Irish duo well prepared for Giro d’Italia’s mental grind

Cycling rarely gets a positive spin: unless another positive doping test counts

We were caught between the headwind and the tailwind crossing over the Wicklow Gap, hands and feet uncomfortably numb, bike and rider both gently shivering. Forget about April. May has been the cruellest month for the casual cyclist, so far anyway. Oh Gulf Stream where art thou?

It will be worse on the Colle del Nivolet, among Europe’s highest paved mountain passes, immortalised 50 years ago already in the closing scenes of The Italian Job. And on the Passo del Mortirolo, among the most feared names in cycling, with sustained ramps of 18 per cent uphill gradient.

Among just two of the six high mountain stages of the Giro d’Italia, the 102nd edition of which sets off on Saturday with a 8.2km time trail around the terracotta houses and porticos of Bologna. Given northern Italy’s often crazy weather in May there will be sun and there will be snow, before it all finishes back in Verona on the first Sunday in June.

All second nature to those who ride their bikes for a living, who understand why professional cycling can often be the cruellest of sports, not just when dealing with the weather. There are extremes in every sense, and sometimes it feels like there is no future and there is no warning. Especially when played out against the backdrop of a sport which rarely gets a positive spin: unless another positive doping test actually counts as one.


It can sometimes leave the hardest of riders feeling uncomfortably numb in other ways. Pro Cycling magazine has a feature this month on the apparent rise of mental health issues in the peloton and on the track, citing the recent suicides of retired Australian pro Jonathan Cantwell and American track world champion Kelly Catlin, suggesting the UCI make mandatory the hiring of a team sports psychologist, like they do a medical doctor.

On Thursday, German rider Marcel Kittel, winner of 14 Tour de France stages, announced his departure from team Katusha-Alpecin, aged 30, and the need to "put my happiness and joy above everything". It's no secret Kittel was suffering from more than just a loss of form.

There is further evidence of the mental challenges that go far beyond the weather for the two Irish riders setting out on the 2019 Giro. At 22, Eddie Dunbar will ride his first Grand Tour with Team Ineos, formerly Team Sky, having already ridden through some considerable negativity since first joining Kanturk cycling club in Cork, at age 11; at 27, Conor Dunne might have thought his Grand Tour days were already over, having ridden the Vuelta a España in 2017, before his previous team, Aqua Blue Sport, owned by Cork businessman Rick Delaney, suddenly folded last August.

That number of Irish riders in the Giro, incidentally, would have been three, had Sam Bennett not missed out on selection after his German-based team, Bora-hansgrohe, gave a start instead to fellow sprint specialist Pascal Ackermann, who happens to be German. Bennett, remember, won three Giro stages last year, but only after serving his time on negative row. He rode through illness and injury in the 2015 Tour, before abandoning on Stage 17, and a year later crashed on Stage 1, effectively riding on one hand until finish in Paris, bringing the lantern rouge over the line as the last finisher. A lesser rider may have ended up on the pro scrapheap.

Dunbar's continued rise through the peloton is of little surprise to those who first saw him race as a teenager with Kanturk, under the careful guidance of club coach Danny Curtin, but there have been challenges too, mental and physical, including the death of his father Eamon, when Dunbar was aged 14. Things darkened in another way in 2017, when a heavy fall on Stage 1 of the 2017 Baby Giro, the under-23 version of the race, left him badly concussed, only not properly diagnosed.

If it wasn't for the timely intervention of Curtain, more than just Dunbar's season may have been cut short. That same year Dunbar's Axeon-Hagens Berman team mate Chad Young died of head injuries sustained in a crash at the Tour of Gila in Mexico.

After that the still buoyant Aqua Blue signed Dunbar for 2018, an early highlight being his fourth place in the Tour of Belgium, before the team suddenly closed up shop last August, unable to find a merger. That fall was quickly broken when Dunbar was snatched up by Team Sky, Dave Brailsford recognising his potential. Still Dunbar endured a few more setbacks - a dislocated shoulder in the Volta ao Algarve in February, another crash at La Fleche Wallonne in April - before last weekend's third place finish in the Tour de Yorkshire sealed his Giro starting spot.

Dunne was one of Aqua Blue’s first signings, at 6’8”, already known as the tallest rider in the peloton. Things were largely going to plan for him too, winning the Irish road race title last summer, before he’s suddenly made redundant, without warning, days before the Tour of Britain. Suddenly there is no future.

Determined to turn the negative into a positive, Dunne instead set off with Aqua Blue team mate Larry Warbasse, US champion in 2017, for seven days cycling in the French Alps in what they dubbed the No-Go Tour. Social media jumped on it, and not long after Warbasse signed a one-year contract with the French Team AG2R La Mondiale, and will also set off from Bologna this afternoon.

Dunne is now riding with the Israel Cycling Academy (his salary being paid by Delaney given he was sole rider to have pre-signed again with Aqua Blue). The positives don’t end there: his partner Stacey Kelly gave birth to their first son, Jesse, on May 1st, the thought of which may help Dunne through any negativity on the Nivolet or the Mortirolo over the next three weeks.

There are still some ethical issues around Team Ineos, and the Israel Cycling Academy, unabashed patriotism one of the main drivers behind its existence, but sometimes pro cycling isn’t always about finding the negative spin.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics