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Behind The Scenes At The FBD Insurance Rás
By Shane Stokes Irish Times
May 19, 2006



Running the FBD Insurance RÁS each year is a huge task, a test of organisation, careful planning and the cooperation of all the personnel involved with the race. Since the early 1970s Dermot Dignam has been directly involved in this role, working initially on a committee running the race and then taking over as sole race director in 1979.

Dermot Dignam
Nearly three decades have passed since then but Dignam’s contribution has seen the race grow and develop, with the event now a fully-fledged internationally ranked contest which features several professional teams. Encouragingly, a balance has been struck which has made it possible for Irish domestic riders and those from overseas club teams to remain a part of the race, helping to further the development of the sport.

This year’s event will see teams from nine different countries travel to Ireland to take part, some flying in and others using the important services of  Stena Line, official maritime carrier to the race. In all 150 riders will line out in the eight day race and, factoring in the team personnel, the race staff and volunteers, sponsors, media and guests, several hundred people will be travelling on this year’s Rás. This influx represents a two-fold benefit for stage end towns; firstly, those living in or near the area have the chance to take in the hustle and bustle and excitement of a major sporting event, watching the battle for the yellow jersey being played out in front of their eyes. Secondly, there is an economic benefit to the towns which is another welcome return, with each of those travelling on the race representing a benefit in terms of food, accommodation and entertainment expenditure.

Dermot Dignam first took up cycling back in the mid 1950s, starting out as part of the Gate cycling club. After competing strongly in the Rás, he was involved in the committee which helped run the race from 1972, then took over as sole race director in 1979, the year Stephen Roche won the event.

When asked what his main motivation for running the Rás has been over the years, Dignam’s answer reflects his pride in the country and the sport. “I suppose it is the great grá for cycle racing, and cycling in general,” he states. “I take great pride in the fact that we can put on a multi-stage race, equal to anyone else in the world, and that we can bring teams from many parts of the world into Ireland.

“We’re proud to show off the country, the scenery and the hospitality of the people. It was also good to prove the point that even though we are a little island in the Atlantic, we can still put on a top-class international event. That’s important.”

Logistically, Dignam’s task is a huge one. Running the race is a twelve-month task, drawing on the assistance of several regulars to make sure it runs as smoothly as possible.

“We certainly start planning early,” he stresses. “The moment one race finishes, we start planning the next one. Having decided on a route and what type of race we want the next year – whether we want to put an emphasis on mountains, on long stages or on whatever else, we then start contacting the proposed stage finish towns.”

“Nowadays we have to make sure that the town is still the same way as it was the last time we were there, that traffic calming measures, and congestion have not made it impossible for the race to finish in the town centre. We would then contact local committees, such as Chambers of Commerce, Town Development and cycling clubs and with the support of these committees set up stage-end organising committees. The committee would then take over all the local arrangements for accommodation and the preparation for the actual stage finish.”

Eddie Dawson
Dignam has a regular crew that works on the race, something which helps make his task easier. “Looking at those who are most involved, I have to single out the likes of Edward Dawson, who looks after all the accommodation and, of course Tony Campbell, who helps out greatly with most other things. They are very important in the organisational matters, and when it comes to the actual running of the race, we certainly couldn’t do it without the help of many of the other officials. These include the likes of Seamus Shortall, whose results system is probably equal to that of any other race in the world, and also people like Gerard Campbell, John Galvin, Colm Cullen, Alice Sherratt, Danny O’Shea, Jack Watson and so many other great officials.”

Having a regular team helps greatly in making things run smoothly, but there is still a huge amount of work involved. Dignam and Tony Campbell cover thousands of miles in the months and weeks before the event, determining a route, tweaking it, and making sure that there are no potential problems which might cause danger for the riders. Even if the route is found to be okay, it must be checked again closer to the race date in order to ensure that no roadworks or traffic calming measures have been created which could cause problems. If any such modifications have been made, it will be necessary to further adjust the route.

“ I would certainly cover the full route five or maybe six times,” he states. “and visit each stage end town probably three or four times. That would be separate to driving the full route. There are also meetings with the people around the country who are involved, including the Garda Síochána. We certainly would not be able to put on the race if it was not for the very efficient traffic management by An Gardai.

Dignam is quick to pay credit in other areas, too. “The backing of the race is also very, very important, and we must give thanks for this,” he states. “FBD Insurance first became a sponsor of the race in 1984 and have been with us ever since. It’s FBD’s support that has made it possible for Ireland to have a world-ranked international cycle race”.

“Also, down through the years, we’ve received financial assistance from, initially the Department of Education through the sports grants, and more recently the Irish Sports Council. They are really great supporters of the race.

“We have other sponsors too, like Stena, the official maritime carrier for the race. Then of course we have subsidiary sponsors, such as Communication Technology, Cycleways, Cuchulainn Crystal, Matt Davis Plumbing and many team sponsors.”

He also states that his family have been a great help over the years, with his wife Geraldine and children, Conor, Eimear, Deirdre and Bróna, playing a huge part in the development, promotion and organising of the race.
 
Time is ticking down to the start of this year’s FBD Insurance RÁS. Although Dermot Dignam’s stress levels will be high in the run-up to the race [something which has prompted him to think ‘never again’ on more than one occasion in the past], he says that once the flag drops for the start of the eight-day Irish tour, things will settle down considerably. “It is actually more difficult in the run up to the race,” he states. “Once it actually starts a great crew takes over. It is much the same people every year so everything slots together once things get out on the road.”

The Rás was first run back in 1953 and like cycling itself, it is constantly evolving. This has brought progression and advancement in several areas, but also too some challenges which must be overcome. Graduating to the UCI international calendar in 2001 was a big boost for the event, but a couple of years later it brought with it a problem that needed to be overcome.

“Two years ago, the UCI reformed the road racing calendar and substantially increased the prize money that had to be paid to riders in world ranked races,” he explains. “That did cause us major headaches but between FBD Insurances and again the Irish Sports Council, we overcame that problem and are still there on the international calendar.”

Tony Campbell
Indeed the FBD Insurance RÁS is the only world-ranked road race in Ireland, underlining its importance and stature. This in turn ensures strong teams travel to take part, and also that the Irish riders take it very seriously. Dignam expects that this year’s edition will be a very good one.

“I think that it is going to be a great race,” he states. “the route is going to be a lot tougher than some of the riders think it will be. It will be extremely hard and I am looking forward to a good, competitive event and a safe one for all the riders.”

Talk to Dignam for any length of time and two things become clear. Firstly, his enthusiasm for the sport and the FBD Insurance RÁS is plain to see. Secondly, his motivation for running the race is very much down to the benefits it brings to the riders and to Irish cycling. When introducing any changes he appears to carefully consider the effect upon the county riders, making sure that the level of the professional and national teams coming to the race is not so high as to make it impossible for domestic riders with full-time jobs to take part. So, when asked what the future of the race is, he stresses the importance of this latter point.

 “I hope the race continues to be instrumental in the development of Irish racing cyclists and the promotion of cycling to all ages. At the moment we have some very promising riders on professional teams, and we hope the race will produce a few more in the years to come.

“As it is right now, I think the race strikes the right balance between the international and the domestic riders. I certainly wouldn’t be interested in doing all of this work only for half a dozen elite riders that would ride on an Irish team against other national teams and trade teams. The work that goes into it is to give the ordinary guys an opportunity to take part, first of all in an eight day race, and secondly to line out with riders from many parts of the world. It is really for the county riders, that justifies the work.”

 



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