Year after year, Rás Tailteann reaches new heights, makes new records and surpasses ambitious targets. Such has been its phenomenal growth since its tottering inception in 1954, that it is difficult to write about it without using an endless and repetitive stream of superlatives.
1961 was no exception and on Saturday, June 24th, there came to Dublin, by boat, train, motor car and even by aeroplane, one of the biggest arid certainly the fittest and most select field ever to 'contest the race.
AMONG those who came were two previous winners, iron men, tempered in the fierce competition of previous years, all eager, determined and ambitious to become the first man ever to win the race twice. Their names Ben McKenna and Paddy Flanagan are part of the history, not only of Rás Tailteann but of Irish Cycling. Others came too, who although they had yet to in scribe their names on the Corn Cúchulainn, were as great, if not greater, than those who had triumphed in this one thousand mile marathon.
Such a man was Shay O'Hanlon. Triple Irish Record Holder, All Ireland Champion on both Road and Track, Massed Start and Time Trial rider supreme, honoured by Ireland's Sports Editors as "Caltex Cyclist of 1960," probably the greatest Irish road racer to date and certainly favourite for Rás Tailteann, 1961.
Other mighty men came too The crafty Mick Christle from Dublin, Kildare's 'Man of Steel' Con Carr, the Kielys of Tipperary, Dan Aherne of Castleisland, Murt Logan of Clane, and so on for every man of the ninety who started had proved himself worthy of wearing his county's colours in the great race.
Others came too. Mighty men in their own way, some just coming to the top, others with a long apprenticeship still to serve in this, one of the most exacting of sports. Numbered in these ranks was Tom Finn of Dublin.
Tom was not a favourite in the pre race forecasts. His class was well known. For a number of years he had proved himself a tough, able rider, respected by his rivals, big and small. A dangerous man to let go but certainly given the choice of watching him or watching O'Hanlon, Tom himself would agree that any thinking rider would choose O'Hanlon.
That, of course was before the race began for before it was half over, all, including the great O'Hanlon, were watching Finn in an unavailing effort to wrest from him the Yellow Jersey. the badge of a triumphant Race Leader.
That they failed is now part of cycling history, for Tom Finn, the young Dubliner. sprinted into the Phoenix Park at the end of the eight days of racing, the Yellow Jersey resting firmly but lightly on his young sinewy shoulders.
O'Hanlon still awaits his first Rás Tailteann victory and McKenna, Flanagan and Murphy must try again for their second win. Tom Finn of a new name each year and has beaten them all.
This is the story of how he did it.
AS WITH all cyclists, the story of Tom's win started away back in January, when in common with bikermen all over the World, he set out in his annual quest of that elusive Goddess Fitness. He did not log as many miles as he had in previous years, but in the early season races showed good form and was quite satisfied with himself.
THE RACE started from the G.P.O., Dublin at the unusually late hour of 4 p.m. The normal starting line crowds were swelled to even greater density by thousands of people streaming down town from Croke Park, where over one hundred thousand people had participated in the closing ceremonies of the Patrician Year.
The ninety odd starters made their usual cyclists' last minute preparations, checked tyre pressures, spare tubulars, bottles and bonk food, adjusted caps and racing mitts. Down went the starter's flag and one hundred and eighty pairs of legs strained to make the pedals turn for the first of a quarter of a million revolutions they would be goaded into making in the next eight days.
AS USUAL the race whipped into top speed as the eager beavers strained for the first break of the race. It came, or at least the first major one came, on the Balrothery straight, when Ben McKenna jumped with Mick Christle on his wheel, to get clear with four others.
As they swept clear and swung into the inevitable bit and bitting line, the bunch responded, but to no avail.
However, within a few miles Shay O'Hanlon, Paddy Flanagan, Tom Finn and the McGrath Brothers, Denis and Dermot, out pedalled the bunch to join the leaders at Dunleer. Big as this group was, it combined well enough to stay together for a time, but at Ardee the chasers made contact and it was level pedalling once again.
