The Donegal Voodoo Performance team riders and crew
When Sean McFadden asked Donegal Democrat deputy editor, Ciaran O’Donnell, to be part of his support team for the 2017 An Post Rás, the answer was always going to be yes. Here, the long-time friend of the Letterkenny cyclist gives an insight into the event which saw the cyclists covering 1,200 kms over eight days.
Sunday, May 21st. 11.15 am.
The tension levels are gradually building around Dublin Castle as the riders and crews go through the checklist one last time. In less than an hour, the 192 riders will roll out from the ceremonial start of the 2017 An Post Rás. The race isn't known as 'the beast' for nothing. Most will tame it. Some will not. Of the 192 riders that turned left from the castle gates at 12 noon on to Lord Edward Street, 171 will complete the full journey. The unknown awaits them all.
The eight days of the An Post Rás threw up countless priceless images, tall tales and lasting memories for all involved with the Donegal Voodoo Performance team. This is one sport where the script can go out the window early. Every day. That said, every eventuality has to be planned for.
When the route for this year’s Rás was announced, Sean McFadden, a 41-year-old father of four from Letterkenny who likes to push his body to the absolute limit, made no secret of the fact was keen to give the Rás one last go. Having completed the event on two previous occasions - the last in 2012 - he reckoned the opportunity to ride a Rás that had four of the eight stages in Donegal was something he couldn’t pass over.
At the start of the year, he set about putting a team together and getting himself into shape. Local businessman, Jason Black, himself a three times man of the Rás, stepped up with the financial backing. Along with highly experienced cyclist Jason McHugh, the pair took on to manage the Donegal Voodoo Performance team. These two men know the gig inside out, with the guts of 70 years’ experience between them in the world of competitive cycling. So all angles were covered.
Shaun McBride agreed to come on board as team physio. Jordan McGinley filled the role of mechanic, while driver Alan Mailey and this writer were there to do whatever was required. Chores were plenty and frequent, so idle times were rare. Pauric Halvey deputised as mechanic for a day in Jordan's absence.
From the eve of the first stage until the last of the bikes were removed from the back of the Renault van on Monday, every one of the backroom team pulled together, with the needs of the riders being the number one priority at all times. The team van covered over 2,000 miles during the Rás.
Cyclists are a steely bunch who could eat for Ireland without putting on an ounce, such is their high rate of calorie burning. And the Donegal Voodoo riders were no exception. The two youngest riders, Conn McDunphy (20) and and Dermott Turlock (19) have a combined age younger than Sean McFadden. The Dublin-based pair mixed it with the best for the week and are two to keep an eye on. Conn ended up fifth county rider in the overall standings, while Dermott was 19th. Watch this space. Colm Sheahan from Cork and a track runner of some talent - he has clocked 14:12 for 5,000 metres - is cycling about a year and can be well content with his overall placing of 73rd. Sean McFadden completed the team in 96th in the county category. Overall, he placed 147th. Of the 25 county teams entered, Donegal Voodoo Performance finished a creditable 16th, having been as far up as 11th earlier in the week.
Dodgy moments and danger are never far away at the business end of cycling. And so it proved.
Disaster struck on day one for the locally managed team when Listowel native, Eamonn Hartnett, got into bother after a crash early on. His Rás ended, effectively, before it started. The broom wagon picked him and his bike up and dispatched him to the finish in Longford. One couldn’t help but feel for him; his wife, three young children and mother had come to the capital to see him off at Dublin Castle. The team van took him to Athlone from where his premature return home to Nenagh continued. It must have been heartbreaking to have plotted, planned and trained all winter for such a major test, only to come a cropper early doors.
Sean McFadden got caught up in the same early-stage incident and had to go ten tenths for the rest of the stage, over 146 km, to make sure he wasn’t timed out.
Day two took the riders from Longford to Newport - a distance of 143 km. The pace was blistering from the drop of the flag and it was an ashen-faced Sean McFadden who rode into Newport at the end of stage two. The realisation that there wasn’t going to be any slacking in the pace was something that he had to deal with.
And he did.
