After 21 years as a racing license holder Mehall ‘Fitzy ‘Fitzgearld has announced his retirement from competition . This is surely the end of an era as one of the most controversial figures in Irish cycling hangs up his wheels .
From a young age on his Lejeunes BMX he could be seen terrorising the old folks along the footpaths and lanes of Ardfinnan . He then progressed onto a Raleigh Winner ( an omen of things to come ) which was a bit on the big side , but got his road career underway . To get to grips with the larger bike he developed a habit of climbing all over the bike when out of the saddle , especially when sprinting .
This technique could be seen to full effect during his first television appearance on RTEs’ Sports Stadium . A 20 minute highlight of the 1992 Junior tour which he won overall, was the first glimpse that the general public got of this diamond in the rough . On one of the stage finishes a camera was placed head on to the bunch as they approached the line . With 400 metres to go Fitzy could be seen slightly boxed in on the far left of the screen . Then with 300 to go the whole bunch seemed to dive to the right with the impetus of a flock of swallows being chased by an eagle . Then with 150 to go a dark shadow darted back left and seemed to change up a gear to power ahead and win the stage by a number of bike lengths . This was to be the first of many times when young sons would complain to their fathers that they would have won if only fitzy hadn’t switched them in some form of Kamikaze move or other .
Previous to this he had won All Ireland titles at under 15 and under 16 levels but in 1995 at the tender age of 20 he showed that he had the brains aswell as the brawn and perhaps a ruthless streak to reach the higher echelons of International cycling .
That year had been a good year for the Cidona Carrick team with victories up and down the country each weekend . One of their most prolific riders at the time was the one known only as ‘ Big Red ‘ . Week in week out his six foot six slight frame could be seen attacking any time the road went up . He then had the power to continue on to the finish alone which tended to be the hallmark of most of his victories .
‘Big red ‘ was one of the main favourites to become national champion that year and had peaked to be in the form of his life on the day . Fitzy too , had his eye on the prize and had been honing his form with some very good performances in France . The big day came and as the arduous miles went by the leading break was being whittled down to the chosen few . Among these elite were the Cidona team-mates of Fitzy and Big Red . On the last climb of the day , true to form Big Red launched his bid for glory . Fitzy , showing wisdom beyond his then years had anticipated the move and was onto it straight away . The only one to do so, in fact .
It was down to the wire . Two cidona team-mates together with only 4 miles to go . Big Red was most definitely the stronger at this stage of the race and as he began to pull away from Fitzy near the top of the final climb he heard a voice behind him say ‘ wait for me , I promise I won’t sprint !’
Now Big Red had a romantic vision of Hinault and Lemond crossing the line together on Alpe D’Huez . Romance , however is for Roses , and they were all in Tralee at this time of year . With 150 metres to go as he prepared for the adulation of the crowd , he noticed a green and red blur go by him on the outside . His screams could be heard over the roar of the crowd as they cheered Fitzy across the line and proclaimed him National Champion .
That was the last time we saw Big Red at a bike race in Ireland .
A number of years ago I was mechanic for the Irish team at a stage race in France . The team was made up of Mark Scanlon , David O’Loughlin , Brian Kenneally , Martin O’Loughlin,Stephen Gallagher and Paul Griffen , and was managed by Morgan Fox . Before the race we had a 4 hour drive across France to get to the start and the whole time was passed telling ‘Fitzy Stories ‘
There were stories of mini-bars and jet skies in Malaysia . An altercation with Jean Francois Bernard ( third in 1997 Tour de France ) where he felt the wrath of Fitzys’ right knuckles propelling him towards a dike in Northern France . A photo in an Asian newspaper where, during one of his frequent departures from the bike at over 30 mph Fitzy could be seen to be levitating over the bunch with no bike in sight .
However the one defining moment of Fitzys’ career was probably the the 1998 Ras . On the fifth stage he blew a gasket and wanted to quit the race and get into the car . But his manager was having none of it . He gave Fitzy a thermal jacket , a pump and a spare tube and told him to ride to the finish . He also warned the other teams not to pick Fitzy up . The following day out of sheer temper Fitzy won the stage into New Ross . This was followed by what was probably his best win of all .
At that time the Ras finished with a criterium around O’Connell street in Dublin . One of the only times of the year when the busiest street in Ireland was closed to traffic . A professional team from Belgium had targeted this stage and were enmasse at the front of the bunch with 500 metres to go . Fitzy was badly positioned and boxed in , but he could smell the win . At speeds approaching 40 mph and surrounded by riders at least 30 from the front in an amazing display of bike control he took both hands off the bars and pushed the two riders in front of him apart . He then launched himself through the gap with now less than 300 metres to go and with rocket like propulsion passed other riders as if they were stopped . It looked , though , that he had left it too late and wasn’t going to make it before the fast approaching line when he summoned an extra ounce of speed to get by the last Belgian with 5 metres to go . Fitzy being Fitzy , this gave him ample time to throw his arms aloft to celebrate another victory .
A photo of this may be seen on the back cover of Tom Dalys’ Ras book .
Times move on and he is now a happily married man with a Fitzy junior on the way , so I guess that the time is right for him to bow out and replace the handlebars for golf clubs and the pump for a rifle . Yes you read that right . Fitzy has taken up shooting , so the story still has plenty more to run .
Ray and myself would like to wish him well in his retirement and all the best for the future . But Irish cycling definitely won’t be the same without ‘ Fitzy’.