Where have all the juniors gone ?

Cycling in Ireland is in the midst of a Renaissance. Not since the days of Kelly and Roche has there been so many lycra clad smooth shaven legs on display throughout the highways and byways of Ireland. But whilst the last cycling boom produced a huge influx in the numbers of racing cyclists coming through the ranks the same cannot be said of this current boom.

Whilst the bulk of many a current race field is still being made up by those who were brought to the sport during the Kelly/Roche era as underage and junior riders back then, the current crop of junior riders is noticable for its lack of strength in numbers, although there are some very talented junior riders on the scene.

This years All Ireland junior Time Trial championship had an entry field of just 7 and the road race had only 30 or so riders. The Junior tour had a field of 66 riders with less than half being Irish riders, which was actually an improvement on some recent years.

We rode the Junior tour in 1989 and 1990. On both occasions the field was close to 200 strong with over 160 Irish Junior riders taking part on both occasions. The list of previous winners includes Martin Earley, Stephen Spratt, Tommy Evans, Peter Daly, Mehall Fitzgerald, Mark Scanlon, Nicolas Roche, Sam Bennett and current Team Sky riders Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe amongst many other great riders. This list of names shows just how important a stepping stone junior racing is to senior success.

( Junior tour Stage Podium in Clonmel L-R : Ian Stannard, Robert Gesink, Kai Reus and Pete Williams )

Robert Power won the Senior A1 races in Limerick and Mitchelstown as a first year junior beating some of the best senior riders in the country at the time. Underage riders witnessing performances like that were inspired to train harder to try to follow in his footsteps. Nowadays many juniors have trouble being competitive in A3 races.

But it isn’t just racing success that is being missed out upon. The greatest adventures of many a young life took place traveling to and from races each weekend with the greatest of all once again being the Junior Tour.

Our first years’ team car was a brown Ford Cortina estate with a hole in the floor. The second year it was blue and yellow mark 2 Ford Transit minibus with no reverse. That didn’t matter too much until one morning whilst in a convoy heading to the stage start someone took a wrong turn and everyone had to turn around. Whilst all the other team cars were doing their 3 point turns we all had to pile out and push when reverse was needed for our team vehicles 6 point turn. One of the lads tried pulling and broke the rope holding the rear doors closed.

Our first year had a split stage from Killarney to Blarney on the morning of day 3 with a 4 lap criterium around St. Patricks hill in Cork that evening. The crowds were almost 10 deep in places and it was like being in the Nissan Classic. Ray finished second on the stage to Victor Slynn but I managed to get my mug in the Examiner the next day for having the most pained expression on the hill.

That year the race finished with a criterium around O’Connell street in Dublin and it was once more like being in the Nissan with crowds screaming thunderous encouragement all the way around the circuit.

The following year , the year of the minibus, Ray won the stage into Ennis and took home the green points jersey overall. A real sign of senior potential to come.

My best result that year was fourth into Dungarvan. I was kicking myself as my mothers’ aunt was on the podium that day. She wrote a song called ‘Dungarvan my home town’ and anytime she returned to Dungarvan if there was a podium or a viewing stand she was up on it. I can still picture Jason Meredith getting first into the corner as we sprinted down into the square. The first 3 on the stage hopped up onto the podium and instead of skulking away to lick my wounds I had to hang around to meet my Grand Aunt, looking up like a lost puppy, and feeling like a tool.

Jason was a larger than life character from Finglas or Ballymun or some one of those places that we only heard about on ‘Today Tonight’ at the time and was an exotic creature to us, although I think the feeling was mutual. I remember him coming up to me in a race in Carlow asking how far it was to the hill. When I responded that I hadn’t a clue he replied’ Shure aren’t youse from the country’

The friendships and camaraderie created during those days racing as a junior were some of the best made in a lifetime. I roomed with Ray on both junior tours and now 22 years later we work side by side running the shop together each day.

Perhaps the two biggest differences between then and now that give rise to the huge gap in numbers of juniors racing in a cycling boom are ;

The Nissan Classic. We got to see Kelly and Roche racing up close here in Ireland and wanted more than anything to emulate our heroes. One glimpse of Kelly or Roche in full flight as a crowd roared them on would get a sixteen year old through a whole winters training.

and

Cycling to school. The bike we cycled to school on was the bike we started racing on. Ray had a Raleigh Pulsar, Fitzy had a Raleigh Winner and I had a Dawes Jaguar. We cycled to school just like almost everyone else, then we cycled home, got changed as fast as we could and then cycled up to the GAA on the Western road in Clonmel to go training.

Nowadays kids get the Ford Galaxy to school, with no hole in the floor, all gears working and no rope holding the back door closed. If they are not in the Galaxy they are walking to school, slowly, in the rain with no jackets on. Neither of which will lead to an International cycling career.

So what can be done to encourage more more junior riders to get into the sport ? I don’t know the answer, but have noticed recently that local schools who ran sponsored cycles have led to a few new junior and underage riders turning up on training spins. Beginners leagues such as the ones that are run by Iverk Carrick Wheelers also seem to have produced some good lasting numbers of competitive cyclists the most notable being Sam Bennett. Other clubs such as Fermoy, Kanturk and Orwell Wheelers seem to be having a good return for the hard work being put in bringing along underage and junior riders. Perhaps clubs such as these should be examined and whatever common denominators exist be put in place by other clubs throughout the country.

Barry

www.thecyclingblog.com

6 thoughts on “Where have all the juniors gone ?

  • August 22, 2012 at 11:19 pm
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    Those were the days! I remember Jason sitting beside me on the plane from the Isle of Man to Dublin. 20 minutes of pure pain as he had never flown before. He was so scared he grabbed my leg as we took off and never loossend his grip until we landed. It took 2 days for the blood to flow again.

    Definatley some of the best characters you would ever have met and the best memories from Junior racing in Ireland. One of the nicest guys who I never heard mentioned since those days was Jim Burke from Waterford. We shared and ambulance together in my last Junior Tour. That’s friendship for you…

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  • August 22, 2012 at 11:42 pm
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    Jason had some strength so I’d say you’re leg was never the same again Andy 🙂 Jim rode with us that year and I used to meet up with him for a few years afterwards down in Waterford. Haven’t seen him in a long time now though but I’m sure you were well entertained on that ambulance trip 🙂

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  • August 23, 2012 at 9:28 am
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    Ahh !! The brown cortina, the team car with a customised bike TRAILER. GREAT teenage memories Barry !!

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  • August 23, 2012 at 1:53 pm
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    The same trend is apparent here in Italy with very small numbers of Juniors and Underage cyclists entering the sport. Most regional Sunday races lump the Juniors into the Senior race and its rare now to see any underage races. Contrast that with massive numbers entering the sport between the ages of 25 and 40 – my Saturday morning group has to be split into 3 groups now due 60/70 guys showing up but when you look around the youngest cyclists are probably in their mid 20s. Just like Ireland here I suppose, no shortage of numbers but all old farts like meself living off the glory days (not that I had too many)

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  • August 23, 2012 at 4:06 pm
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    Now days young lads want to play football , and dream one day of earning 100.000 a week with Man. Utd or Chelsea cycling do not appeal to them too much hard work ,, , and of course no Sean Kelly, or Stephen Roche, no coverage on RTE,TV not even the RAS and not forget not too much input from cycling Ireland either

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  • November 9, 2012 at 3:11 am
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    Hi – I’m looking for a Jason Meredith, wondering if he’s the one mentioned here. Would you mind contacting me here ashamagic@yahoo.com?

    Thanks!

    Reply

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