‘ The Nissan ‘ as it will always be known, was one of the biggest ever contributors to the growth of cycling in Ireland. It was a platform to showcase the talents of Roche and more impressively , Kelly. At the time, the Nation in general was aware of these two World beaters but it was only when the Irish public got the chance to see the pain, effort and suffering involved up close that a true awareness took hold throughout the country.
I can remember back in 1985 being in sixth class in Grange National school when the principal or ‘Master’ as we called him marched us all a mile down the road to Keatings cross to see the race pass by. It was more the time away from school rather than the opportunity to see the race that was of interest to us pupils. On the way down we talked of Ford seven six ten’s and Massey one three fives and did not have an iota of a clue what a Vitus Aluminium frame with a Mavic group-set was.
Then as the race approached a helicopter flew overhead and we all started waving frantically convinced that the whole country would be able to see us individually that night on TV. Then one of the lead cars stopped up to tell us all that Sean Kelly from Carrick had won that mornings time trial into Clonmel. We all gave a big cheer and started to forget about the tractors.
Then along came the race. First a garda motorbike, followed by a few speeding Nissan Bluebirds . All had their lights flashing and were blowing their horns as they passed us and we cheered in return. It was almost like a rolling version of the guy who stands in front of the Late late show crowds holding up the applaud now placard, as we all cheered on cue. Then around the corner came the riders and we cheered even louder. They were gone in less than twenty seconds but we spent the next two days talking about nothing else. That was it, I was hooked .Now at night instead of dreaming about ploughing the neatest furrow at the National ploughing championships I was dreaming of sprinting up O’Connell street with my two hands in the air and a huge crowd cheering me on as I won the stage and got to wear the yellow jersey.
Fast forward one year and now I’m leaning over the barrier near the west gate in Clonmel watching Anthony and Dick O’Gorman lead the 1986 Nissan into the streets of their own home town whilst riding on the Irish national team. The crowds were five and six deep all the way along and the hairs on the back of their necks must surely have been standing up as they passed their home and business with a deafening roar of their home town crowd willing them on. Then came the bunch travelling at over forty miles per hour up the main street in hot pursuit and the roar of the crowd continued until Kelly was spotted and it rose even higher.
They had to do three laps of the Ragwell climb which is a real back breaker and when Phil Anderson attacked and opened a considerable gap it looked as if it was going to be Australia’s day. However, this was Kelly country , he knew these roads like no other and he wasn’t going to give up without a fight. Near the bottom of the decent is a very narrow bridge with a double bend. Kelly wanted the stage along with the defence of the yellow jersey so much that he dived into the bridge at full gas. If it paid off he would have caught Anderson and most definitely have won the stage. Unfortunately disaster struck, as did Kelly’s head into the wall of the bridge when he came off the bike at full speed. The injury sustained would have been career ending in another sport. To Kelly however, this was part of the job and as he picked himself up of the ground with blood streaming down his face he was back on the bike within fifteen seconds. A frantic chase saw him regain the bunch quickly and he was able to unleash his sprint to claim second place on the stage.
I remember being in the melee surrounding him after the stage and he didn’t even seem to notice the large gash on his forehead which had blood streaming out. I heard later that he was stitched up without any anaesthetic. A real man of iron .
That evening I rode home to Grange wearing my own recently purchased replica Nissan yellow jersey. I seemed to float over the road as I dreamed of one day being in a race like that. When I got home my mother said that Anne O’Loughlin over the road had called to say that the Panasonic team were staying in her B & B and that I was welcome to call over. I don’t know what she said next as I was straight out the door and racing over to O’Loughlins B & B. First I met the mechanics and helped them to unload the bikes and wash them. I must have been some help although I do think they were bemused by this fanatical young fella drooling over the bikes. Even so they gave me a brand new Panasonic jersey and brought me into the dining room to have the riders sign it. They all said hello and Phil Anderson chatted a little as I congratulated him on his win that day, although deep down I was thinking he was a bollix for beating Kelly. He was genuinely nice as was Eric Vanderarden but the others Robert Millar, Peter Winnen and Eric Vanlanker seemed to be looking forward to my departure.
As I rode home in the dark that evening I was dreaming of one day being a pro and it felt so real . Sadly, that dream never came true, but days like that at ‘the Nissan’ stay with you for the rest of your life.