Cyclists get Irish Paralympic medal ambitions in motion

Irish cyclists hopeful ahead of final preparations for Paralympic races

There's no scope for conversation when hurtling around the Velodrome at Barra Olympic Park. Last Sunday afternoon that was a blessing for Kilkenny's Damien Vereker. Sitting a matter of inches in front of him was Sean Hahessy, who hails from Tipperary. Their training spin coincided with the All-Ireland hurling final; Hahessy's only regret that he left his Tipperary flag at home.

The pair will be Ireland’s first representatives on the track in the heats of the men’s four-kilometre Pursuit Tandem B category. A new partnership and a composite drawn from the two tandem bikes chasing Rio qualification, the only form-line is a World Cup race in Bilbao earlier in the year.

Everything else must be gleaned from training times, which as a barometer of potential success is reasonably positive. They will also derive confidence from a training camp in Portugal in which they raced and beat a Dutch pair that were previously world champions and got to measure themselves against the gold medal favourites, another Dutch duo.

Best chance

The 36-year-old Vereker, who has a visual impairment, occupies the stoker position while Carrick Wheelers cyclist Hahessy (21), a former national champion, pilots the bike. It’s the first of four events in which they’ll take part on track and road. It’s their best chance of medalling, the times in the heats determining who will progress to the medal races later that night.


Hahessy explained: “We are doing the Pursuit as our target event; it’s our strongest one. You can train for the Pursuit with roadwork because they’re both borderline aerobic in terms of the demands. They complement each other. We are very lucky because we are both built for aerobic efforts.”

There is no velodrome in Ireland, a state of affairs that the Tipperary man would like to change, but won’t use it as an excuse if their ambition is unrequited.

“Sport is about dealing with the hand you’re dealt rather than moaning about the hands your opponents are dealt.

“If we don’t medal it won’t be because we don’t have a velodrome [in Ireland], that we haven’t had the time together, that we didn’t get a [perfect] ride on the day or something extra; I don’t think we will lose a medal because we don’t have a velodrome in Ireland.”

Sacrifices are an integral part of sport, some physical, some financial. Vereker, with the help of friends and sponsors, raised €9,000 to purchase his bike, ventures that included a cycle from Malin Head to Waterford on ice-encrusted roads last December.

“There were a couple of times when we thought it was getting too dangerous,” he said. “They were all experienced cyclists so they knew the risks but everyone dug in; no one wanted to say we didn’t make it down.”

Rio sabbatical

As the boys wound down their final training session, Ireland’s Women’s Tandem B partnership of former rower Katie-George Dunleavy (stoker) and Dundalk Garda Eve McCrystal (pilot) – she’s taken a year’s sabbatical, her sole focus on Rio – took to the track.

The cadence is hypnotising, the speed exhilarating when watching from trackside. Their hopes of medals are more than aspirational, based on results at World Championships and World Cup races. Tomorrow is the first of several races on track and road.

McCrystal admitted: “I want three medals around my neck. I’m going to be honest, that’s what we’re aiming for. That’s what we’ve worked so hard for, we never missed a session unless we were sick.

“I think we deserve it but it’s racing, it doesn’t always work out that way. We’re prepared for both scenarios but really what we’re going for is three medals, which we know we’re capable of getting. You need luck on your side too.”

In that respect she laughs when recounting the story of a little external assistance.

“We have Katie’s mother’s rosary beads which she made in the colours of the Irish flag. It’s like having a mother-in-law, having to wear the rosary beads she made.”

Ireland's cycling team also contains huge ability and potential in three-time world champion Eoghan Clifford and multiple medallist at worlds and Europeans Colin Lynch, down to Paralympic first-timers such as handcyclists Declan Slevin and Ciara Staunton, and a late addition after the Russian ban, former Tipperary minor hurler Peter Ryan and Marcin Mizgajski.

If Ireland are to realise their pre-Paralympics target of eight medals, expect cycling to contribute handsomely.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer