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.
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.
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.