Irish riders breaking away from cycling’s shady past

New generation of cyclists deserve more recognition for their achievements

Cork cyclist Eddie Dunbar won the under-23 race at the Tour of Flanders in Belgium – a  gruelling 168km contest with some of world’s  best young riders

Cork cyclist Eddie Dunbar won the under-23 race at the Tour of Flanders in Belgium – a gruelling 168km contest with some of world’s best young riders

 

Every rider has their own idea of where the season begins. The dust of the fabled pavé. The shadow of the hors catégorie. The first climb over the Wicklow Gap loud mouthing the arias of Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

That last one may only make sense to those of us who put pleasure before pain, and know there is still no better annual primer than the cycling classic that is Breaking Away. It was duly pulled out from my DVD archives this week – strictly rationed to one viewing per season – and like any proper cinematic treasure soon revealed itself to be improving with age.

Instantly nostalgic and yet wonderfully timeless, and played out to one of the finest Italian operas that Rossini had to offer, it gets me every time. Not every cyclist will have seen Breaking Away, but they should, because part of the fun in watching it is that it somehow cuts to the core of cycling’s existence, a reminder of why and how cycling has a mysterious way of constantly redeeming itself.

It was made in 1979 and safe to say they don’t make them like Breaking Away anymore, which is not necessarily a bad thing, because for a sport still harbouring so much crime and punishment, this is a throwback to more innocent times. There is no mention of drugs or doping, although that’s not just what the film is a breakaway from.

Of the four central characters, only one is actually a cyclist: Dave Stoller (played by Dennis Christopher) is a pure midwestern American, just out of high school in Bloomington, Indiana, and yet obsessed with Italian cycling, from his red Masi bike to yellow Campagnolo cap, acting as preciously around his parents as if he’d just won Milan-San Remo.

Dave renames his cat Fellini, and convinces a gorgeous college girl at Indiana University that he’s actually an Italian exchange student, which as hilarious as that sounds, works brilliantly into the never-once-corny plotline. He wouldn’t get near her otherwise, because along with his three mates, Dave’s an outsider – or rather a “cutter”, one of the non-college kids whose roots lie in the area’s old limestone quarries, destined to stay there.

Enthusiasm

When the Cinzazo professional team come to race in Bloomington, Dave’s enthusiasm knows no bounds. Until in the race itself one of the Italian riders, realising they can’t shake off this wily American, sticks his pump into Dave’s front wheel, sending him crashing over the handlebars, that scene alone worthy of the best picture nomination for director Peter Yates.

“Everybody cheats,” says Dave, arriving home bloodied and heartbroken. “I just didn’t know.”

“Well, now you know,” his dad replies.

Then, and without spoiling the film’s madly spirited climax, comes the realisation that cycling, if given the chance, can still soar above the cheating and heartbreak.

Not everyone in today’s peloton might agree with that last sentence, but there’s a generation of Irish riders who are slowly breaking away from cycling’s shady past, and without being innocent or naive about it, at least deserve a little more recognition for what they’re doing.

Just last Sunday, Eddie Dunbar won the under-23 race at the Tour of Flanders in Belgium – a typically gruelling 168km contest featuring several stretches of that fabled pavé and lower catégorie climbs, and some of the best young riders in the world.

Still only 20, Dunbar was part of a three-rider breakaway with about 30km to race. That became a duo, before the Cork rider broke clean away, soloing the last 10km before the biggest win of his still fledgling career.

Dunbar’s talent has already been well flagged, not least after winning the final stage of last year’s An Post Rás, which earned him a spot of the Axeon Hagens Berman team, based in the US and owned and directed by Axel Merckx (yes, son of Eddy). That team is designed to nurture some of the best under-23 riders, only Dunbar might well be knocking on the door of a senior team before this season is out.

First stage win

During the week there was also a first professional stage win for Damien Shaw, at the Tour du Loir et Cher in France. Riding for the An Post-Chain Reaction team, still partly owned and managed by Seán Kelly, it’s been a long time coming for Shaw, who at age 32 is hardly a newcomer to the sport, yet in ways also reflects the dedication of the new generation.

Last September, Shaw gave up his day job as a fireman in Mullingar in order to concentrate full time on his cycling, without any guarantee of where the new season would take him. When he broke his wrist in a training accident early in the new year, the doubts must have deepened; however, like Dunbar, his professional career is only now taking off.

Also back on the professional scene after a brief hiatus in the real world is former world track champion Martyn Irvine, who on Thursday raced with the Aqua Blue Sport team at the Brabantse Pijl classic in Belgium. Set up last year by Cork businessman Rick Delaney, and Ireland’s first UCI professional continental cycling team, Aqua Blue has already secured a wildcard spot for the Vuelta a España, at the end of the season.  

Neither Dan Martin nor Nicholas Roche will have considered their season to have fully started yet, even though Martin finished third in last month’s Paris-Nice, the best Irish finish since his uncle Stephen Roche was runner-up in 1990. Ideally Martin’s season will reach a peak on one of the mountain stages of this summer’s Tour de France.

Not forgetting the six-strong Irish team competing at this week’s World Track Championships at the Hong Kong Velodrome, which may not be an entirely new breakaway for Irish cycling, but may also be a sign of things to come. A break away from any mention of drugs or doping.

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