The more unsociable characters in the race did not appreciate this level pedalling idea and soon another break was away, this time to stay. Among the lucky men were Murt Logan, Dermot Dignam, Shay OHanlan and Paddy Flanagan. When the sprint, came at Cavan, Flanagan took the cheers with Dignam pressing him hard, while OHanlon pipped Logan.
During the whale day, Finn had been riding easily in the bunch, not making any great effort and when the main group kaleidiscoped its way into Cavan, half a minute after Flanagan had raised the cheers, Finn was there fit and fresh.
STAGE TWO, one hundred and thirty miles of effort across the Midlands, over the Shannon and along the rugged roads of Connaught to Castlebar, was a day of. destiny for all in the race. Finn was to lay the foundation for winning a Yellow Jersey, which he was to hold until the finish. O'Hanlon, Flanagan and the rest were to make a major tactical blunder, which was to influence the course of the whole race and to put paid to their hopes of a Rás Tailteann for at least another year.
MICK CHRISTLE has been riding bikes and codding their riders for twelve years. Behind the gay smile lies one of the most cunning brains in the bike game. One of his favourite ploys is an early break at the beginning of a long stage with carefully selected riders.
Time and time again, he has done this successfully and cocky stars have fallen for it. Lulled into a false sense of security by the King Ould Dog (He succeeded to the Crown when Frank Baird retired), they write him off.
He visits all the digs on the night before the day chosen for his coup and whispers the magic word into the ears of the picked men who are invariably good strong riders, well able to ride a blistering hundred odd miles, but not strong enough to be too dangerous to the wily Mick. Incidentally, the selected men are usually not "names" but promising men he may have earmarked months before. It is import ant that the break has a "scrubber" look to discourage chasing by the stars.
The tour of the Hotels was duly made at Navan and the stage was set for the Day of Destiny.
True to form, Christle was gone within five miles and with him were eighteen good men and true. The bunch, which included O'Hanlon, Flanagan, Murphy and a lot of other names duly committed suicide according to plan.
However, not everyone cut their own throats. Finn didn't and neither did McKenna. Other strong riders to seize the opportunity were Liam Baxter and Eamonn Ryan of Kildare and Tipperary's Tom Kiely.
ALL DAY LONG the wheels of destiny rolled. Finn's to victory, the bunch's to ignominy. Christles rolled everywhere up and down that long line of cyclists urging them on and on.
The bunch took little notice even as the reports began to get serious. Two minutes, three minutes, five. No change. Seven and ".then ten, a slight stir. Not until the count was fifteen did the violent reaction come and then it was too late.
When the word came up to the leaders, Christle whipped their tired legs to pedal even faster to counter the chase. This they did and according to plan one by one they slipped off the back of the group until but seven remained.
When the sign said Castlebar and the groups swept around the sharp right-hand bend at the outskirts of the town only seven of the original eighteen remained to fight the sprint for finishing line four hundred yards away. At the line' it was Alan Dillon's hand that shot up in the traditional victory salute with Ben McKenna grinding his teeth in an all-out .effort. a mere half a wheel away. Tom Finn was third and Mick Christle fourth.
WHEN ALAN DILLON slipped on the Race Leader's jersey the following morning before thousands of Castlebar sports fans, he made history in more ways than one. Normally the act of donning the race leader's jersey gains the wearer a minute bonus, but this had been changed and for last year's race there was no such bonus. Every minute the race Leader got he had to ride for.
EVEN THOUGH it was rather late, the lessons of the previous day had been learned. Signs by the bitten tried to bite and within ten miles O'Hanlon and Flanagans were away, but with them were Sean Dillon, Finn and Denis McGrath .of the previous day's epic break as well as Paddy Flanagan's brother, Eamonn and Shay Murphy.
Although this group rode hard and stayed away, the bunch was not going to be caught on the hop again and chased hard all day.
Twenty miles out from Castlebar an eight-man group which included Christle, McKenna, Dignam and Murt Logan, got clear and at the thirty-five mile point were within twenty-five seconds of the leaders.
With the breakaway which included Finn, so close Christle and Dignam stopped working so as not to bring danger man Ben McKenna, who started the stage second to Finn's third, up to Finn. Accordingly, the break was. not. caught and when the finish at Tuam came, Flanagan won his second stage of the race from Sean Dillon; and Eamonn¯ Flanagan.
