After years of waiting, years of wishing, this season will bring what he’s been aiming for. Eddie Dunbar has long been seen as a talented, ambitious competitor but he spent the past four years being asked to ride for others, sacrificing his own chances to help the designated leaders at Team Sky and Ineos Grenadiers.
The final straw came last season when he won the prestigious Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali stage race, yet was still passed over for selection for the Giro d’Italia. After years of biding his time, that was the decider. He accepted a contract offer from the top Australian team Jayco AlUla and will be one of its designated leaders for the next three seasons.
“It gets to a point where you have to make a decision,” the Corkman explains. “You either want to do everything you can to get to a higher level or just be comfortable with the situation you’re in. But I’ve never been a rider to get into that comfortable stage. I like to challenge myself. I like to see what I can do.
“I still feel it’s unknown. I don’t know what will happen. But I have it in my head, I can only say what I think. I believe the more racing I do, the better I will be, the better my results will be.
“I can only try and do that and hopefully get to that point where my results will be better in bigger races.”
Still just 26 years of age, Dunbar represents Ireland’s best general classification hope in stage races such as the Tour de France. He won’t ride that event this season, instead being handed leadership for the Giro d’Italia, but the Tour will be a medium-term goal. He’s a strong climber, an aggressive racer and someone who aims high and believes he can achieve much, much more.
Dunbar’s early talent was obvious. As an under-18 he won the two stages plus the overall classification of the Junior Tour of Wales, as well as the Trofeo Karlsberg stage race.
As an under-23 rider he took top-10 finishes in the time trials at the European championships and world championships and, notably, won the prestigious under-23 Tour of Flanders. That led to a contract with the Irish-run Aqua Blue Sport professional team and, when that collapsed, to a WorldTour deal with the Tour de France-winning Team Sky.
Dunbar had many strong performances with the British squad, now renamed Ineos Grenadiers. He credits it with giving him plenty of racing when he was a developing rider, plus the opportunity to learn a lot in one of the most successful teams in the sport.
However, there were some notable downsides too, even if he is diplomatic about those. In a team stocked with accomplished leaders there is a risk younger riders get diverted into riding for the big names, missing out on their own opportunities.
One example is the 2021 Tour de Suisse, where he put his ambitions aside to help Richard Carapaz win overall. Notwithstanding that, Dunbar was strong enough to win the best young rider competition, finish fourth on the final stage and take 12th overall.
But there were many other times he lost out on results he might have achieved. He also missed out on selection for several three week races, which are crucial to a rider’s development. Thus far he’s only ridden one Grand Tour, the 2019 Giro d’Italia. He was third on a stage and an encouraging 22nd overall there but found himself on the sidelines of many such events since, wondering when his chance would come.
“I always say the more I race, the better I can be,” he explains. “To really make that jump, you need to be able to go into big races and race hard and race at the pointy end to learn and get yourself to that level.”
Instead time was ticking and opportunities were slipping by.
Things changed last spring. Dunbar made a big career breakthrough in March, winning the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali. The stage race was his first professional win, yet he was once again passed over for selection for the Giro d’Italia, a race he had fully expected to be riding.
“It was a massive disappointment when I was told I wasn’t going,” he explains. “I had trained very hard for it and was going very well. I wanted to go to another Grand Tour and show that I was at a good level there.”
Instead he was listed for the smaller Tour de Hongrie. Demoralised for a couple of days after the Giro decision, Dunbar knuckled down again to training, lined out in the Hungarian event and won his second stage race in under two months. Other teams came calling, and he inked a deal with Team BikeExchange-Jayco, now renamed Jayco AlUla.
“To be fair, they have always shown interest in me from a young age,” he said. “They were interested since I won Flanders. They were a team that I just kept in touch with, a team I’ve always liked. I think everyone would say that. They’re very liked team. They’re good bunch of guys, they are relaxed. But when they’re serious, they’re serious. And they’ve won some good bike races over the last few years.”
Dunbar’s decision to leave Ineos Grenadiers saw him selected for few events towards the end of the season. He was told he’d be doing the Vuelta a España, worked hard for that Grand Tour, but was then passed over yet again.
He won’t have that problem with his new set-up. Prioritised as one of its main leaders, it is throwing a lot of weight behind helping him step up to a higher level. He’s optimistic that things are on track.
“I’m going well, perhaps fitter than I have been for this time of year for the past few years. I feel good on the bike. The first race is always the best indicator of how you are going, but hopefully that’ll be good. I think it will.”
Dunbar will make his season debut in the Volta a la Valenciana stage race next Wednesday. He’ll then ride the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and Itzula Basque Country before the Giro d’Italia in May. He’s aiming to be at a peak for the latter race, but wants to shine before then too.
“I’ve never been a rider just to get comfortable,” he explains. “I like to challenge myself. And I think I have the perfect thing to challenge myself for this year, to be ready for the Giro in May.”