The dilemma for Ireland’s Rás Tailteann: tradition, sustainability and strategic purpose
The 2019 cycling season has passed in Ireland without our beloved Rás Tailteann stage-race for the first time since 1953 and the recent press release announcing its return in 2020 came as a welcome relief to all concerned: the preservation of the race itself is not the only thing at stake as an annual Rás is crucial in sustaining a vibrant racing calendar and the ongoing development of the sport is dependent on this.
However, there is still the somewhat contentious question about which type of Rás best serves that secondary purpose of promoting the overall best interests of Irish cycling: the so-called ‘old’ Rás, prior to the event’s inclusion in the UCI calendar in 2000, or that ‘new’ Rás we have seen from then to 2018.
That press release issued by Cáirde Rás Tailteann, the new “promotions group”, continued to reflect this dilemma as, on the one hand it said they would “continue to follow the historical identity of the Rás Tailteann” while, on the other hand, they would “endeavour to promote this unique Irish race back to its UCI status”. These two aspirations seem somewhat incompatible.
This question has rumbled on ever since the Rás stepped up to UCI 2.2 ranking in 2000 and raised the event to a level beyond many domestic riders. When this debate last bubbled up, following the deferral of the Rás last year, one prevailing sentiment was well expressed on Twitter by Dan Martin when he called for the Rás to “go back to its roots – to Irish amateur riders.” My reaction at the time was: “Finally, someone who will be listened to has said what many ordinary cycling folk have been saying for years.”
We could examine these roots at length and explore the essence or ‘soul’ of the event, but most would agree that key features included the challenge and allure it presented to regular club racers, along with its connection with the public. These, it is argued, have been weakened in the ‘new’ Rás era with the race beyond the majority of club riders and with most of those competing just struggling to survive and acting as pack-fill for the elite foreign teams trying to pick up handy UCI points.
This sentiment, I have noticed, is expressed quite a bit when the Kerry Group Rás Mumhan comes around each year, with both riders and cycling supporters commenting along the lines that “Rás Mumhan is the real Rás now”, or “it’s just like the old Rás”. This arises from the fact that Rás Mumhan now has many of those traditional key Rás features: it presents a very big but achievable challenge for the ordinary club riders and the international competition gives the top domestic racers just a 50-50 chance, thus raising their performance bar. Also, it’s connection with the public is evidenced by the numbers at the side of the road, the involvement of local clubs and the provincial media interest.
Of course, while it has all the trappings of a big race such as doping control, advanced medical cover and good foreign teams, Rás Mumhan lacks the length, along with the financial and organizational demands of the place-to-place ‘tour’ aspects of the Rás. Nevertheless, it still has that additional key strategic role beyond the race itself: it helps promote a good-quality racing calendar as riders need to prepare well.
The success of Rás Mumhan in these regards seems to highlight the drift away by the Rás Tailteann from these core traditional elements.
However, the counter-arguments for the ‘new’ UCI 2.2-level Rás are similarly compelling. It was, for example, a showcase of Irish cycling and Dermot Dignam is to be applauded for demonstrating that a country like Ireland was capable of producing this quality of tour. Also, it is argued that top Irish competitors need that level of competition to rise out of the Irish scene and to help launch them into professional careers. Riders like Sam Bennett and Eddie Dunbar are named as examples.
Similarly it is argued that the ordinary club rider and county teams are able for the UCI-level Rás if properly prepared. The Mayo Centra team of 2013 is often given as such an example, and my own Killarney club team of 2018 could be sited as another, with all the team finishing (with one over 40) and achieved two top-ten results and some mountain points into the bargain.
However, I think the likes of Bennett and Dunbar were going to make it, Rás or no Rás, and heroics produced by likes of the Mayo Centra and Killarney club teams are the exception rather than the norm: the ordinary club rider who is not a full-time cyclist can devote an occasional year to be able to survive the Rás but only the exceptional Sean Laceys of the scene can do it regularly.