Finn was fourth in sprint and with McKenna al- most a minute behind Finn was race leader. The race was in fact over. They could well have. presented the prizes that night in Tuam for no one was take the lead from Finn.
STAGE FOUR from Tuam was one of the hardest of the race, it was one hundred and thirty five miles over rugged roads.
Finn was determined to keep his lead and his team mates consisting of O'Hanlon- , Dignam and McGrath worked hard to help him. A head wind discouraged breaks and this Dublin quartet put further obstacles in the way of the adventurous by consistently chasing everything that move along the road.
At Abbeyfeale the big move came and a six man group consisting of OHanlon, Dignam and McGrath of Dublin, Lonergan and Ryan of Tipperary and lone May man Alan Dillon got clear.
However, in spite of the talent in the breakaway it was to be Lonergans day of triumph, for with a mile to go when the race followers were thinking in terms of an OHanlon win, the Ardfinnan men slipped them all a winger to get clear alone and cross the line some seconds ahead of Dillon with OHanlon third and Dignam fourth.
Finn finished in the main group less than a minute be hind Lonergan and his lead over McKenna remained unchanged at seventy nine seconds.
THE ROAD from Castle-island to Killarney is one hundred and twenty miles long if you follow the Rás Tailteann route. In addition, in the words of one competitor, "it is also one hundred and twenty miles UP" for it winds and climbs its way around the Kingdom of Kerry in a manner to bring that fiendish gleam to the eyes of race promoters and the well known glassy stare to the eyes of the unfortunates who have to tackle it on a bicycle.
The first prime of the day was at Glenbeigh, where Sean Dillon slipped Murt Logan to win a Remington razor, and then led Logan, Dermot McGrath, Mick Hackett (Louth) arid Pat Freeman (Wexford)in a breakaway that at one time had a lead of two minutes.
As the bunch climbed Coomakista O'Hanlon and Denis McGrath gave a fantastic display of bike riding. Mc Grath jumped at the bottom according to a pre-arranged plan and O'Hanlon did not chase until be was well clear. Then O'Hanlon jumped and joined McGrath in pursuit of Dillon and Co. who at that stage were in sight of the main bunch.
In the resulting chase by the bunch Tom Finn failed to get clear and as O'Hanlon and McGrath joined the leaders. They looked back and spotted the Race Leader's plight..
They then proceeded to turn around, ride back down the mountain and relay Finn and the bunch up ..to the leaders, who were caught on the way down the other side of Coomakista, Dillon having won the prime.
Next big climb was, of course, the famous Molls Gap, ten miles from the finish and as the field approached the foothills, two young riders, Patsy Wall of Tipperary and Jim Whitty of Wexford had a cut and got clear. Seizing their big opportunity combined well to get a minute ahead.
On the. climb up the mountain OHanlon, Sean Dillon. and Louthman Seamus Neary got. clear but failed to catch the two leaders. Wall proved to be the better sprinter and won the "King of the Mountains" Prime at the top of the gap and also the sprint at Killarney.
Dillon took the sprint from O'Hanlon with Séamus Neary of Louth fifth.
Finn did not make it but chased hard and kept the break from doing any great damage.
TIME TRIALS are not the most popular races in Ireland and having to face one in the mountain stages of Rás Tailteann does not help their popularity Thus in many a hard look was cast at the Race Director in Killarney as the now weary field prepared for the sixth stage a double bill of a nineteen mile Mountain TT from Killarney to Kenmare, followed by an eighty-mile Massed Start from Kenmare to Clonakilty. When the times were totted up on the previous night Finn was forty-one seconds ahead of Ben McKenna. With Mick Christle seventy one seconds away. Thus the TT had all the ingredients of a mountain drama, for McKenna certainly, and Christle possibly had the chance of snatching the race lead.
