Stage 3 (day 2) was the Healy Pass stage. (shudder)
We started the stage with Siobhan in a contention for the QOM and Lou in the County jersey…and in a national team near us, Lydia’s brilliant uphill TT performance had moved her right up the GC to 2nd overall (a position she and the Irish National team would defend well over the course of the week despite everything the race threw at them.)
I remembered the Healy pass. Its a stage that will probably never leave the memories of any who climb it. My sense of accomplishment after having climbed and descended it safely last year is still strong. It’s humdinger!
Given that Siobhan and Louise were well placed on GC and that there were jerseys in sight, Ger, Tim and Lou hatched a cunning plan. We went to sleep that night excited.
It was raining when we got to Kenmare. It was raining when we signed on, and raining when we ‘warmed up’ (I think warming up is really all about getting your clothes as wet as possible so that no further wet is possible. This might be called osmosis. It might not. I was never that good at science.) I thanked my lucky stars I had my Pro aero lite overshoes on – they really stood up to the Irish test – I could not have been wetter if I had worn them in the shower. I deepy regretted not getting a LMNH gilet. It was wet. The just before we started it got worse. There was a couple of cm of water across the road, the rain was beating down, making it hard to look forward to see where you were going. It was miserable. It was proper Ras weather.
It was slippy. In the neutralised section there was a slow speed crash. One which in the dry wouldn’t have happened and one which hurt the poor lass an unfair amount. When we moved on there was a feeling of intrepidation. The bunch rode more cautiously.
I sat near the back of the bunch, hovering. Lou, Shiobhan, Elise (and Lyds) were all further up. It was stupidly wet and clearly it was slippy. I thought better just sit it out and finish safely, Helen.
But then something happened.
I remembered we had a plan. The team had a plan. I had a role and I needed to do it. I did whatever the mental equivalent is of rollling up my sleeves and started.
By luck, pluck or divine intervention I got up near the front of the peloton. I saw my gap and I attacked. It wasn’t a great attack, I can do better. The legs were tired from riding most of yesterday on my own (cue sad violin music), but it was good enough. I got a small gap. Now it was game on! I was sure it world be closed down, but that didn’t matter. I pushed on. The road started to go upwards. I lifted my gaze and sure enough there was the hill. Come on Helen just this bit. Drive it. This is all you need to do. I could hear wheels behind. A wheel looked like it was trying to come round. Over my…I dug in deeper. Must do this, must do this…
Siobhan was amazing. How she had found my wheel from out of the peloton I don’t know, but she did. She was where she needed to be, when she needed to be there. Best of all she executed. She flew past me over the top of the hill and won the QOM. One of the amazing Danish team tried to take it, but Siobhan did it. She took it! Boo-ya! Following their example as best I could I took 3rd. To think how Siobhan just started racing last year and now this – a revelation! (Was it Siobhan or was it Lizzie Armistead? So similar now.)
What goes up…..
Having taken top spot over the climb, Siobhan was now in poll position on the descent. I did some quick maths and decided that it was better if she didn’t have to take the wind – even on a descent. This is the bit I’d like Jo McRae to read – she is our top descender – like Vos but more likely to break out into MC Hammer moves. I nipped in front of Siobhan. I was going to deliver her as far as I could. I led them down the hill, Jo. 65 riders and not one came past me. Only 1 bend when I really thought uh-oh and yelled ‘flibberty jibbet’ or similar to the skies. Got to the bottom. Thank God!
But no time to breathe. We were now at the bottom of Healy’s Pass, Siobhan was on my wheel, everyone else behind her and there was a jersey to get. Each bend I kept thinking this is it I’m going to blow, and each bend no one came round me. By this point I was not feeling so good, Siobhan gave a couple of words of encouragement, like a gel, it gave me a little boost. Just as I was about to say ‘go on without me’ Louise appeared. Hallelujah!
Lou took to the front. I have seen this girl fly up this mountain as if it was not there before – that’s the former pro within. She rode steadily with me behind and Siobhan on my wheel. I let Siobhan pass. The leaders started bunching up and one-by-one coming past me. I held on for as long as I could. Siobhan attacked. I had nothing. The race was shattered and so was I.
But with Siobhan and Lou up the road, riding with lead legs up a treacle mountain was the best place to be (I came back to sticky uphill roads a few days later).
Epiphanies and God help me moments
I caught up with Elise and a small group a little later on. We worked well together. I think we were two of the group who were feeling better. Caha Pass I remember is being the one where I swear there were vultures circling me last year. Last year Pan had an epithany there (one of many I think). Maybe that was mine. Elise is very strong uphills for someone who professes not to be a hill climber, and what is more she is good company. It was lovely to be picked up by a team mate. We found we would end up together on other days too. She loves a bit of hardship, in fact the more horrible the weather the more she seems to grin and is likely to say ‘isn’t this fun?’ Unlike last year, I found that the misery of sheets of rain and strong winds oddly comforting. It just wouldn’t be the Ras without it would it?
By the top of the Caha the group had split a bit. Good. I wanted a head start. I thought I was going quite bravely down the hill until Elise and her new riding soul-mate Yuki came charging past. I think they caused the tarmac to ripple. (Their bond had started earlier in the day and Elise knew that they would see much more of each other in days to come. Destiny.)
I found my perfect riding partner in a quiet Dutch rider who I think I recognised from last year. The last 20K home felt like 120k…are we nearly there yet? My Dutch companion and I took turns to push on the flat. Wanting to give up, but never doing it. I think it was here last year that Jo was having a similar conversation with her race buddy. By the time we crossed the line I felt like we had lived through something. I could have gone in with a hug (no that would have been akward!) In many ways the feeling at the end of a race is a bit like that at the end of a drunken night out. I love you man! (We only lost just over 1 min on the Yuki and Elise tornedo so I think we did very well. High 5!)
Up the road
At the sharp end of the action we had 2.5 riders (Lydia was riding for Ireland but her socks were LMNH). Siobhan had followed Lowri Bunn of Abergerveny RT over the top of Healy’s Pass, securing 1st position in the QOM overall. Louise had done a fantastic job of taking Siobhan to the top of Caha where she ensured that the jersey was hers. Siobhan had attacked 100% at each opportunity. She did herself and us proud. There were a lot of good climbers in contention and she withstood the pressure.
Not content with setting up Healy’s and Caha for Siobhan. Louise stuck in the lead group. Looking deep into her soul she found more energy. The lead group comprised many strong sprinters (Lydia, Karla, Lowri, Lauren to name a few without refering to the results sheet) it was not going to be easy. Louise went for it and was just pipped on the line by her former teammate, Femke, with Karla taking 3rd. Lydia kept 2nd in GC (not doing badly, are we?)
I wanted to write about this stage because I’m proud to bits of what I did. I am proud to bits of riding with Siobhan who said she wanted to contest QOM, came through and delivered. I am proud to bits of riding with Louise who worked for Siobhan and then dug deep to contend the sprint. I’m proud of riding with Elise who was positive throughout and over the 5 days probably did more attacking than any other rider (suicidal in a positive way??). We rode for each other and encouraged each other and I am proud of that. (Its the LMNH way.) And you know Lydia wasn’t too bad either!
RESULT – new dog friend (clearly not as dreamy as Sneem hotel’s very own Red, but this dog – I called him big head – was stupidly friendly. I tried to explain that he was leaning heavily on a person who was just about balancing on a bike but he nuzzled harder. Danger-seeker.)