It was a livelier Donegal rider who pedaled into Bundoran on Wednesday after completing the 149 km from the Mayo town. Getting back into his native county and the prospect of a night’s kip in his own bed was a nice reward at the end of day three.
Wednesday’s action over 152 km started in Bundoran and ended in Buncrana, via Mamore Gap.
Seeing is believing and the gradient cyclists have to contend with to get up and over is hard to describe.
That two vehicles, one of them an ambulance, broke down close to the top because of a burned-out clutch might give some insight into the riders’ battle with gravity. It is, without question, the mother and father of all climbs locally, regionally and nationally. Not sure if there are words to describe the pain cyclists endure en route to the summit. It’s worth noting that these men had 130 km done before they reached the start of the climb, and had 450 km completed the three previous days.
Stage five from Buncrana to Dungloe was the longest of the eight days at 181 km and by far the most difficult for the Letterkenny man. He was forced to head for the ditch after a near miss with a car outside Rathmullan, and suffered a shoulder injury that made the rest of the day most uncomfortable in the saddle. He managed to get over Knockalla, but he bounced along the tar a second time when hitting the cat’s eyes in the centre of the road near An Chuirt Hotel in Gweedore. He made it into Dungloe with little time to spare. It had been an almighty effort.
The famous Glengesh was the test on day six as the riders left Dungloe and headed for Donegal via Ardara on Friday. The huge crowds urged them all up until they were all over, and the local man cashed in on the local support. A tidy day under the belt was a welcome change to the fortunes of the previous day. Another 132 km had been completed.
The penultimate stage over 167 km from Donegal town to Ardee saw the Rás heading out of Donegal after four glorious days of sunshine. With the change in county came a change in the weather and it lashed for the entire stage. But all four riders made it to the end. Skerries, at last, was on the horizon.
Getting into Skerries before the cut-off time was the objective. Again, it was mission accomplished. Sean covered 51km for the first hour of the last day and had, arguably, his best day of the eight in the saddle in the seaside town stage.
The Rás is a superbly coordinated showpiece that visited many parts of Donegal that looked so well in the May sunshine. The manner in which it passes through is a sight to behold. Official cars and Garda motorbikes sweep the roads before the lead riders and the peloton whiz past. The cavalcade of team cars form the next line, with the back groups, ambulance and broom wagon making up the remainder of the colourful convoy. Those who followed the Rás and took time out to see it for themselves will appreciate what they saw.
One can only hope that in the next few years, a team of Donegal riders will step up and compete in Ireland’s premier cycling event that is steeped in tradition since it was first held in 1953.
After 29 hours, 53 minutes and 25 seconds of hard, hard riding, Sean McFadden, aka rider 105, crossed the finish line in sunny Skerries. As he neared the end of another adventure, he saluted every cheer with a clenched right fist before whipping out a Donegal flag from his back pocket and raising it aloft.
He had beaten the beast for a third and final time. There were occasions when stepping off would have been a handy option. But anyone who knows Sean McFadden knows that was never going to happen. He kept going because that’s all he does. He kept going because that’s all he knows.
Like the other 170 men of this year’s Rás, he is made of the stuff they don’t make any more.
And so to moments of the Ras.
One bad; Sean McFadden standing bare-chested in the chemist on Dungloe’s Main Street, being bandaged up on Thursday afternoon after his two falls earlier in the day. He had cut both elbows and three of his fingers, had suffered bangs to both shoulders, had a serious graze on his right hip and sustained a long, deep scratch to his face. He resembled someone returning from a war. Falling off a bike at high speed is a sore and painful business.
One good; Seeing him ride the bike as if he’d stolen it, as he headed for the finish line in Skerries on Sunday around 3.30 pm. Never saw a man so pumped as the smell of home filled his nostrils and the adrenaline rush reached new heights.
Surely it was those seconds that made the road less travelled worth it all.
The Rás. The buzz. Torture. Emotion. Courage. Fear. Effort. Pain. Joy. Achievement. Success. Failure. Survival. Reality.
On the wheel. Lost the wheel. Where cyclists suffer in silence.
Eight days when men learn that bit more about themselves.