When Will Curtin of the Giant Store in Cork announced that he was running a sportive to raise money to help keep The Junior Tour alive, I immediately wanted to take part. Like many of what could be called the ‘baby boomers’ of Irish Cycling, I have great memories of my first taste of real stage racing. Racing that was close enough to the dream of the Tour de France that you could almost smell the croissants.
I took part in the Junior Tour twice and on both occasions the field was close to 200. That’s 200 16, 17 and 18 year olds tearing hell for leather all around Ireland on a rolling closed road in a race that was just a shorter version of the RAS. We even had spilt stages. The most memorable being a morning gallop from Killarney to Blarney followed by a ‘Crit’ that evening. The course for the ‘Crit’ took in 4 laps of the infamous St. Patricks hill in Cork city. With crowds 10 deep in places it was as close as most of us would get to experiencing what Kelly must have experienced during ‘The Nissan’.
The winners list over the years reads like a crystal ball of future talent. Eddie Dunbar this year became the first ever double winner, but before him have gone the likes of Sam Bennett, Luke Rowe, Ian Standard, Nicolas Roche, Mark Scanlon, Mehall Fitzgerald, Tommy Evans, Peter Daly, Stephen Spratt, Paul McCormack and Martin Earley. Mark Cavendish, David Millar and Bradley Wiggins are previous stage winners.
JJ McCormack was the driving force for many years, but since his sad passing Alice Sherratt and her team have taken over the mantle and been the driving force behind taking the race into the 21st century. Like everything, it costs money to run an event of this size in a safe and professional manner. When it was announced a few months back that Cycling Ireland were to cut the funding to the Junior Tour which would put the continuation of the race, which has been running since 1978 in jeopardy, the reaction was incredible. The hard work put in by Alice and her team over the years along with the recognition of how important the race is for the development of future talent, resulted in a huge outpouring of goodwill. However, goodwill alone cannot run a race and this is where the Junior tour fund along with events like The Giant Cork Festive 50 come in.
Not alone did Will Curtin offer to run todays event and donate all proceeds to the fund, he also covered all costs of running the event and put up a €3100 bike as a raffle prize to help raise money to keep the Junior Tour alive.
I brought along the energetic Jack O’Donnell, a junior whose excitement for riding his first junior tour next summer is infectious. Arriving into the shop in Ballincollig, the first greeting having passed Eddie Dunbars’ race winning yellow jersey from the Junior Tour of Wales, was a clip of the Junior tour of Ireland playing over the sign on table. Fitzy was looking well in yellow holding the big silver cup.
We had time to wander around and admire the many beautiful bikes and accessories on display. There was so much Dura Ace, Zipp and ‘aeroness’ around the walls of the shop that I wondered if it was a full time job for someone to be going around with a mop and bucket, to mop up the drool from the many admiring and aspiring cyclists.
As the start time drew near double Olympian, double Ras winner and former pro Ciaran Power rocked up, glad to help raise awareness of the great event. Double Junior Tour winner and 2015 neo pro Eddie Dunbar rolled alongside. They both looked comfortable chatting together. They both have much in common.
Within minutes of leaving the shop we were out on quiet country roads. Will had selected a great left hand course with the option of one 50k lap or a second lap which would bring it up to 50 miles or 80k.
As you grow older you become more aware of the year round nimbleness and boundless energy of junior riders. With their aspiring hero Dunbar, in their midst they were eager for road. Lap one went by quickly as a group of over 200 reduced down to a group of 50 or so.
The rolling course had a few long drags and on the second lap Eddie Dunbar, who spent 80% of the entire ride at the front, was joined by Neil Delahaye. The group went quiet as a speed that was well beyond comfortable for most was maintained easily by the two strongmen at the front. The sight of what looked like a full pannier bag on the rear of Neils’ bike added to the necessity for silence from those following the two frontmen as they chatted with apparent ease.
Nearing the summit, John O’Brien looked across at his son Dylan. Dylan smiled. Both Father and son were going well.
Dylan Foley, with France on his mind looked ready for an Alp, Simon Twomey was gliding along as were the other juniors present from The Cork Giant team who looked comfortable too. Sean McIlroy who has ridden 19 National Veteran Road Race Championships was cruising.
As Will Curtin in the lead van returned a group of 16 who managed to hang on to Eddies rear tyre, a choice had to be made. A hot shower first or straight to a hot chicken curry. Most chose the curry. Along with plentiful supplies of festive sweets, biscuits and chocolate, the calories lost out on the road were soon replenished.
Alice and her husband Harry along with Gary McIlroy and their team were there to welcome all riders home. Will stayed out on the road until he saw every last rider safely back to base.
Cycling in Ireland is dependant on the selfless volunteers who run races, sportifs and club training spins. The future is dependant on underage and junior cyclists developing through the ranks. These people and events need to be supported in any small way that we can. The easiest way is to have an enjoyable day out on your bike alongside other friendly and enthusiastic cyclists.
The next Junior Tour fundraising events are ;
Feb 28th : Whitegate Co. Clare – more details to follow