Rás Tailteann’s Future: Philip Cassidy shares his thoughts

Posted on: May 20th, 2019

Rás Tailteann winner Philip Cassidy believes what type of Rás we have matters little, certainly in the short-term. The main thing is to hold a race called Rás Tailteann and get through these difficult times.

Rás Tailteann would currently be underway but for the 2019 edition being cancelled over lack of sponsorship; the recovering but still weak Irish economy doing Irish cycling no favours.

To mark the race’s absence, stickybottle will publish a number of pieces through the week with members of the cycling community about the race.

In interviews and columns, well-known figures in Irish cycling will offer their views on Rás Tailteann’s past, it’s current problems and what the future may hold.

We kick off the series with an interview with double Rás winner Philip Cassidy.

Philip Cassidy talks Rás Tailteann

Having won Rás Tailteann twice there are few names in Irish cycling more closely associated with the race than that of Philip Cassidy.

He claimed his outright wins in 1983 and much later, on the comeback trail, in 1999. Cassidy also picked up three stage wins along the way during 19 appearances in the race.

The Meath man has also sponsored and managed Rás teams. And his son Mark, a former An Post-Chainreaction rider, won a stage and held the yellow jersey.

Given that his history is so steeped in the event and that he has enjoyed commercial success on the business side of cycling – as a store owner and brand distributor – his views on the difficulties the race now faces will be carefully studied.

In the first instance, Cassidy is quick to mention the record of former race director Dermot Dignam, and his family, who have run the race for years.

When Dignam stepped down from the role of race director Tony Campbell, also synonymous with keeping the race on the road, took on the top job.

After five years at the helm Campbell ended his tenure and Eimear Dignam took on the job for the 2018 edition. She remains as race director.

Cassidy was a prolific winner during his career and went on to pursue a successful career on the business side of the bike game. He believes the Rás make have to take a step back, at least in the short term, to retain continuity and battle through this difficult period.

“They’ve done so much for the race down the years,” Cassidy told stickybottle of the Dignams and Campbell.

“In fact, you could nearly say this year they’ve fallen on the sword of the success they built,” he added in reference to the race being cancelled this year due to a lack of title sponsor.

Cassidy believed the conversation around the difficulties the race was in has been muted in recent months precisely because it has been run so well that few people thought it would falter.

The event was first held in 1953 and has run uninterrupted every year since then; FDB Insurance having sponsored it for many years before An Post took over as title sponsor in 2011.

However, An Post ended its backing in 2017 and the race was only run last year on cash reserves, with some secondary sponsorships.

Unfortunately with the cash reserves spent last year and no new title sponsor being secured, Eimear Dignam was forced to announce the race would not go ahead this year. It would normally be taking place this week.

The plan now is to continue the search for a new backer and get the event back on the road in 2020, retaining its UCI 2.2 ranking. In the meantime, a four-day replacement event had been mooted for this year.

The cancellation of the 2019 edition sent shockwaves across Irish cycling. And Philip Cassidy believes future editions, at the very least the 2020 race, may need to be planned on the assumption no title sponsor will be found.

With a sum in the region of €350,000 required, he said any deal involving that amount of money annually for several years may take a long time to put together.

And so he believes it may be better now for the Irish cycling community to simply accept the current problems may not be resolved in the next 12 months; the Irish economy recovering but still weak.

With son Mark checking out the route for the day back in 2009. Cassidy Jnr was an international who won a stage in the Rás, held the yellow jersey and rode for the An Post-Sean Kelly team for most of his senior career.

Philip Cassidy also believed it was more important to run the best Rás Tailteann possible than stick rigidly to the race’s current form as a UCI 2.2-ranked race with all of the expenses that come along with that.

And if the UCI ranking was adding to the financial stress on the race it should be abandoned, Cassidy said.

“The most important thing is the event itself and the fact it’s an Irish race. It’s part of the heritage of sport in Ireland,” Cassidy told stickybottle.

