Bound.

Wednesday, an easy days riding of 120 miles or so!


Bundoran is a resort used to catering to large crowds and fussy guests but on this occasion even she was slightly overwhelmed by the influx of riders, support crews, Garda, race officials and so on let alone the extra cyclists and road crew of the Race The Ras so we found ourselves farmed out to one of the lesser surfing hostels that was rather redolent of pizzas and potato crisp sandwiches as one of our number succinctly put it.

This hostel in turned spread us around a handful of empty holiday cottages a mile or so from the town with little regard to their guests existing arrangements and so it was I heard the immortal cry in the reception area: “But I always sleep with…. (name redacted) because he has all our gels and creams!”

Little old ladies would have fainted in less sports orientated establishments and it is my misfortune to have to report that the disreputable bikers present were barely able to contain their mirth and swiftly exited in the interests of politeness. Another quiet night in another quiet town, this was the established pattern as all the competitors were in bed early, busy recharging their bodies for the day ahead and so the pubs remained peaceful and barely troubled.


An Post

An Post ensured that the race was met with a sea of green at the finish of each stage.


Thursday was to take us to Buncrana, another easy day it might be imagined. The roads were good and undulating, some of the miles were even dual carriageway and what few climbs there were could be cheerfully dismissed by these experienced riders, even the stunning Barnesmore Gap that lies between Donegal Town and Balleybofey hardly broke a sweat from the leaders as the sun beamed kindly down and the cool mountain air kept us all fresh.


Lunch at Newtown Cunningham


Such was the sense of ease, almost disappointment that befell the pack as they rode through the busy streets of the destination town and out into the hills beyond for a quick spin of the mountains before returning for the end of the stage.



If this is Bundoran then it must be Thursday.


Some Spin!

A sense of what lay ahead on this final section could be gleaned as the road from the town started to climb along the side of a hill, it then morphed with only the merest of respites into a long category three (not very steep) drag which, after having dropped the riders down from the moor once again, turned into a somewhat stiffer category 2 (steeper) climb. This successfully overcome, the guys and girls could enjoy a few quiet miles along another stretch of achingly beautiful coast before once more turning inland to tackle the Mamore Gap, a category one (*^&$%”*# steep) stretch of road which must have been more like hanging wallpaper than laying tarmac when it was first surfaced.


King of the Mountain. Mamore Gap.


Now I had been with these guys several days over hill and dale, all had declared themselves of a certain standard of ability and all were properly equipped with racing bikes complete with advanced clothing and essential nutrition. The group had sometimes split and it was obvious that some were fitter than others with different paces being set but overall the pack had managed an encouraging average of 34kph, however, this was the first time I had seen any of them get off and walk!

It was, as one pointed out, like riding into a brick wall and anybody who even entertained the idea of tackling this series of 1 in 4 slopes linked by lairy hairpins should be presented with some sort of medal. But tackle it they did and the pain and ecstasy of completion was hard written into the faces of those that made it, an effort much appreciated by the spectators drawn to the summit for the big race who cheered them on for every last gasp and even helped a few by pushing. Tough? All agreed that it was the hardest climb they had ever undertaken and there was no surprise about that. Needless to say the downhill bit back to town was easier even if we had to pull aside to let the main race through as it charged up the mountain. I wished them luck, they didn’t know what awaited them, I doubted they would be in such a hurry if they did.


Almost there, Mamore Gap.



Buncrana is another resort town that was swamped by the event, even so there was little mistaking it’s gaiety in the warm May sunshine and the nearby beaches were busy with locals enjoying the unexpected weather. A short dip in Lough Swilly very soon confirmed though that the North Atlantic hadn’t quite caught up with the holiday mood and it’s temperature clock was resolutely set at two months past winter. Brrrr…….

Friday was to be my last day with the group and in many ways it was the best and worst. Sad because of the sorrow of leaving such a dedicated team of really great people who had set out to push themselves beyond what most of us will ever be prepared to endure and in the process raise a good deal money for worthy causes yet the final day afforded some of best roads a biker could wish for.

Main Race

The main race steaming up from Killybegs


Leaving Buncran on Friday morning the group headed back to Letterkenny and after a little confusion over the route we headed out on the, and mark this number well, R250 towards Glenties, a road to be ridden and enjoyed every inch of the way. It swoops and curves and dips and dives over the moors and along the lakes. It passes through open moorland and into scented forests with many a twist and turn to gladden the heart of every true biker and for much of the way the surface is firm and clean. True, you probably won’t get the school children of Glenties itself turning out to cheer you on as we did but you’ll never be short of a welcome wherever you go.

This town provided us with lunch and having finished we pressed on to the final climb of the day, Glengash Pass. Although this hill didn’t quite match the torture of Mamore it still offered a stiff enough challenge to the riders who having arrived at the top willingly accepted my last bottle of water. It was something that I had taken along for myself , for biking gear with full Hi Viz jacket is not the coolest place to be in the sun but seeing the sweat and effort that had just been expended by the riders I gladly handed it over to the first that asked and no decent human would have refused the request.


At the top of Glengaish Pass. No idea what the fellow behind is doing!


Running back down into Killybegs I pondered the week just past. It had flown by and from the initial rather distant group of cyclists a cadre of friends had formed and it was something of an honour to realise that I too was included in this group.

These men were athletes in their own right and yet they too looked up to the real racers of the An Post Ras but here I am being a little sexiest for included in their number were two ladies one of which had to leave half way through and the second had to go this same day as me. Having done 300 miles in 3 days and climbed the worst that Donegal could offer in the way of hills she calmly mentioned that she would be pedalling home to Sligo that evening, a mere 50 miles further on. More of a man than I’ll ever be!

A warm welcome at Glenties.