When the Sean Kelly/Stephen Roche era drew to a close in the early 1990s, it seemed like only a matter of time before Irish cycling would be riding the crest of a wave again. The successes of that period had seen huge numbers of young people taking up the sport, and with a number of talented riders identified as the next big thing, the departure of the two big stars didn't seem so serious.
What happened next was unexpected. For various reasons, many of those tipped riders never broke through. Some got sick, others got injured. Many tried living abroad and found that homesickness was as big an obstacle as cobbles and hills, and that the sport wasn’t as glamorous as they had presumed.
And then there were the hidden issues. The Festina affair in 1998, the Pantani Giro d'Italia scandal in 1999 and what was later shown to be the secret behind Lance Armstrong's seven tour wins also showed what Irish riders were facing. Some quit rather than make those choices, while others such as Mark Scanlon and Ciarán Power had to accept far quieter careers than might otherwise have been the case. Things would improve, in terms of anti-doping, but not soon enough for them.
Given that drought, some cycling fans may have felt slightly nervous when Nicolas Roche and Dan Martin retired this month. Roche's final race was the Irish national championships; Martin went out after the Il Lombardia Classic. In the space of six days, two of the most successful Irish riders of the current era had called it quits, hung up their racing wheels, exited stage left.
Fortunately things are quite a bit better than they were in the early 1990s. Roche and Martin were competing at the top-rank World Tour level, but were not alone. Ireland has three other riders who are also with top-tier teams this season, and they will continue on in 2022. Sam Bennett clocked up seven wins early on but then missed the Tour de France with a knee injury. That problem appears to have been resolved, though, and the rider who won two stages plus the green jersey in the 2020 tour is fully focused on being back up to speed again next year.
“I lost one of my best years in my career,” Bennett told the Irish Times at this month’s national road championships. “I was always playing catch up in my career, and now I have to really play catch up again next year. Hopefully now this will make me more fresh and add a few more years to my career. . .you just have to put a positive twist on it.”
Like Bennett, Ryan Mullen will also move to the Bora-Hansgrohe team and will be fired-up to show what he can do. He's a strong time trialist who took a silver medal in the under-23 world championships several years ago, losing out on gold by fractions of a second. And while he has been below par this year, a return to working with his former coach saw him capture both the time trial and road race at the national championships this month. "I have not done those numbers in three years," he said, referring to the power output he sustained while winning the time trial. He will play a key part in Bennett's leadout train, and also hopes to ride well in the Classics.
And then there's Eddie Dunbar. The Cork man is somewhat in the mould of Martin, being a talented climber who has the potential to shine in the hilliest one-day events and cycling's Grand Tours. He has sacrificed many chances in recent years to help the leaders at the Team Sky/Ineos Grenadiers setup, but gave a reminder of his ability when he took the best young rider award and 12th overall at this year's Tour de Suisse, despite riding for the race winner Richard Carapaz.
Dunbar is still just 25 years of age. He’s got another year left with Ineos Grenadiers and may have to hold back on his personal ambitions a little longer, but absolutely has the talent to shine whenever he is given a leadership role of his own.
What's encouraging is that Ireland's hopes don't rest only on those three riders. In what was a case of perfect timing, Ben Healy was confirmed as signing with the WorldTour EF Education First-Nippo team one day after Roche retired. He is, according to Cycling Ireland's national junior coach Martin O'Loughlin, a rider with "enormous potential".
"Ben's got a great racing brain. As his new boss Jonathan Vaughters said, he's able to sniff out the breaks. So he's able to get up the road and he's got that killer instinct that he can finish off the move. He's got a kick at the end."
If Dunbar is similar to Martin, there is an argument that Healy is perhaps in the mould of Nicolas Roche. O’Loughlin says it is too soon to tell how good he can be, or what kind of rider he will become, but when the comparison is suggested to him he makes an assessment. “If you compare Ben to where Nicolas was at 21, you’d have to say that Ben is ahead.”
One difference between the riders who make it and those who don’t is the progress they achieve year on year. O’Loughlin mentions teenagers who achieved big things on the national level at a very young age, but didn’t build on that. In some cases that was down to doing far too much, far too young. In other cases, those early results are down to rapid maturation during puberty which tapered off afterwards.
Sometimes it’s hard to predict who will make it and who will not.
He uses Dunbar as an example. "Eddie rode the nationals as an under-11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16," he said. "There was a time trial, the road race and the criterium. So Eddie had the potential to win 18 medals in that period. He won one medal. In his final championships, he won the gold in the time trial, beating Mark Downey.
“Eddie was so small, but he was just maturing, maturing, maturing, coming on. Whereas some of the other riders just get their best results as under-12s.”
He sees Dungannon junior Darren Rafferty as one who is progressing in the right way. "Darren is a really, really exciting talent," he says. "There is just so much he can do. He has been really, really well looked after. He has an excellent coach in Stephen Gallagher. Stephen has coached him commensurate with his age. He has just come along very, very slowly.
“And that’s the thing you often see with juniors – sometimes they are as good as they’re going to get, because they have been working full time with coaches since they were 14 and they will be training like little mini professionals. But Darren hasn’t. Every year he has been training that little bit more. Stephen has been pushing him a little bit more, you know, giving him the opportunity to grow and to get stronger.”