“It’s nice to have the UCI ranking but the race continuing and continuing to be part of the sporting heritage of the country has to be the key issue.

“I rode 19 editions of the race and won two overall and I won three stages. But the only UCI points I ever got were in 2002,” he added of riding Rás Tailteann and winning a stage just after it had secured its UCI 2.2 ranking in 2000.

“They were all hard; none of them were any easier or any harder than each other. But everywhere were I go if I am at anything, the line people use from time to time to introduce me is ‘double Rás winner’.

 “A Rás winner is a Rás winner over the last 50, 60 years. If I’m ever in conversation, people would also compare my (wins) to, say, the Rás last year. They just see no difference.”

Winning stage 3 of the FBD Rás into Killorglin in Co Kerry in 2002. Cassidy feels the Rás should not get too bogged down in having a UCI ranking and having Continental teams in the race. “Run it and they will come”, he says of the race’s attraction to good foreign teams just below Continental level.

Whether his wins were UCI-ranked or not or exactly when the race secured its ranking and the significance of the ranking, he said, were issues never raised with him.

As a result, he believes the race should not get bogged down on the ranking subject.

“For next year, if you assume there may be no sponsor again, I’d forget the UCI ranking 100 per cent and run the best race you can achieve,” he said.

“If you take Rás Mumhan; they’ve done a great job there will minimal sponsorship. The Dignams have also been heading this up for years; do they need more support?

“There’s a lot goodwill around the country, I think people would stump up a bit of time and effort; maybe to call Eimear and offer that help.”

Cassidy added whether the race had UCI ranking or not, it would still attract foreign teams.

And irrespective of the ranking it would always be a very hard event. He did not believe dropping the ranking, even over the short term, would suddenly make the race easy.

And he also felt running the Rás without the ranking didn’t need to result in it being less international.

“We always had teams over from the UK and places like Belgium and France. In 1983 (his first Rás win –Ed) that was even the case back then.

“It was a nice mix; an international field but not full on pro or what we’d now call Continental level teams. And the stages weren’t slow; believe me.

“Now the race has such a reputation around the world that if there had been an eight-day race even this year and you sent out invitations to Belgium or Holland and the UK and wherever else; and you told people when and where the race was on, that they were invited and what their entry fees was; I’d love to see how many of them would have taken up the invite and come.

“I’d love to see who would come if teams had to pay their own expenses rather than (the race organisers) digging into their own coffers and paying expenses for the Continental teams.

“The race is unique and has a superb reputation and I believe there would be quite a take-up on that; especially from the UK.

“You may not get those Continental teams coming but there are a huge amount of elite amateur squads around Europe looking to develop their riders. And I believe they’d come.

“It’s hard to find this type of race that those teams could come to and develop their riders,” he said.

Cassidy also felt it was beyond any doubt that both national selections and teams just below Continental level would still want to ride the Rás if the UCI ranking was gone.

“I guarantee you the stages won’t be any slower with those types of teams,” he stated, stressing no expenses whatever would be paid under his idea of how the race might be run.

“If there’s no budget, or not the kind of budget there was before; then that’s just the way it is. And if we get 130 Irish guys racing around the country for eight days; great.

“If there were 30 or 40 British riders also in there, they always provide great competition and they’d love it too.

“When the race is more based around the domestic riders, with some international teams in there, it allows the domestic riders to shine a bit more.

“Some of the riders who might have a perception they are not of a certain standard (associated with a UCI-ranked race) would come to the fore.

“I think sometimes some of the domestic riders; when they see the pros with the tanned legs and so on, they may not really want to go past them.

“But if there’s a load of Paddies in the race and on the front; they might say to themselves more ‘I’m getting up there and I’m having a go’. They Irish guys would just grow in confidence.

“At the same time the average speeds won’t drop. But it just might give guys the tools to actually race; give them the confidence.

“For continuity, until another sponsor is found, it really doesn’t matter hugely who rides the race as long as you have a race and a race winner. But have a race.”