If you’re looking for any romantic tales and photos of a recent trip to the Arabian Peninsula, then I’m afraid you may have misread the title of this one. It’s not a “Tour of Oman”, but rather Omagh, a town an hour down the road from my home in Ireland! As my few readers will have no doubt noticed, my vagabonding days are on hold for the time being. I do however find myself writing again for the first time in a long time, and this article is about my new-found hobby of racing bicycles at home in Ireland, and a short account of a stage race I took part in recently in Omagh. For those who wonder what became of a once intrepid traveller, well, this is how I’ve been spending my free time of late, still punishing my body albiet in a slightly different fashion.
The Tour of Omagh 2016
The race that has kept the chatter going during training runs for months has finally arrived. Despite my best efforts to break into the A3 ranks, I find myself 4 points short of an upgrade and lining out for the Tour of Omagh 3 day.
The annual A4 stage race is a chance for us A4’s, the peasants of the Irish cycling scene, to have our weekend in the sun…figuratively speaking anyhow. We are perhaps best known for racing with hairy legs and saddle bags, for not attending hilly races, not being able to sprint in a straight line, and perhaps worst of all, chasing down breakaways for no apparent reason and then sitting on the only man in the race who actually wants to race, as we look around like a pack of 4-month old labrador pups wondering who is gong to throw the ball next so as we can all chase after it again. It is what it is however, and we all keep coming back for more all summer long! The relief never diminishes each time you wake up on a Monday morning in your own bed rather than a hospital bed, as you quickly realise you’ve survived another A4 bunch sprint!
Normally these A4 races follow the same old script. Most are just like a day in the bog and you get used to it, the same old craic each time. I try and get up the road, get caught and attack again on the next hill getting reeled in each time before we finish in a terrifying bunch sprint which I’m usually, and some might say luckily, too bollixed to take part in. The Tour of Omagh however should be something different….or at least that’s what I’ve heard.
My teammates have been taking their build-up seriously. Roger Mc Cauley has been off the biscuits for the last three weeks and Drew Gillespie hasn’t had a can of Heineken for 6 days! As he once told me himself on a training spin, this cycling game isn’t any easier when you’re sweating out Heineken, and besides, it never tastes as good second time around mixed in with sun cream! All said and done, we are in decent nick and excited about what the next 3 days of racing will bring.
Stage 1 – Omagh-Fintona-Ballygawley-Omagh
Unusually for me, there are a few nerves as we line up for the roll-out out of Omagh. I try to use the tricks and hacks that I picked up while wandering around buddhist monasteries in India to get a hold of myself. I imagine plenty of my fellow competitors lined out alongside me are experiencing similar emotions. Some will be preparing themselves for the biggest arse-kicking they’ll get all year, while others are lining out to win it. I may have the advantage over some already, especially those inclined to believe the Dalai Lama to be some kind of exotic South American mammal!
Things kick off after the first KOM and there is some mad man, or more likely several, driving it on like maniacs on a winding descent which seems to go on for eternity. Gravel on the bends and the sight of cyclists rejoining the main group after running wide has me nervous. I’ve never seen a pace like it in an A4 race.
I get down in one piece and it’s not long before we are through Ballygawley and onto the next KOM, a CAT 2 climb. With shoulders rocking early in, it’s not long before gaps appear and I find myself off the front with a sizable gap by the time I get over the top.
Off the front and 20km from the finish, then comes the old familiar feeling of “what now?”. Wait up or drive on? I opt to go for broke. For the next 8 km it feels like I’m in the tour. Motorbikes and cameras swarm around me as I follow the car with the yellow number plate. With the bunch at a minute, I end up waiting for a lone chaser. He’d turn out to be the overall winner of the race and he has me at threshold just trying to hold his wheel. He’s unbelievably strong. No sooner do I start getting ideas about staying away when I can see the chasing group coming up behind, about 40 in total.
We are all back together after Sixmilecross and things settle down for a few kilometers at least. As the finish approaches, the pace picks up and we approach a slight kick in the road which I had noticed on the drive in. It’s about a kilometer from the finish, it kicks up steep for 150m, but then drags for 300. I had promised myself that if I got here in a group, I’d throw myself off the front once we hit the drag and give it everything.
And so I do. Immediately I get a sizeable gap and it’s a question of how long I can hold on. I get myself into this situation quite a bit, but never seem to capitalise. I’m like that rabbit you come across while driving at night, sprinting aimlessly in front of your headlights as you wonder how long it can keep going before it disappears into a ditch!
Other than seeing the white flags at the finishing line as I rounded the final bend, and glancing at a heart rate of 187bpm on my Garmin, I don’t have much recollection of these moments. It’s was only later when a video appeared online taken from a motorbike alongside me, which I was totally oblivious to, that I could relive the antics. I was just like that little rabbit, scared shitless that the advancing peloton would overrun me. The rabbit never thinks about where it is going. It merely tries to escape the car. If I had really thought about where I was going, I might have stood a chance. Made for a good video anyway!
Stage 2 – 4km Time Trial
Perhaps the only 5 minutes and 21 seconds that I regret from the whole weekend. The head wasn’t right and I left time out there, I knew as soon as I had crossed the line. Gutted. If only I could go back and relive it all again I’d make a solemn promise to myself on the start line that I wouldn’t stop pushing until tunnel vision had thoroughly set in! That’s when you know you’re pushing.
