Having won the Tour of France , the Tour of Italy and the World championship all in the one-year, Stephen Roche was asked what was it like to have equalled the achievement of the great Eddy Marckx. The Dubliner responded that Marckx had never won the Ras.
Roche was of course being humorous, but his comments nonetheless emphasized the regard that Irish cyclists have for their own version of the Tour de France.
The Ras has pushed off from outside the GPO for the past 54 years. It rolls back into the Capital after eight days . By then many of it 2000 participants have fallen prey to its 1000 km route that traverses the country in search of the most arduous terrain that Ireland has to offer.
Today the Ross enjoys the status of an elite international cycling race. Over half of the field comes from the United States, the Continent and Britain. In 1953, the first Ras, had 52 cyclists taking part.
In its early years the drama the race attracted had more to do with the Republican sympathies of the participants than the action of the race itself. The custom of flying the tricolour at the head of the race once led to a pitched battle after crossing the border with the RUC. A more serious tussle for racing had happened a number of years earlier. That was a dispute with the international cycling governing body, which wanted to impose on Irish cycling a 26 County structure. Rejecting what they saw as a partitioning policy Irish cyclists found themselves banned from international competition. With nowhere else to race a number of prominent cyclists got together and established what would become the Ross.
In the early 70s Irish cycling repaired its bridges with the international body. What followed was later to be described as the golden age of cycling in Ireland. From the mid-70s new dynasties began to emerge, names like the McQuade’s, McCormick’s and Kimmage’s began to dominate the Ras. It wasn’t long before Roche and Kelly also started to pop up at home and finally internationally.
The early Ross was not bereft of its superstars. Glenn Mangan had a promising career cycling in France in the 50s, but owing to his links with Irish cycling he was excluded from the international scene. The same fate befell Shea O’Hanlon. The Ras became the only outlet for men like them to make a mark. O’Hanlon won the event four times, a record that still stands. Besides having an unequalled 24 stage wins, he is one of just two men to lead the race from start to finish.
The most bizarre, if not legendary, cyclist in Ras history was a farm labourer from County Kerry. Mike Murphy, Known as the Iron Man, he financed his dream of cycling in the 1958 Ross by building a layer in the woods to save on paying rent. His preparations for the race did not stop at unconventional sleeping arrangements. His diet, as can be seen in the quote below – taken from an interview he did with radio Kerry, had some unusual ingredients.
‘My diet consisted of grated carrots, raw eggs, turnips, spuds, honey, juice extracted from the stems of nettles, goats milk and cow’s blood’.
Murphy cycled in the Ras that year for the first and only time. Leading the race on the second day his bike broke. Murphy rejoined the action on the bike he snatched from a farmer who was hunting sheep and amazingly managed to regain the yellow jersey by the of end of the day. On another day his crashed and broke his collarbone but kept going. The extraordinary Kerryman strapped to his bicycle rode into Dublin the winner of that year’s tour. Murphy immigrated to Britain some months later, he was not to see the Ras again until last year.