Rafferty had a superb season this year, winning a number of races in France and then finishing just two seconds off a bronze medal in the junior time trial at the European Championships. He’s still only 18 years of age but has secured an important contract for 2022. He will race with the Hagens Berman Axeon team, a semi-professional development squad which helped Dunbar and many others progress to the World Tour.
And there are a number of other riders who could also make a breakthrough. One of those is Archie Ryan, a 19-year-old who is currently signed to the development team of the World Tour Jumbo-Visma squad. He's had a lingering knee injury but if he can get that resolved, his strong climbing abilities could translate into a big pro career.
What's encouraging is that Ireland is not only relying on its male competitors. The international women's scene is making rapid progress, with the first-ever edition of Paris-Roubaix for women being run this month, and a multi-stage women's Tour de France being unveiled this week. There are more and more big teams and a big emphasis on developing this previously-neglected wing of the sport.
"There's a huge amount of huge potential there on the women's side," O'Loughlin recognises. "The big surprises this year were probably in this category. Megan Armitage came from basically nowhere, and has got herself a continental contract next year with Rupelcleaning. Normally Belgium has a steep learning curve when you go into the races over there, but she went straight over and started winning them. We've never had a woman like that before, it just never happened.
"Imogen Cotter beat her to win the national championships. She came to us in the talent transfer and while she identified she was lacking in skills like descending, she went off to Belgium and learned them. The way she has developed is just fantastic."
O'Loughlin highlights the rapid progress of the rider who finished beside Cotter and Armitage on the podium at the national road race championships, Linda Kelly, and also refers to the known abilities of Lara Gillespie. She had a difficult season due to illness and injury, yet still took a silver medal in the individual pursuit at the European track championships. "She's a serious talent," he says.
Back to the retirees. Martin and Roche clocked up two Classics, seven Grand Tour stage wins and eight top-10 finishes in three week races between them. They played a huge part in Irish cycling over the past decade and a half and will be missed. But in contrast to the lean times after Kelly and Roche retired, the long seasons with big absences on the results sheets, there are solid grounds for optimism this time around.
New kids on the block
Eddie Dunbar (25)
Dunbar’s inclusion here may seem surprising, given that he’s been racing at the World Tour level for the past three years. However, he’s still just 25 years of age and has only scratched the surface of what he can do.
He’s been held back by the requirements to work for the many leaders at Team Sky/Team Ineos and also by injuries plus a bout of Covid-19 this year, but has still been able to pick up some strong results.
These include third on a stage of his debut Grand Tour, the 2019 Giro d’Italia, third overall in the 2019 Tour de Yorkshire and the best young rider award plus 12th overall in this year’s Tour de Suisse. He was riding for team leader Richard Carapaz there and would otherwise have been even higher in the overall standings.
Ben Healy (21)
Healy raced for the Trinity Racing team run by Andrew McQuaid this year, but has now secured a two-year deal with the WorldTour EF Education-Nippo squad. The British-born Irish man telegraphed his ability two years ago when he became the youngest stage winner in the Tour de l’Avenir, regarded as a youth version of the Tour de France. In June he won the final stage of the Giro Ciclistico d’Italia, which is similarly regarded as a young riders’ equivalent of the Giro d’Italia.
Archie Ryan (19)
Ryan signed for the development squad of the prestigious Jumbo-Visma World Tour team prior to the 2020 season, and has a contract until the end of 2022. He finished eighth overall in the prestigious Ronde de l’Isard last season but has suffered with a knee injury this season and hardly raced. He’s a strong climber and if he can get back on track next year, he could go on to a big career.
Darren Rafferty (18)
In recent weeks Rafferty dominated both the junior time trial and road race at the national championships, becoming only the third rider in more than three decades to do so.
He had a huge crash earlier this year but bounced back to take a number of wins in French amateur racing and to take fourth in the junior time trial at the European road championships, finishing just two seconds off the bronze medal.
He was also 11th in the same event at the world championships despite it being a flat, tailwind-assisted course that didn’t play to his strengths. He will debut with the prestigious Hagens Berman Axeon team next season, a squad which has helped riders such as Dunbar progress to the World Tour level.
Imogen Cotter (28)
The rapid development of women’s racing internationally has created opportunities and targets for Ireland’s female cyclists. Cotter won the women’s road race at the national championships earlier this month and has a contract with Movistar’s eRacing team, which focuses on online racing. If she can continue to progress there may be opportunities with the increasing numbers of international women’s teams.
Megan Armitage (25)
The former runner is a relative newcomer to the sport but that didn’t stop her heading to Belgium this season. She made her international debut at UCI level in the Kreiz Breizh Elites Dames in July and rode aggressively, finishing a solid 23rd overall.
She secured a guest slot with the UCI-registered Team Rupelcleaning and had a strong showing for the team in August, beating five-time Belgian TT champion Ann-Sophie Duyck to win the Emptinne GP Roland Warnon and placing second in the Kermis Erwetegem. Silver at the national championships shows the progress she has made in the past season; there are grounds to expect her to step up another level in 2022.
Lara Gillespie (20)
Gillespie may have missed much of 2021 due to illness and injury but she remains one of the brightest prospects in the sport. She took gold and silver medals at the 2018 European junior track championships, then returned the following season to add three silver medals to that haul and take bronze in the individual pursuit at the world championships.
Earlier this season, she was part of the quartet who broke the national record en route to winning the team pursuit at the second round of the 2021 Track Cycling Nations Cup. In August she took the silver medal in the individual pursuit at the European track championships.