At the end of the day, there is no arguing with the results when it comes to questioning the relevance of the Rás to domestic club riders and the Irish public: no Irish rider has won the Rás in its last 10 years and only one stage has been won by a club rider.
Therefore, on balance I believe the main strategic role of the Rás should be to support the development of the middle-ground and act as a catalyst and motivator for a robust domestic racing scene and a vigorous club structure. If you have that strong middle ground the elite will rise out of it of their own accord, aided by the supports that Cycling Ireland and Sport Ireland provide as part of their mandates.
I believe the ‘old’ Rás, where the elite club rider had an outside fighting chance of actually ‘doing something’, would best serve that strategic purpose.
Apart from these strategic and ideological arguments there is also the question of what is actually feasible: what level of race can a country like Ireland hope to sustain consistently, year after year?
When examining the longevity of the Rás for my book about the event*, almost two decades ago and just as the event was entering the UCI calendar, I flagged up the dangers to its continuity being then presented by the higher budgetary demands of a UCI race:
“Those with long memories point to other cycling events that had taken that direction. The Tour of Ireland, the Nissan Classic and the Kelloggs series had all come and gone. The Junior Tour of Ireland was even threatened. Equally, in Britain, the Tour of Britain, the Tour of Scotland and the PruTour were no more (the Tour of Britain was subsequently revived in 2004 as a result of the GB cycling resurgence). These events expired because they were developed to a scale and sophistication that was dependent on substantial but fickle commercial support. There is little appreciation, it was argued, of the effort in keeping the Rás in existence even as it was – that delicate job of balancing its size and sophistication to a scale that is commercially sustainable on the long term and is feasible to run on a voluntary basis.”
This, I believe, is what came to pass: the reported budget of €350,000 was not sustainable in the long term, in a small country where cycling is such a minority sport. Sentiment for cycling, or the Rás, will not generate this kind of support on its own. Even though the Rás Tailteann must be considered a good brand, one must wonder how much the coverage is actually worth to a commercial sponsor: a few seconds on the sports news each evening, or a short column in the newspapers, usually featuring foreign names that nobody has ever heard of.
Regarding the economics of a non-UCI event, I contacted the Secretary of the Kerry-Group Rás Mumhan, Mary Concannon, and asked if the equivalent of a week-long Rás Mumhan could be run for €100,000. “Comfortably” she answered, but with the caveat that, apart from the main sponsor, a lot of the race’s support comes from local, benefit-in-kind support.
Therefore, apart from the argument about the true identity of the Rás and its best strategic role, pragmatics would seem to indicate that a lower-budget, non-UCI Rás, offers the better hope of sustaining its continuity into the future.
However, even if a decision was made that the model of ‘old’ Rás best served cycling, its ongoing development shouldn’t be shackled by tradition or nostalgia. Take the concept of the ‘county team’ for example: is this still ‘fit for purpose’? Take my Killarney club team of the last Rás, mentioned above, as an example: they were compelled to be called a ‘Kerry’ team even though the club was at the core of their identity. Similarly, we have ‘trade teams’ supported by a commercial sponsor, and why shouldn’t those sponsors not get the full promotional value for the money they invest in the sport in the biggest event of the year?
Teams should be allowed to call themselves what they really are, be it county, club or sponsor, and I believe this is just one example of how even an ‘old’ Rás format can evolve positively.
The Rás Tailteann has gone through a number of key transitions since 1954: it has had editions of 2, 8, 9 and 10 days; in its early decades it was a factional event, bound up in the discordant split in Irish cycling but evolved to encompass all Irish cyclists and developed a significant international dimension; and it matured to become a UCI world-level event.
So, there is no ideal ‘old’ Rás on which Cáirde Rás Tailteann can model its development. Central, however, to its true tradition and the health of Irish cycling, is that tantalizing but realistic possibility which has motivated generations of Irish club riders: the dream of distinguishing themselves in the Rás Tailteann.
Thank you for reviving an Rás Tailteann, but please give the race back to Irish amateur riders.
[*The Rás: the Story of Ireland’s Unique Bike Race, Collins Press 2003 & 2012]