When Finn got the 'countdown' he had many troubles on his mind as he swung away from the starting line. His slender lead did not allow him to relax, it had to be a go all the way effort. The wind and rain did not help either. It was a rough day for racing with a lashing rain being driven by a head wind so fierce that many found that they had to fight their way tip the mountain. However, he consoled himself 'with the thought that it was just as hard for the others. The TT itself was routine and except for Shay OHanlon, who unshipped his chain with four miles to go(and thus lost the chance of double win), there was nothing to shout about.
The winner, Paddy Flanagan, clocked 57.29 to O'Hanlon's 57.34. McKenna rode as only he knows bow to clock 59.59 for seventh pace. Finn's 60.l 3 kept him at bay, but with only twenty seconds now separating them, Finn was to have an anxious two and a half days.
THE MASSED START section of the stage from Kenmare through scenic Glengarrif, on to Dunmanway (The Ancient Seat of the Hoares of Pedlar fame) to finish at Clonakilty was a triumph for OHanlon who got clear at the start together with Sean Dillon, ground his way through mist, rain and wind to finish four minutes and forty-six seconds ahead of the bunch, which was led by Tom Ryan of Tipperary. Hero of the day was Steede of Galway, who notched sixth place, Galway's best to date, while .Jim Whitty of Wexford, 'who surprised everyone with his second place on the Castleisland - Killarney stage, was fifth. Exile Jim O'Connell took fourth place to move into thirteenth p ace.
In one way it was a day of drama for at one stage with O'Hanlon leading the break and Finn heading the chasing bunch, it looked as if he Dublin team had split.
However, this was not to be and at a team meeting that night, all pledged allegiance to Finn.
HISTORY was made on the second last one hundred and fifty-four mile stage from Clonakilty to Wexford, when Race Director;. Joe Christle seriously considered halting the field and lecturing them for not trying!
With McKenna twenty seven seconds behind Finn the stage appeared set for dramatic happenings, but with Dubliners Christle, OHanlon and Dillon packing third, fourth and fifth places and Dermot Dignam and Denis McGrath of Dublin holding seventh and eighth, the only 'non-Dubliner except McKenna. Within fifteen minutes of Finn was Paddy Flanagan of Kildare, the 1960 winner, who was ten minutes and nine seconds down.
This complete Dublin domination spelled stale- mate as far as the top men were concerned. All the Dublin team had to do was to watch two men, McKenna and Flanagan, and this they did in no uncertain manner.
An interesting split could have developed in the Dublin team at this stage, for any of the others could have claimed a right to attack Finn in view of the circumstances, but team loyalty-. were too strong and it was a sprint finish at Wexford, with the sixty-nine survivors, less a few stragglers, crossing the line within thirty seconds of the winner, Shay O'Hanlon, who pipped Jerry Dorgan of Exiles and Frank O'Rourke of Wexford for second and third places.
What was meant to be the most dramatic stage of the- race, a one hundred and fifty mile duel for race leadership, completely misfired. The only change in the Classification was that O'Hanlon's minute bonus brought him up one minute, but still left him in fourth place.
One cannot but wonder what was going on in the: minds of some of the lower placed riders for the seven and a quarter hours journey from Clonakilty to Wexford. Here indeed was an opportunity for a place in the Hall of Fame.
With Dublin dictating a stalling race and all the leaders tied up tactically, any man who was studying the classification sheets must have been able to see that a scrubber break was home and dry. Yet apparently no one did. One can- not but wonder what goes on in the heads of these" young men. That is if any- thing goes on in there at all.
TRADITIONALLY, the last stage of the Rás has been a procession and this was to be no exception. I: was certainly a case of "The more we are together, the happier we will be and not event the boredom of seven hours of each other's company on the previous day could bring the field to life. Dublin kept the brakes on and the rest followed suit like lambs.
It is a pity that Con Corr, Mick Murphy or Paddy Callaghan were not there, for they would not have sat. quietly under the Dublin whip for two days.
O'Hanlon took the sprint at the Phoenix Park to make it three wins in a row. This also moved him up into third place by virtue of the one- minute bonus going with it, and pushed Mick Christle down into fourth.
Tom Finn was home and dry a worthy winner of the great 'Rás'.
