The neutral zone is the gap between ceremonial start and actual 0.0km of racing - usually about 2k out of the town traffic. This morning it was like someone opened the gates of hell.
Before the start, you can see all the riders falling into routine.
Up at 7:30. Stretch and go to breakfast at 8. Force feed yourself 2000 calories. The last mouthful, of the second bowl of porridge hangs in your mouth like reswallowed sick. Get dressed, get suncream on and chill with coffee. Thanks to galibiervelo.com who gave out team shorts, no one had the dreaded saddle sores. After a week sweating and rubbing, your undercarriage can look like it was shot with a buck rifle. There are a few alternating leg limps at sign-on to support this. Good close fitting chamios and hygiene essential.
The jersey has been presented and the 4 lead cars and police motor bikes roll off. The riders jockey for position with a few, frantic lads jumping on to the foot path to be up there for the start. Out on the road 150 riders all turn the 53-19 at 25mph. The lead car brings in the flag, there is a fantastic noise of 150 chains being dropped into the 13.
"Dunk dunk DUNK."
A brief pause follows where it looks like nothing is happening. But I'm four rows back and can't see twenty men rage off the front like there is a monster after them.
Within 20 seconds we are at 55kph. Real electric speed. A bunch into a headwind punches a massive hole in the air and the pocket behind feels unreal. 12k in the peloton we turn into a crosswind and over the next few minutes as riders search for protection from the wind, a line of riders forms in the right hand gutter of the road over half a kilometre long. Each having to match the power from the team driving it at the front. As the pressure builds, two wheels touch and riders are mangled. The line runs out around the mess of blood and carbon and forms an echelon to regain the main bunch. Over the top of the drag another crash and three echelons dress the road for riders emptying their body and souls to regain contact. Love it. Heart rate 177. Max is 182. 135 km to go.
This week in crashes the race has eaten nearly 20 frames. Ultra light carbon frames will take everything a rider can throw at them. Everything they are designed to do. But apply a force it's not designed for and ...failure. I bought a £400 Planet X and it does exactly what you ask of it, light and stable and not a fortune to replace. It happily passes 10 grand Pinerallos on the road, both broken and upright.
A group of 6 slipped off the front after a hard hour's racing when the chasers got tired. Turning into a small road and a headwind the BMC yellow jersey squad and the Czech team went to the front and started riding tempo. The Czech squad have obviously 'been bought' to ride to defend the jersey.
What followed was bliss. 100k at 40kph around the dead roads of Leitrim and Cavan. Legs were not in good shape and after the first hour the damage left them like new born rabbits ears. Up and over the third unmarked climb. Even though I left slippage I had to kick twice to stay afloat. Skin fired. At 144km in I drank my 6th bottle and went back for service. Even though it was steady my old legs were shaky. And sitting last man in the bunch I just let go.
Really strange. I just flicked it into the wee ring and the cars started passing. I would have been shelled on the last climb but it was nice to choose the method of death rather than be shot. The last 15k solo were glorious. And a smile replaced the open mouth grimace. I smelt the air rather than gobbled it for the first time in 4 hours 34 mins.
Made it in, happy and exhausted. Our Cuchulainn club turned out in force to cheer us on and the finish is only two hours ride from our home town of Dundalk. Great seeing friendly faces, be nice to sit opposite them in a pub and bore them silly with An Ras war stories.
It's all over tomorrow. Hopefully I wll make the finish line safe and fast. A hero in my own mind even though 121st on the GC sheet, over an hour down on the leaders. No blog tomorrow as real life is reborn and two kids will get a father back and my wife will get a husband back about Wednesday when I can get out of a chair with out making car noises.
Here's to the men of the Ras.