Eddie Dunbar geared up to make a memorable debut in Olympic road race

In-form Cork man will hope to shine among fatigued Tour de France cyclists on Saturday

  Eddie Dunbar during the  UCI Road World Championships in 2019: racing cyclist says his training has gone perfectly ahead of the Olympics road race. Photograph:  Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Eddie Dunbar during the UCI Road World Championships in 2019: racing cyclist says his training has gone perfectly ahead of the Olympics road race. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

 

In a normal year it is easy to know which riders will shine in a major competition held six days after the Tour de France: those who did the Tour. The Clasica San Sebastian is run each year in northern Spain and almost every one of its recent winners rode the Tour beforehand.

While a three-week race is extremely tiring and riders need time to recover from the French event, there seems to be a short period after reaching Paris where Tour form and sharpness are greater than fatigue.

This year the Clasica San Sebastian is delayed until the end of July, with the Olympic road race instead falling six days after the end of the Tour. The great unknown about the Tokyo Olympics is how things will translate. Many of cycling’s big stars competed in France, but travelling a long way to Japan is very different to a short trip to the Basque country. A lengthy flight and time zone changes will likely exacerbate Tour tiredness.

If that proves to be the case, Eddie Dunbar will hope to be prominent on Saturday. He lines out in Irish colours alongside Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche in what will be his Olympic debut. Like Roche, he missed the Tour. Like Roche, he hasn’t competed in well over a month.

Preparation

“I’ve done the best preparation I could have done,” he told journalists in recent days. “I have had no racing in the last few weeks to test myself and see where I am. But in terms of training, it has gone as good as it can.

“The course suits me, it is a one-day race, anything can happen. You can puncture at the wrong time, you can have a mechanical at the wrong time. It is not the case of, ‘oh there is tomorrow’. Everything has to go right on the day. Whomever does win the race or take a medal, the chances are that everything does go right for them on the day. At the same time, all we can do is just prepare our best and go and race our best.

“I think the best finish by an Irish rider is still 13th by Ciaran Power [in 2004] and Dan Martin [in 2016]. Going in, I think it would be nice if one of us can make it into the top 10 or even better.”

Dunbar is the youngest of the trio to represent Ireland on Saturday. He is from Banteer, Co Cork, and has made a very strong impression over the years. He’s the only double winner of the Junior Tour of Ireland in its long history. As an under-23 he won the youth version of the Tour of Flanders Classic and in 2019 he finished third on a stage, plus 22nd overall in his first-ever Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia.

Crashes and injury have disrupted his racing programme in recent years but he reaffirmed his talent in early June when he impressed in the Tour de Suisse. He dedicated himself to his Ineos Grenadiers team-mate Richard Carapaz there, helping him win the race overall. And despite riding that support role, he was still strong enough to net 12th overall and take the best young rider award.

That performance gave him great encouragement and has helped motivate him for Saturday’s Olympic road race.

“It was massive,” he said. “I went into the race knowing I was going well. And then the first few stages . . . even the punchier kind of ones, I knew I was moving well when you are in the company that I was in there.

“The week just started off well and it just got better as it went on. Suisse was a confidence boost to reassure me that when things can go well in this sport that I can be there and I can compete.”

Carapaz went on from winning the race to leading the Ineos Grenadiers team at the Tour de France. He ultimately finished third overall in the Tour behind the winner Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) and Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma).

Dunbar confirms that his strong ride in the Tour de Suisse put him in his team’s reserve list for the Tour de France. But with the preselected team all going on to compete, he was left watching the race on television. He’s fine with that: he knows his debut will come, and expresses relief that he didn’t have to contend with all the crashes in the opening week.

Still, as the race went on, he started wondering how he would have fared. “When you are watching the way the race went in the last week, especially on the climbs, that is when you are thinking, ‘oh, I would love to be there, I wonder where I would’ve been. . . ’ That is when you start to think.”

He’ll surely ride the race in future years, and has the talent to one day be a contender for the yellow jersey. Before then, he’s likely to be selected for this year’s Vuelta a España, which begins in mid-August.

First things first, though. The Olympic road race beckons, including multiple ascents of a climb on the slopes of Mount Fuji. Talking to Dunbar, you get the sense that he is raring to go. He knows that if the legs are good on the day, Saturday’s road race could suit his climbing talents well.

Improving form

Ditto for Martin, who was tired during the Tour as a result of riding the Giro d’Italia – where he won a stage and finished 10th overall – but who showed signs of improving form towards the end. He finished fifth on the final mountain stage and, if he is able to overcome jet lag plus the fatigue of the Tour, he could be a factor.

It all boils down to the question posed earlier: will those who raced in France enjoy the same extended form that makes them competitive in the Classica San Sebastian? If so, Martin may end up the best hope of the team on Saturday. If not, it will be up to Dunbar and Roche to fly the flag in terms of chasing a top 10 finish or a medal on the tough 234km circuit.

Beyond that, there are several other opportunities. Roche will be in action again on Wednesday in the 44.2km time trial. Ireland will have four other competitors in action in track events, starting on August 5th. Either Felix English or Mark Downey will compete in the men’s Omnium races, with the final determination to be made closer to that date.

Shannon McCurley and Emily Kay will join forces to ride the women’s Madison race on August 6th, while one day later English and Downey will contest the men’s equivalent. The cycling campaign will end on August 8th when Kay competes in the women’s Omnium.

All will be feeling a mixture of excitement and nerves as their events approach. They can perhaps take guidance from how Dunbar approaches things.

“As long as you know you have done everything you can to be in the best possible shape you can, you can only go out there and do your best,” he said. “You can’t do better than your best.”

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