Dan Martin: “Rás should go back to its roots; Irish amateur riders”

Posted on: February 19th, 2019

Dan Martin Rás Tailteann

Dan Martin has made an interesting and insightful contribution to the conversation about Rás Tailteann. He’s stressed he’s not being critical of those who run the race. Instead, he says races with UCI 2.2 grading can often find themselves in a difficult position. And he has suggested surrendering that grading may refocus the race on Irish domestic riders once more and help to revive it (Photo: Sean Rowe)

 

By Luke Maguire

As news of the cancellation of Rás Tailteann broke last Thursday evening there was a mix of sadness and frustration amongst the Irish cycling fraternity.

Many wondered what could have been done, if anything, to save the race which has run since 1953.

It has been cancelled for this year because a new sponsor could not be found.

Voicing his opinions on the direction the race has taken over the past few years, Ireland’s top ranked rider, Dan Martin, believes part of the wider issue is that the event no longer represented the home riders.

“It lost its character in some ways,” Dan Martin said. “That’s the impression I have from the outside (but) I’ve never ridden the race.”

Martin stressed his views were not meant to be critical of the race or those who organise it.

Rather, because its contribution to Irish cycling has been so significant, he was saddened to see it in difficultly.

And he felt a Rás more focused on Irish riders – which could still have some international competition – might reinvigorate it and be the makings of it again in the years ahead.

 

Dan Martin Rás Tailteann

Dan Martin only ever rode one full season as an amateur. After a short stint in France he jumped into the ProContinental ranks with Garmin-Chipotle. It meant he never rode the Rás. But he’s picked up a thing or two about how racing works.

 

Martin competes in the highest division of the sport, the WorldTour racing circuit. Rás Tailteann is on the European Tour, with a 2.2 UCI ranking.

It is Ireland’s only road race with UCI ranking, which simply compounds how much its loss is felt.

“I think the Rás went away from what it should have been,” explained Martin. “It’s not really an Irish race anymore.

“If there had been an Irish winner over the past couple of years, maybe that would get sponsors and fans more interested,” he said.

While many Irish cyclists have continued to compete in the race since it became a 2.2 ranked event in 2000, over the years it has steadily become dominated by the international riders.

It has been over a decade since Stephen Gallagher won Rás Tailteann in 2008 and only two Irish riders have stood on the final podium since then.

Ryan Mullen was 3rd in 2015 when riding for An Post-Chainreaction. And Connor McConvey was 2nd in 2013 when riding for Synergy-Baku; a team run by David McQuaid.

Any Irish success in the race in the past decade has largely come from riders already part of professional teams.

A small number competing domestically on a full-time basis have managed to ride very well in the event, but big results have been very limited.

A notable exception was Eoin Morton of UCD-FitzCycles. While still working full-time he was able to triumph to win a stage of the Rás in Charleville in 2016.

 

Dan Martin Rás Tailteann

Eoin Morton and his father Peter won stages in the Rás decades apart. But an Irish win on the race is rare now, with the European Continental professional teams gaining most from the eight-stage race.

 

While the racing may have changed, the ‘family feel’ to the organisation of the race did not diminish and Martin acknowledged that the race was powered by volunteers.

He believed the main problems with the race were related to its classification rather than the actual organisation itself.

The race’s classification as a 2.2 on the UCI calendar opened it up to small professional teams from abroad. This left it somewhat in limbo in terms of exposure.

The UCI ranking dramatically boosts the racing standard precisely because it attracts Continental teams from abroad; the third tier of pro cycling.

However, the 2.2 ranking also excludes the biggest teams from competing and thus the most prominent Irish riders such as Nicolas Roche, Sam Bennett and Dan Martin himself.

At the same time, the higher international standard makes it very hard for Irish riders to do well, especially riders based in Ireland and working full-time.

That means while our highest profile riders are not in the race the event is also normally dominated by foreign pros, riding on smaller teams, rather than Irish amateurs.

That dynamic has perhaps proven a hard narrative to sell the public, the media and now sponsors.

 

Dan Martin Rás Tailteann

Ian Richardson was 10th in the Rás four years ago, one of the best performances by an Irish amateur of the last decade  (Photo: Stephen McMahon)

 

“The 2.2 level races are in an awkward position because you don’t get much exposure,” said Dan Martin.

“Yet it takes it away from the people who the Rás has always really been about, and that’s the county riders.

“The Rás has always been about the county rider. That’s not criticising the organisers, because I think it was a bold decision to step up to Continental level in the first place.

“I think it’s also reflective of the environment of sports sponsorship at the moment,” added Martin of the race’s difficulties.

“Take Team Sky for example; they are the best team in the world and they’re struggling for money.

“I think since the Rás moved up to Continental teams level, it’s lost its identity a little bit.

“There are so many very strong international teams coming over that the Irish riders are not actually in the race.”

Speaking in November, race director Eimear Dignam revealed that the total cost of running the event was €350,000.

Dignam is hopeful that the race will return to its full glory in 2020 and talks are in place for a scaled back amateur race to be held in 2019 as a substitute.

 

Dan Martin Rás Tailteann

Stephen Gallagher winning the Rás back in 2008; the last Irish rider to do so. With foreign winners since then and modest Irish success, the race’s story is perhaps harder to tell now.

 

However, prior to Thursday’s announcement Dignam was very reluctant about holding the race as a domestic-only event.

“We shouldn’t be stepping back that way. There is no other International stage race in the country that allows riders to earn UCI and Olympic qualification points,” she said.

“Realistically, bringing it back to a domestic county rider race shouldn’t be in the back of our minds.

“The calendar is full of races for guys. But if you don’t have the quality of this race, then Ireland’s standing in the international cycling community disappears.”

 

Stepping back could move Rás forward

Martin believes a return to a more domestic focused level could be a positive turn for Rás Tailteann.

“It could be what the race needs. Maybe now is time to take a step back and bring it (back) to what the race was and go back to its roots,” he said.

“If it steps down from Continental level it may mean a lesser budget is required for the race can continue.

“Irish sponsors will be more interested if it’s back to being an Irish race with local guys winning.

“It’s taking the jewel out of the crown of Irish cycling,” he said of the race not running this year.

“Hopefully something will step in to replace it because that’s the race that was the ambition for so many county riders – to finish the Rás.”

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