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Patrick O’Loughlin spent time racing in Belgium last year and was also selected for the Irish team for Tour de l’Avenir as well as for Rás Tailteann – above, after a crash on stage 3 – in his first year as an U23 rider (Photo: Sean Rowe)

Patrick O’Loughlin’s national team experience was very much a game of two halves last season; a lesson in how it’s done from Dillon Corkery on Rás Tailteann before the crashing disappointment of Tour de l’Avenir in the summer.

Still aged just 19 years, O’Loughlin (Panduit Carrick Wheelers) has clocked up a lot of experience on the road and track in an Irish jersey, as a junior and U23 rider.

And as he goes into the 2024 campaign he is very much hoping for more time on the road with Ireland and more victories on his palmares having made the tricky step up last year from junior to U23-elite racing.

But first, what about that 2023 Rás experience? He was part of the winning team, went very close to a stage win himself and saw the experience of team leader Corkery and how her used it so expertly on the road every day.

O’Loughlin, far right in green jersey, looks over at Australia’s Fox at the end of stage 2 of Rás Tailteann into Ennis where a photo finish image was needed to confirm which one of them had won (Photo: Sean Rowe)

“It was really enjoyable,” O’Loughlin told stickybottle of riding the Rás on the national team. “It was probably the best race I’ve ever done, in terms of the legs and how I felt in the race, I suppose.

“It was just cool to be doing it… because obviously it’s what you’re always dreaming to do. But I just happened to have good legs and we had a great team and managed to get the job done in the end. It was unbelievable all round.”

While helping Corkery claim the final yellow jersey – via a stage win on the penultimate day and then an epic breakaway ride on the last stage, O’Loughlin said it was an eye-opener watching his team leader that week.

“Dillon just looked after us all so well all week,” he said of elite rider Corkery captaining an otherwise U23 Irish team. “We learned so much from him. And of course I knew the under 23 lads on the team, so it was great craic all week as well.”

He added Corkery’s experience, and abilities, were perhaps clearest as each stage neared its finish as he had an ability to “lift” himself for each final.

“I was on his wheel on the stage he won, and I was just watching him going through the right gaps, making sure he wasn’t getting himself in any sticky situations,” O’Loughlin said.

“I was just following him, and I knew whatever he was doing, he was going to do it right. And he did do it right. Ever since then I think I’ve been able to do that better now myself.”

The teenager on the team during Rás 2023, O’Loughlin very nearly did it for himself on stage 2 into Ennis when he was narrowly beaten for victory by Australian Matthew Fox.

“It all happened so fast,” he said of a frantic sprint followed by a wait for the photo finish image to confirm who had won. “So much happened in the last 500 metres. I was thinking, ‘did I just win?’ when I crossed the line. I wasn’t telling myself I had because I actually had no clue.

“It was just a bit of a wide main road sprint. There were people everywhere and I was just finding my way through gaps. And then all of a sudden I was at the front, just throwing my bike at the line.”

And though he just came up short, looking back now he said he was very happy with how he had prepared for the race, how he rode and also the learning experiences he mopped up.

“Going into it, I knew my sprint numbers were good and I’m thinking ‘you’re going well, you’re doing well’. But it’s actually a whole other thing doing it on the day. I surprised myself,” he added of going so close to a victory.

He described the Rás as “complicated and faster” than other races he had ridden, adding being part of a well-drilled Irish team, aiming for stage wins and the overall, was a very welcome change for him.

“It was my only time really doing a proper stage race working as a team. In that sense, even how you ride… the race is totally different. You’re looking after lads or lads looking after you. Or you have roles to fill and you’re not just trying to get up the road and win every day. So that was nice as well, just to actually be on the team.”

Later in the year, O’Loughlin was a late call-up for the Irish team for Tour de l’Avenir, which ended for him on stage 4 when he crashed “on a descent with a clean break of the wrist”.

“I had surgery over in France, so I was in hospital for two nights over there and then I travelled home,” he said of a disappointing end to an otherwise exciting outing, and a step up to a much higher standard of racing.

“The level is really, really hard,” he said. “Just to get around, like you’re suffering everyday, not like anything you’d have ever done before. But it’s still great to do.”

He hopes to get picked again this year for Tour de l’Avenir and other Irish teams, as well as looking to good results in stage races and the National Championships. But from the start of the season – though he faces college exams – he says the goal will be about stringing together good results in hard races every Sunday.

Having raced in Belgium for a couple of weeks last year, he says it would also be good to return there for the kind of racing that can develop young riders.

“It’s another level,” he said of Belgium. “Even the fact that there’s no hills over there, there’s no let up in the pace. There’s no recovery and everyone over there is unbelievable. The levels are so much higher.

“I spent two weeks out there last year. It was really good. I’d done it the year before as a junior, but just to get out there and do the actual senior races was a whole other level. It was great to do across the board, you’re going to come back a better rider.”

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