Tom was a worthy winner in the great tradition of the race. Of that there is no doubt. He took his chance when he got it, gruelled it when necessary and never put a pedal wrong. His was an impeccable ride, which ranks with the best that have gone before.
That the last two stages were a farce was no fault of Tom's. Indeed it was to his and his team mates credit that they could dictate the course of h race so well. if the rest choose to race with their .legs rather than with their heads, that is their look- out. But one cannot but mourn the wonderful chances lost.
If a break could make eighteen minutes over the bunch on stage two, when everyone in the race was fit and in there with a chance. surely another such effort was indicated an stage six, when the field was well and truly beaten.
1st T. Finn (Dublin) 43.05.19
2nd. B. McKcnna (Meath) 43.05.46
3rd S. O'Hanlon (Dublin) 43.09.15
4th M. .Christle tDtiblin) 43.09.28
5th S Dillon (Dublin) 43.11.14
6th P. Flanagan (Kildare) 43.15.28
7th D. Dignam (Dublin) 43.18.48
8th Denis McGrath (Dublin) 43.20.54
9th P. Reidy (Cork) 43.20.59
10th P. Wall (Tipperary) 43.21.39
11th T. Ryan (Tipperary) 43.22.33
12th J. O'Connell (Exiles) 43.22.55
13th S. O'Connor (Kerry) 43.23.14
14th M. Logan (Kildare) 43.23.58
15th E. Flanagan (Kildare) 43.24.05
16th M. Twomey (Cork) 43,24.31
17th J. Whitty (Wexiord) 43.26.20
18th J. Clarke (Tipperary) 43.29.32
19th N. Waddy (Cork) 43.31.26
20th J. Moynihan (Tipperary) 22.214.171.124
21st T. Dunne (Meath) 43.31.59
22nd J, Lonergan (Tipperary) 43.32.41
23rd T. Kiely (Tipperary) 43.33.55
24th T. Cullinane (Gnlway) 43.33.59
25th J. Drumm (Kerry) 43.34.07
26th M. Hackett (Louth) 43.34.16
27th F. O'Rourke (Wexford) 43.35.28
28th M. Woods (Tipperary) 43.36.06
29th P. Neary (Louth) 43.37.38
30th P. Henelly (Galway) 43.38.24
31st D. Gibney (Meath) 43.39.43
32nd J. Murphy (Louth) 43.40.28
33rd J Aher (Cork) 43.41.42
34th J. Dorgan (Exiles) 43.42.12
35th J. Caulfield (Louth) 43.42.17
36th S. O'Hare (Armagh) 43.45.48
37th B. Campbell (Armagh) 43.46.32.
38th P. Firman (Wexford) 43.47.00
39th M. Mooney (Armagh) 43.58.03
40th T. Foley (Kildare) 43.59.36
41st P. Browne (Wexford) 43.59.39
42nd H, Mulholland (Armagh) 44.01.06
43rd E. Price (Kildare) 44.02.12
44th L. Doran (Wexford) 44.02.44
45th M.. Grimes (Louth) 44.02.46
46th. W. Burke (Tipperary) 44.10.24
47th K. O'Brien (Cork) 44.10.50
48th S. McCann (Meath) 44.1E55
49th D. Hannon (Galway) 44.16.57
50th J. Curry. (Tipperary) 44.22.39
51st V Atkinson (Exiles) 44.26.13
52nd E. Sheehan (Kerry) 44.34.44
53rd J Fahy (Galway) 44.54.45
54th J. Ludden (Mayo) 44.57.35
55th T Beamish (Exiles) 45.08.34
56th C. Stedde (Galway) 45.16.46
57th M. McCarron (Exiles) 45.22.46
58th T. Lanigan (Exiles) 45.29.11.
59th J. O'Flynn (Exiles) 45.37.0
60th S. Neary (Mayo) 45.49.45
61st M. McGrath (Galway) 45.50.21.
62nd J. Gough (Meath) 45.52.59
63rd P O'Flaherty (Cork) 46.03,04
64th P. Tobin (Kerry) 46.52.54
65th J. Brosnan (Kerry) 46.56.55
3rd Cork 173.58.38
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