2023 marks the tenth anniversary of Olivia Dillon’s second overall win in Rás na mBan, which is also the last time an Irish rider took victory in Ireland’s top stage race.
Dillon is currently based in the US with her partner and 2014 Rás na mBan winner Tayler Wiles and their daughter Sequoia. Emma Porter, a near neighbour of Dillon’s while both in Girona, caught up with the Mayo native to reflect on her experiences in Rás na mBan.
10 years since an Irish rider won the overall.
“To think about it being 10 years ago, wow a lot has happened since then. I would say there certainly should be [another Irish overall winner] soon. The crop of talent of Irish female riders now is at a really good level, or it’s certainly a higher level than when I was about or maybe there’s a bit more depth there now.
“So there’s probably a good few contenders that could do it.
We now have Irish World Tour riders and continental riders. I don’t know if they all get back to races, depending on their schedules, and where Rás na mBan lines up with the calendar, but hopefully most are trying to make it back because certainly it’s a phenomenal race.
“It’s a testament to the organizers and the support and the level of the racing and I suppose what it’s done for people too, I had a quick look through kind of the various winners since and there’s a lot of recognizable names in there that are in the World Tour on teams and still racing or semi-retired.
“So obviously it has been a great stepping stone, I think for lots of riders. I would presume that this year if, if everyone that is racing is coming back, and they have the support and a good team around them that maybe this year could be the year for an Irishwoman.
“The conditions are brutal but I also remember stages in glorious sunshine too. I do remember riding on the Cliffs of Moher in the sunshine, and even the crits in downtown Ennis in the sunshine. But then other days were pretty horrendous with side winds and lashing rain.
“I think it was close the two years that I won, there were some good battles. There is a sort of mix of types of stages, and I was usually able to mix it in the earlier ones, able to mix it up in the sprint stages. But then it was more I think I often either got away in a break or reduced group to gain time. And then there was a time trial too, where either I did well or was able to maintain a lead. But I did it with the Irish national team every year; and each time we had really good support, the other riders, really strong riders that, kind of committed to the win. So that was always was a great aspect of it.”
Dillon chases Christine Majerus and Veronique Fortin on the Wild Atlantic Way in 2013
What’s special about the race?
“One thing that was super fun about Rás na mBan was my family being able to come and support as well, because they obviously didn’t get to go to Europe or the States to see us racing. So that was always the highlight of being there.
“It’s a phenomenal race and well put together in terms of stages and how they set things up, to have a mix of between the sprint stages, criterium, time trial, then hilly more mountainous stages. So it has everything. It’s always a great stepping stone for riders or to get the sense of a high level stage race. And at the same time, not be overly intimidated because it’s definitely a really welcoming environment.
“I think they make it pretty special for riders to get to experience racing and riding in Ireland. I have a work colleague who came to embrace Rás na mBan years ago. For a while there was quite some American teams going over and I think generally having a short holiday afterwards. A lot of great memories. I was very competitive and it was really special to win there. And yeah, I’d say it was winning those races it’s definitely the highlight of my career.”
What have you been up to since?
“I retired from road racing in 2015, and I was probably ready. I kind of had an opportunity professionally for work and wanted to move ahead with that. So it was good timing, but I was I wasn’t done racing or being competitive.
“Then that year after I retired, I was like, ‘well, you know, I’m still fit. So let’s, let’s continue this and see’ and yeah, the next couple years I just did whatever was going.
“I did I remember Old Pueblo, which is like a 24 hour mountain bike race in the desert, but it was part of a team. I did another 100mile mountain bike race in Oregon. So a bunch of things like that. And then I think gravel races were getting more popular. And I suppose I went and did Unbound in 2019 which was a big step up for sure.
“And then, back to your question living in Girona it was really cool that the Traka started, I think in 2019, in different forms, I think we’re in the fourth or fifth year of it now. So, it was a tiny event. 50 people maybe the first time and we did two days of it. Then each year it’s gotten bigger and bigger and in 2021 there was the first edition of the 360km. So I embarked on that. And I was able to win it and had the course record for a few years until this year.
“I’m sure the years of road racing really, really helped. The style of rider I was in road I think helped in terms of what I was in gravel too. I was, I liked to be, a breakaway rider when I was on the road. So it’s a bit similar to that because you’re not usually benefiting from pack riding for all that long or there is a lot of solo or small group efforts. So yeah, it was really nice that I was able to extend things for a lot longer after finishing on the road and that this whole scene and discipline has just ballooned since then.
“We’ve just gotten a cargo bike now [for Sequoia]. Because where we live, you can do a lot by bike here and to go to the grocery store and bring her to the playground. So that just arrived and we are trying to find a helmet that fits her. The seat is ready and once the helmet fits, she will be on the cargo bike.”