Tommy Evans on whether the Rás could or should change to survive

Posted on: May 22nd, 2019

Tommy Evans won Rás Tailteann in 1996 and he really wants to see the race continue. He discusses the future for the event (Photo: Phil O’Connor)

In the week that Rás Tailteann would be unfolding on the roads of Ireland but for its cancellation this year, stickybottle is talking to some well known Irish cycling figures about the race.

We’ve already interviewed double race winner Philip Cassidy, which you can read here.

And yesterday top county rider during his time in the race, Ian Richardson, penned his thoughts on why the UCI grading was imperative for the race; a piece you can read here.

Today it’s the turn of one of the Irish Rás greats; multiple stage winner and overall victor Tommy Evans.

Tommy Evans talks Rás Tailteann

It would be best to retain the UCI ranking for Rás Tailteann but if dropping the ranking and even shortening the race ensured its survival then those steps should be taken, former winner Tommy Evans has said.

Evans won the event overall in 1996 and said he was shocked the 2019 had been cancelled for lack of sponsorship.

The eight-stage event last had a sponsor, An Post, in 2017. It was run last year on cash reserves when no new title sponsor could be found.

However, with the reserves now spent and still no new backer lined up the 2019 race was cancelled. It is hoped it can return next year.

While a replacement event – a short stage race – may take place this year, it will not be Rás Tailteann.

A debate has now begun about whether the race should relinquish the UCI ranking for now, refocus on domestic riders and even scale back in order that it can continue in some format until a new sponsor is found.

“It still all comes down to costs,” Evans said of holding an eight-day Rás Tailteann irrespective of the grading.

He believed the race would prove expensive and require a big budget even if it was not UCI graded.

“You have a lot of fixed costs; things like paying for the police and everything else that comes with organising a major race like that.”

But he also believed the UCI grading very likely added to the cost, citing the anti doping tests that needed to be put in place and the requirement to have a number of UCI Continental teams in the event and to pay their costs.

Evans explained he did not want to second-guess the organisers and the volunteers working for them; people he said had given “a hell of a lot of service to the race, year in and year out”.

But he said while the cost of the race has been put at about €350,000, he “would love to know” what was the “absolute minimum” an eight day, or shorter, Rás of some description could be run for.

And he also believed if Irish cycling knew that figure, it was possible crowd funding may go a long way to raising that sum.

If that was the case, a race could be held and the current obstacles could be cleared, at least for now.

Tommy Evans moved from international cycling to international coaching. Above, with former top triathlete Bryan Keane whom Evans helped get to the Olympics.

“It would just be fantastic to keep the race in some format; to keep the unbroken nature of it because once it breaks it’s very hard to come back,” Tommy Evans said.

“And then if you continue to run it in maybe a scaled down format, you can take the time to build it back up again.”

Evans added that financing and sponsorship in cycling had always been cyclical.

And he believed if the Rás was run on a reduced budget for a period, such a move would not be out of the ordinary when compared to big races in other countries.

“If it was possible to run it in a shortened version with Irish riders and invite other (foreign) teams to it but they have to pay their own way; that might be the way for now,” he said of keeping the race going in this difficult period.

“Cycling is on a downward spiral, you only have to look the type of quality riders who can’t get decent contracts or can’t get a team at all. But it will come back again; it’s always been a merry-go-round.

“Back when I won it there was no UCI points for it. But back then it never deterred good international teams from coming.

“There really was never any shortage of international teams coming over for it. And if that was an option for now…” he said of running a non UCI ranked Rás but still with foreign teams.

“But what I’d say is; just don’t let it go, don’t let the race go. Have some form of race because once it goes for a few years it’s gone and it’s very hard to come back.

“A lot of the people who are involved in it now maybe would disappear. So getting it back on again would be very hard after a while.

“But maybe when you look at the Tour of Ulster or Rás Mumhan; maybe that’s the type of race you need to have.

“Maybe over five days or something like that; anything that would be easy enough or cost-effective enough to run.”

Tommy Evans in Rás Tailteann yellow. He won the race in 1996 and as a teenager won the Junior Tour of Ireland overall crown.

Evans also pointed out one of the key reasons the Rás had stepped up to being UCI graded was to give Irish riders the chance to earn UCI points, towards qualifying for the Olympics, while racing on home roads.

However, he said back then there were no top Irish pros scoring UCI points in the way several of our professional riders are now.

“We were scrambling back then for places at the Olympics and at least you got a few points out of the Rás when it went UCI,” he said, having ridden the race himself both before and after it was UCI-ranked.

“That’s not as important now. But what having a UCI race does bring is prestige; it’s nice to be on the UCI calendar.

“But if there is an extra cost associated with having it on the UCI calendar, surely you would look at taking it off that calendar.

“It even used to be nine days. But when it went onto the UCI calendar it had to go back to being an eight stage race.”

However, Evans added that if the Rás became a non UCI-ranked race again for Irish riders to race against the best of British and a sprinkling of international opposition, the numbers of domestic riders truly able to compete may still be small.

He said the number of A1 riders and A2 riders who may want to ride the Rás was small.

“You’d really be looking to the A1s and then the young guys who are racing internationally. There’s not many of those; maybe 100 riders or a bit more than that.”

Evans added the Rás could modify the format of the race and possibly reintroduce split stages and some short criterium town centre stages to make it more attractive to the public, the media and sponsors.

But he said the race’s future probably boiled down to securing a big sponsor to take the place of An Post.

The former winner added he had been bitterly disappointed when news broke the event would not take place this year.

Even in his day it had been a great opportunity to race against top British riders.

And with almost all of the stage races in Britain now gone, but for a small number open to WorldTour level, it was more important than ever to have the Rás.

Evans believed the race was now the victim of a double whammy; a downturn in pro cycling globally and also a weak economy at home despite the talk of economic recovery.

“When you look at the likes of the new EvoPro Racing team that’s been set up; a brand new team and yet they had their pick of riders,” he said, making the point pro cycling was struggling and even high quality riders were on the transfer market.

“And then back in Ireland; the place is supposed to be booming, the Celtic Tiger is supposed to be back. But there’s no money in the country; there’s no money for sport.

“The Rás has given me such fond memories and it was a race that made me find out a lot about the type of person I am.

“And I don’t just mean winning it, I mean being on teams and helping other guys; Ciaran (Power, double winner) for example.

“You get so many lasting friendships from it and you remember the volunteers who work on it; you remember all those guys.”

Evans said after winning it, he was offered a place on a team in France.

“Somebody came to me and said a Scottish boy was going to this team and they wanted to put some company with him, would I go. I said ‘no’ but the Scottish boy turned out to be David Millar,” he laughed.

Tommy Evans has worked as high performance coach with Triathlon Ireland and is still keeping very fit himself since he stopped racing.

He is currently coaching a number of athletes in private practice and also does some coaching work for Cycling Ireland.

His work for the cycling federation included with the woman’s team pursuiters who broke the Irish record at the Worlds this year.