Jake Sitler diary: An American at the An Post Rás

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As I pulled myself up from the road on the Irish countryside, it occurred to me that everything they said about the Rás was true.

The An Post Rás, or the Tour de France of Ireland, is talked about like the way your grandpa talks about his uphill walk to school, both ways, into a headwind. Anyone that has ever done the Rás will have some sort of story that makes the race seem as if it’s different from any other bike race in the world. But the one common denominator of these stories is wind, rain, small roads, and aggressive racing. Not only is the racing hard, but it’s truly embraced by the Irish. Fans from all over the country come out to cheer each day starting from its inception 65 years ago.

Over the past few years racing professionally in the U.S., I have focused on the early season domestic professional series with races like the Redlands Classic, Joe Martin Stage Race, and Tour of the Gila. This year I’d put my cards on the table for more of a European calendar on CCB Velotooler, a UCI Continental team that focuses on rider development while attending university. Even though I’m 27, and a bit long in the tooth in terms of our team, I came from a track and field and cross-country background while attending college and graduate school, so team management thought I would be a good leadership addition to their program this year. The An Post Rás was part of the team race calendar, so it was off to Ireland.

This year’s edition of the Rás was eight stages long and the hilliest version in years, starting in Dublin, and finishing the eight-day race in a small coastal town above the capital called Skerries. The first three days were flat, and the fourth day we’d finally hit the mountains of Donegal.

Stage 5 of the 2017 An Post Ras traveled from Buncrana to Dungloe. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

In the United States, stage races are typically a little more controlled. Big teams like Rally, UnitedHealthcare, and Holowesko-Citadel usually have the ability to ride the front when necessary, controlling the pace and making it harder to launch constant attacks. But in Ireland they say there is beauty in the chaos (I’m still trying to understand the Irish definition of beauty). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the saying in light of GC placing at the Rás, “Flip over the page and that will be the standings tomorrow.”

On Stage 1 we went through extremely narrow rolling farm roads and I was told that typically on the first day lots of crashing could occur, so the best strategy is to to stay near the front. I’m fairly confident I heard the sound of carbon hitting the pavement every five kilometers, as we were treated to some fine Irish rain. It was a tense start to the week and really made me wonder what else Ireland might throw at us.

Beyond the race, our Irish drivers would transfer us from bed and breakfast or hotel, to the race, then to the next place we were staying. As soon as the bus parked, we’d have fierce battles for who would access the hotel internet. Fighting for the internet bandwidth may have been a harder job than getting off the front each day. At night time, the boys and I would have some good laughs around the dinner table, talking about our favorite Irish slang shouted during the day. The passion of the Irish was on full display in both the volume and spirit of the race fans lining each day’s course.

The Rás is unique because, aside from international pro teams, they invite “county riders” from all over Ireland. These county riders all have aspirations for a result, so they’re constantly trying to get to the front, regardless of consequence. This mix of inexperience and desperation creates a dynamic and stressful race environment. But also a few very hilarious mid-race action scenes.

Stage 3 was supposed to be another flat stage, which in our mind meant saving the legs for the mountains as no splits were going to make it. Boy were we wrong. The day ended up being the first big GC shake up. Around 30km in, 26 riders went up the road, and I realized that our team wasn’t in it. But neither was the yellow jersey, or big teams like Wiggins, Belgium, or Australia, so it should definitely come back, right? Wrong. The Rás is contested by five-man teams, so controlling the race might as well be like trying to herd cattle with a house cat.

To at least make an attempt, I attacked off the front and spent 100km of my day chasing with three others. Not the definition of “keeping it easy” before the mountains. Unbeknownst to me, this was one of the smaller time gaps we would see for the week. In U.S. racing, two minutes on the GC can sometimes separate first and 25th, so missing a split like this could be devastating. But at the Rás, it was just another day.

Michael Storer (Cycling Australia) summits Mamore Gap with Jacob Sitler (CCB Velotooler) 18 seconds behind on Stage 4 of the 2017 An Post Ras, from Bundoran to Buncrana. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy.

Stage 4 was the queen stage, and the one day in particular I had my eye on. We went into a few Cat.3, and Cat.2 mountains before we came to Mamore Gap — the hardest climb in Ireland. Now when you think of this climb, imagine a road big enough for about 4 sheep and steep enough that you actually have to be a goat to get to the top, with at least a thousand wild screaming spectators on the hillside. If you think the steepness is an exaggeration, our team car burned through its clutch trying to make it over, while a group of people had to push up the follow ambulance.

Heading into the climbs a group of five had a little over a minute, with Cam Meyer and the Australians racing hard into the bottom. Going into the Cat.2 climb called Pinch Mountain, Michael Storer of Australian National Team bridged up the road, and I saw my opportunity a few moments later. I lept across to the break ahead, then Storer and I immediately went through it. We punched it hard over the mountain and traded pulls through the valley. We had about 25km remaining, with Mamore Gap left to conquer, followed by a hard 15km run-in off the mountain, it was just the two of us having a go at the stage win.

I set a hard tempo up the base of Mamore, but Michael came around on a steep pitch. He held me at around 20 meters over the climb, but I wasn’t capable of closing the distance. This now meant it was a solo fight to make it to the line and hold off the chasing riders.

With 300m to go, I knew I had made it. I had put every ounce of energy I had into the the move and was deep into the hurt locker, but I was moments away from my best result in international cycling. Through the cloud of lactic acid that fogged my eyes and brain, I barely saw someone up ahead pointing left. I was way too cross-eyed to see where the finish was, so I blindly followed the gesturing official. In an instant, I realized that instead of heading to the finish, I mistakenly followed the race officials waving the motorcade into the deviation. Instantly, my brain flashed a single thought — that I probably just gave away the best result of my entire career. I quickly turned around, dug as deep as I possibly could to get back up to speed, and with three seconds to spare I made it across the line ahead of the storming pack.

“Ahh, Jesus lad, what the fuck?” can be loudly heard from the Irish fans on the race recap video as I’m steering left off course.

“Ahh Jesus lad, what the fuck?” is probably a good way to define the rest of the Rás for me. I spent Stage 5 racing for the KOM jersey against Storer. On Stage 6 I was on the pavement — 20km into the race I was taken down going around a switchback. For a second I laid there, and realized my shoulder was out and knew that my best chance for relocation was going to be on that fine Irish pavé. I reached forward and it popped back in. Good to go.

After a quick visit with the race doc, I chased up and over the mountain but lost contact on the descent as my shifter had been broken in the crash. As the team car rolled up, I climbed aboard the spare 58cm frame (two sizes too big, as our one spare bike had accidentally been run over earlier in the week), and started my journey to the finish.

From podium to broom wagon grupetto in two days. Talk about emotional highs and lows. I could probably write a whole story about my time in an Irish grupetto, but we will just say it involved a lot of swearing, stories of throwing punches, beautiful scenery, and some sheep.

For Stage 7 we were greeted with hard rain and cool temperatures. Probably a relief for some because that meant the race would potentially slow down a bit. Wrong. Actually, I think the race went faster because of it. I’m usually terrible at staying warm in the cold, so I fought hard to get into the break the first 50km — only to have the actual move roll off 20-30km later.

Heading into the final 20k of the race I felt my tire going flat. After getting a change, I started my chase in the caravan. In professional cycling, the race is followed by a steady stream of support vehicles, known as the caravan. It is normal for a rider to get a spare wheel and then ride his way back into the peloton, weaving in and out of the team cars. It is always a bit nerve-wracking but almost always ends well.

Jake Sitler (CCB Velotooler) finished second on Stage 4 of the 2017 An Post Ras. Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy.

In Ireland, cars drive on the left side of the road. Because of this, the race actually provides drivers for the teams. For some reason, one of the teams decided to bring their own left-hand drive car but I think there was some disconnect between the driver’s experience in such a vehicle, the route, what turn and what lane to use, because as I was working my way through the caravan and getting some speed behind this car, I could see we had a hard left turn coming. Either this driver didn’t realize it, or he didn’t know I was around him. Once he saw he had a turn, he took  it, stopping in the middle of the apex. At this point I had a choice to make — full send into the car or lay it down at 50km an hour. I chose the ground, and at that moment, the Rás had claimed another victim.

I picked myself up. The bike was done for. Shoes ripped. And the rain kept pouring down. I was cold, and my body hurt. I was emotionally drained from the high of second on the queen stage and wearing an orange jersey to the emotional low of spending two days on the Irish pavement. With that, everything they said about the Rás was right. The stories, the beauty in the chaos, and the experiences — everyone had their own, but if there’s one thing the men of the Rás have in common, it’s that we can all tell our future grandchildren about our both ways uphill into a headwind while it’s pouring rain at a bike race in Ireland.

I think the best story from Ireland has to go to my teammate Noah Granigan. Noah raced into a bunch of top-20 sprint finishes all week, and planned to do the Tour of Somerville in New Jersey as his “Stage 9 of the Rás.” Sitting in a pub, post race, I made a bold prediction that Noah would be the 2017 Somerville champion, with more sarcasm than anything. At 2 a.m. we closed our eyes, and at 5 a.m. we were up for the shuttle. Feeling a bit “under the weather” he made his way onto the plane, not opening his eyes until Newark.

At Newark he walked off his transatlantic flight and onto a direct transfer to Somerville. Holding down not much more than some white bread, he was off the front with two others with three laps to go. Right before turn 3 he attacked, and held to be crowned 2017 Tour of Somerville champion as his grandfather announced the race. This time he didn’t even crash when he finished. But that’s another story.

Jake Sitler races for the American UCI Continental team CCB Velotooler and runs his own coaching business. After attending university as a steeplechaser and cross-country athlete, he’s transitioned his way into the sport of cycling. He lives and trains in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Amish buggy-pacing) and enjoys sipping fine coffee and the occasional three-pound burrito. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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