The year I started cycling Joe Lonergan brought myself and his son Bernard down to Carrick on Suir for a cycling coaching weekend run by Tony Ryan and Carrick Wheelers. Young cyclists had come from all over the country to learn and many hoped to follow in the pedal tracks of his most successful protegé, the great Sean Kelly.
At the time Tony was into his forties and still racing at the highest level in Ireland. He was also the top coach in the country and I was enthralled by every word he spoke.
There was no waffle or preamble. He just got straight to the point and was very informative about what had to be done to succeed on the bike and inspirational when telling anecdotes about Kelly.
( Tony Ryan and Sean Kelly ride side by side )
A few weeks later I went for my first training spin with what was known as ‘Ryaners gang’ and was just as awestruck to be cycling alongside Tony Ryan as I was to be cycling with the great Sean Kelly who was also there that day.
Over the years I was privileged to get to know Tony and must have cycled alongside him hundreds of times. On each and every occasion I learned something. Whether it was your position on the bike, how to ride over the top of a climb, where to get shelter from the wind or how to bend your elbows, Ryaner was always passing on his knowledge to younger, less experienced riders.
For a number of years I drifted away from the bike. Then one Sunday I headed back out with the group. Tony rolled up beside me, gave me a warm hello and said ‘good to see you back’. That, coming from Tony made me feel at home and made me want to be back out again the following Sunday.
( Tony at the centre of things keeping us all in order )
Tony and Sean Lally were the first two ‘super vets’. Men who used their strength, experience and ability to beat others half their age at the peak of their powers. One of Tony’s most famous victories was in the Harding Grand Prix in Cork. As one of the most prestigious races on the domestic calendar at the time a quality field was always in attendance but when that years full Irish Olympic contingent with the likes of Stephen Spratt, Philip Cassidy and John McQuaid lined up at the start line the race was almost decided before it had begun. But not in Tony’s mind. When the break established itself, Tony was alert enough to spot the danger and jumped across. As the strongest riders in the country piled on the pressure up the climb lap after lap he was still there and on the final lap when they were all looking at each other Tony seized the opportunity and attacked. With perfect timing he established a gap and buried himself to make it to the line and take a huge victory.
I remember standing at the side of the road that day on the Carrigrohane straight and it felt like the Champs Elysees such was the level of excitement of all those watching when they saw the legend from Carrick showing the young guns how it was done.
Tony was always a great man for time . 9 o’clock was 9 o’clock never two minutes past. It was often said that he would leave his back gate in O’Mahoney avenue at eighteen seconds to nine and roll past the ESB offices where the gang would be gathered at exactly nine o’clock and just keep on rolling. If you were two minutes late you had a hard chase up the Clonmel road ahead of you. This was always a great life lesson for all cyclists, both young and old.
In recent years since Tony stopped coming out with the Sunday morning group there are often times when confusion erupts as the group approaches a junction in the road. Some will shout ‘right’ others might shout ‘left’ but there will always be someone else who shouts ‘Bring back Ryaner’ .Tony always decided the spin on the evening before and even when Kelly himself was around it was still Tony who decided the spin. Everyone would know exactly where the spin was going. There would also be no letting wheels go, half wheeling or riding three and four abreast on the road. He ran the group with subtle military precision.
I remember him racing on a gleaming 753 Raleigh and he always looked like a ‘pro’ with tanned legs and immaculate gear. He was always a great man for equipment and was ahead of his time when it came to bike fitting. Hundreds of young cyclists came from all over to be fitted by Tony on their new bikes. If he could get you set up right he would, but he would also tell you straight if you were after going off and wasting a load of money on a shiny new bike that was the wrong size .
In the winter time he ran a gym on Tuesday nights in the Foresters hall. I used to travel down with Anthony in the green beetle and arrive for seven to do the thirty minute warm up run around the park in Carrick. Then it would be in to the hall where everyone was supposed to put their pound in the biscuit tin inside the door. There would always be a discrepancy between the number of coins and the number of bodies and Ryaner would always let everyone know that he knew. There were occasions when a pound or two were omitted just for the reaction. The hall would be full of local cyclists and even Sean Kelly would be there.
When he stopped going out with the Sunday group he continued to ride his bike three or four times per week. If Peggy was in Clonmel shopping Tony would call in to Ray and myself in the shop then over to Anthony and Dick in the bakery. It was always a pleasure to see him walking in the door. He had a 22 mile loop around Faugheen and he was always able to tell you exactly what time he was doing the loop in, usually around 1 hour 14 minutes or so. He was never one for looking in over ditches when out on the bike.
Tony Ryan was a straight talking Carrick man who would look you in the eye and shake your hand when he met you off the bike. On the bike he would generously share his vast experience and knowledge with any cyclist who showed an interest in learning. Tony was more than a great coach or a top class cyclist. To many of us he was a trusted friend that you always look forward to meeting and looked up to. He will be sorely missed for a long time to come but for as long as there are cyclists in Carrick ‘Ryaner’ will never be forgotten.
Rest in Peace Tony,