Sounds like crazy talk from a man who doesn’t touch alcohol, won’t ingest an oxidized fat, won’t eat sugar, gluten, dairy, or any processed food that comes in a packet…but it’s funny the lengths to which this sport can make you push yourself to levels of unhealthy exertion. I justify it by promising myself I’ll stop racing in a year or two, get a golden retriever and fulfill my exercise needs in the form of something more ancestral. I do my best to not think about the effort for the remainder of the day.
Stage 3 – Omagh-Carrickmore Loop-Omagh
The organisers didn’t foresee the only cyclist around with skinnier arms than Chris Froome turning up and ending up in a jersey. After last nights stage I find myself in the KOM jersey, or should I say parachute! Someone gives me the bright idea of using safety pins on the back to tighten it up and it works a treat, that is until 1 minute before the start, when I decide to bend down to touch the toes and give the hamstrings a quick stretch when I feel the 4 pins burst open! I set off with the parachute already open!
Half asleep on the run in to the first KOM, and nul point. This is followed by a couple of kamikaze attacks on the decent of the KOM, my old tried and trusted method of getting away. I never get too far though as thoughts of the wind and the distance remaining make the comfort of being swallowed up by the bunch and sitting in too much to resist. My escape partner, for the brief attack, who is again John O’ Regan, is never seen again until we cross the finish line. What might have been I thought to myself, but what odds would you have gotten on a man staying away for 50 odd km in that wind?
By the time the 2nd KOM comes around my legs go on strike. Things aren’t as they should be, I’m parched, with about two gulps left in my water bottle. It’s time to be prudent and I sit in with the front bunch until we cross the line in what is a fairly uneventful day for me.
Stage 4 – Omagh-Castlederg-Victoria Bridge-Gortin-Omagh
Serious bit of wind today, not just from the crap I ate during yesterdays stage, but weather-wise. Any plans of staying away over the Cat 1 climb 10km from the finish are probably scuppered, with a 30 km/hr headwind that we’ll have all the way home. Despite that, I’m well up for it and the legs feel good.
The route is Omagh to Castlederg and back over the Cat 1 climb at Gortin. A lonely road for any tired man spat out the back, and no doubt there must be a few of them among us.
The pace is quick enough as the wind pushes us along after rolling out of Omagh. The two Cat 3 KOM’s don’t go my way, more of less ending my hopes of winning it. Alas that 10-20 second kick that I never seem to have, has been my downfall. On the shallow gradients of these short drags I can’t match the initial kick of the main challenger, a chap by the name of David Spalding. He is well-drilled with a teammate and I never close that initial gap he gets. If I couldn’t win it myself, he’s the man I would like to see in the ‘dots’. A sound lad that I became quite friendly with over the weekend.
Kilometer 44 was a point where I picked out to have a crack. On a drag, it’s 10km before the climb past Gortin, but somehow I haven’t got the mental strength to do it. I sit in until we are through Gortin and start the main climb.
The legs don’t feel fresh as I get encouragement from a friend alongside as I’m aggressively told to leave it all on the road. Something clicks and I move to the front and push on. Straight away it breaks up and I find my rhythm. It’s painful, but it’s the terrain that suits me. A long climb at 6-7% that seemingly goes on forever. With Spalding for company, I really start to go deep passed the halfway point and drive all the way to the top. It’s all a blur now, but it must have been painful. I don’t recall myself longing for the summit however, seemingly happy to live with the pain of the exertion. Knowing that many behind may be suffering somewhat more fuels the ego to keep spinning that gear.
As we crest the top I’m told we have a gap of 45 seconds on the yellow jersey. What I’d give now for that wind to switch the other way and blow me home for the final 10km. We catch a couple of girls who are neck deep in their own race which I’m oblivious too. They take a few strong pulls on the front, but the time gap slowly decreases. The motos pull up alongside us every couple of minutes “30 seconds, 4 mile to go” followed by “20 seconds, 3 mile to go” and so on. Getting the distances in miles makes the finish sound a whole lot closer, but alas with about 3km to go we are joined by a group of about 15 which includes the yellow jersey. Intact we remain until the line and I sprint for 7th.
What an enjoyable weekend it was. I ended up 11th on GC and was presented with the combativity jersey after all the antics. Big thanks to Omagh Wheelers for organising such a great event. I had heard so much about the organisation even before turning up and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It was unbelievably well organised and the big race feel was something very special to be a part of. Most of us A4’s will never have the opportunity to experience this feel in the big Irish races or those abroad, so it’s certainly an experience I’ll cherish for many years to come.
Thanks also to my fellow club members, in particular Paul, Oisin, Ronan and Ed for giving up their weekend to do team car and for their support. Also to my teammates Roger and Drew. The craic had in the car travelling to these races oftentimes makes up for the pain we subject ourselves to during them!
So there it is. It all comes to an end and I have probably doubled my number of friends on facebook, have a few new jerseys a few sizes too big for me, and bring home a few memories of tales told of double vision on hills, heart rates of 220 bpm and of course the sight of a few men upside down in a Tyrone ditch still clipped in with €3000 worth of carbon sticking up in the air! In the end I’m still A4, and unless I learn how to sprint I may well be back next year!
A local videographer Jonny Collins was on the race recording video each day and composing some nice highlight videos each evening. For anyone interested, they can be seen below: Thanks to him for doing such a great job.