Officially, it took Eddie Dunbar 20 hours, 38 minutes and 18 seconds to win his first professional race. That's the time he clocked over the five days of the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali in Italy, the cumulative total for the 796.2km , the 15 categorised climbs, the dozens of mid-race efforts and the hundreds of twists and turns.
In reality, though, the victory was a lot longer in the making. Dunbar has for years been regarded as one of Ireland’s most talented cyclists, but it has taken until now to capitalise on his potential.
So why the delay? It’s mostly down to injuries. He had three separate collarbone fractures, in May 2015, April 2016 and September 2020. He had concussion in June 2017, hitting his head in the Giro Ciclistico d’Italia (Baby Giro), and struggling on with headaches, mood swings and other symptoms for two months before taking a long period off the bike.
He had concussion again in February 2019 after a fall in the Volta ao Algarve, the crash also causing a dislocated AC joint.
And he’s had illnesses too, including a bout of Covid after the Olympic Games, ruling him out of the Vuelta a España, then another bout in February of this year.
Thankfully Dunbar is driven, and thankfully he is persistent. “Something kept me going all these years,” he says. “It’s nice now to just get the monkey off the back and, hopefully, just kick on from here.
“The biggest emotion is relief. I always felt like I could win bike races. I haven’t really had had the best run in last few years, and so for it to finally click was incredible. It felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders.”
Dunbar (25) is from Banteer in Co Cork. He played rugby with Sundays Well early on but switched to cycling, showing his talent with the Kanturk Cycling Club. His aggressive, courageous racing style brought him considerable domestic success before he turned his focus abroad.
One standout result was his victory in the under-23 Tour of Flanders in 2017, a performance followed months later by a pro contract with Aqua Blue Sport. In 2018, he took second on a stage, and eighth overall, in the prestigious Tour de l'Avenir. Then, with Aqua Blue Sport folding weeks later, he moved to Team Sky. The following year he placed third on a stage in his first Grand Tour, the Giro d'Italia, as well as a solid 22nd overall. He was also third overall in the Tour de Yorkshire.
Injuries held him back on many occasions but, when he had a good run of training and racing, his talent shone through. Dunbar rode selflessly to help team-mate Richard Carapaz win last year's Tour de Suisse and was still strong enough to take fourth on the final stage and 12th overall.
That result was a big encouragement. “Up until Suisse, every race I rode I was really consistent,” he says. “I got better each race, which is always positive. I was very good in Suisse, probably one of the best races I’ve done, some of the best condition I’ve had. And I actually was happy with the Olympics [where he was 76th]. I rode a very good race that day, too, but it was just the wrong move at the wrong time.
“It was a very good, consistent and solid year up until I got Covid. A good year to build on.”
Catching Covid again this year was frustrating and disrupted his racing schedule, but thankfully he recovered quickly.
He rode solidly in the Vuelta a Andalucia in February and was in attacking form in the Trofeo Laigueglia in early March, but got tangled up in a crash.
Things were nevertheless improving. Once selected for the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, he had an inkling he could do well.
“Once I had a look at the course, it was pretty clear that it suited me,” he says. “So I put the head down and trained for that. It was always in the back of my mind to go into it, give it everything and come out with a result. Thankfully I did.”
Dunbar impressed on the opening stage, attacking alone on the final categorised climb and dropping the rest of the field.
He was joined on the descent by Mauro Schmid (Quick-Step AlphaVinyl) and while the Swiss rider out-sprinted him at the line, he cracked the following day and Dunbar took over as race leader.
He then consolidated his advantage on day three's summit finish, netting second behind Ineos Grenadiers team-mate Ben Tulett, and held the race leader's jersey through the final two days.
Given how long he had been chasing his first professional win, how did he handle the pressure?
“I just tried to switch off from it, really,” he says. “I knew we had the strongest team, so I just tried to be as confident as possible. And I did everything right during the week. I rested as much as I could. I recovered as best as I could. I ate and drank on the bike as best as I could. I did everything well.
“And when you’re in the leader jersey, you do feel the responsibility to respect it a bit more and honour it a bit more. That probably does give you an extra gear.”
I've always said that once I get a good run of things, I know what I can do
Next up is the six-day Itzulia Basque Country, starting on Monday. He may be required to ride for former Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas, who helped him in Italy, or for Adam Yates. Or, depending on how things play out, he may get further opportunity. He's also in the running for selection for the Giro d'Italia in May, his second Grand Tour.
Dunbar will move forward with greater confidence. His breakthrough result has come at exactly the right time. He's stepped up to fill the gap left by the retirements of Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche, and he's also showcasing his ability in the final year of his contract.
So does he feel like he has moved to a new level?
“Yeah, I think so,” he says. “It’s more a sense of relief and reassurance that I haven’t just been doing nothing in the last few years. I’ve always said that once I get a good run of things, I know what I can do. And I think it’s just about taking what I learned from last week into the next races and doing it every time.
“Every rider is different in the way they fuel in a race. Every rider is different in how they train, how they recover and stuff like that. Everything I did last week worked and there’s no need to overthink anything or change anything that I’ve been doing, because it’s obviously working.
“It’s just about believing in that and taking that into the next races.”