Sonia O’Sullivan: ‘The Ascent’ takes me back to a tougher generation

Just like in athletics, there was a time when Irish cyclists figured at the top of their sport

Stephen Roche: scaled the heights of the sport with his victory in the Tour de France. Photograph: Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty

I never mind waking up in the middle of the night as long as I’ve got a good book to read. And at this time of year there’s always an impressive selection of new books to choose from.

The problem is I often end up with a queue of books to get through and I’m left wondering what makes me go for one book over another.

Before my last long haul flight back Down Under, I picked up a bundle while wandering through some Dublin bookshops, plus another one that I was gifted on my way to the airport.

I’ve gone for a lot of books about cycling in recent years, a sport I’m still learning about, what it takes to succeed, plus all the revelations of drug use that usually come with it. I’ve been through quite a few at this stage and wasn’t sure I really wanted to read one more take on this topic.


At the same time I was curious about The Ascent, a book that could so easily go unnoticed. When you search it up online you're more likely to find tales of mountaineers scaling Everest, the rise of Hitler, or something like that. Instead, it's about the history of Irish cycling and the ascent of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche, and the so-called golden generation.

I had heard mention of the book, written by Cork-born journalist Barry Ryan, an editor at Cycling News. I read something about it in the paper too but still wasn't rushing out to get it, just curious, and not sure why. It wasn't until I read right through the epilogue I began to realise why I was so taken by this book.

There is always an extra attraction to reading a book when you know the main characters, or at least have met a few of them, and know some of their achievements. This book provided the extra detail and wonder of such a fascinating period in Irish sporting history.

While reading through the pages and learning about how Kelly and Roche blazed a trail through Europe, with a small following of Irish riders behind them, believing they too could match their feats, it didn’t sound all to dissimilar to that period in Irish athletics throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The sad part about The Ascent is how it descends into so many doping allegations, including some surrounding Kelly and Roche.

Yet it all comes across as part of the cycling culture at the time, accepted like one might accept a speeding fine in the post; you pay the fine, continue on as normal, careful for a while, then fall back into old habits. There were also those with higher morals and a cleaner slate, where winning is important but not at all costs.

Still there’s no disguising they were a tough generation. One line from Paul Kimmage jumps out, when talking about Kelly, and his father Christy Kimmage: “Dad would have thought this guy (Kelly) was f***ing tough, and different to what we’d got,” says Kimmage.

At the same time you just have to look back through the all-time list of Irish athletics to see the consistency that has also been lacking in recent years. It seems so long ago now when there was always something to look forward to in Irish athletics . . . cross country, indoors, even marathon running and the European athletics circuit.

Sean Kelly from Ireland, wearing the Green Jersey of the best sprinter at the 1983 Tour de France. Photo: Getty Images

Eamonn Coughlan indoors, followed closely by Marcus O’Sullivan. I was in Madison Square Garden at the Millrose Games when O’Sullivan took over the mantle from Coughlan in 1988, joining up the chain of Irish winners following on from a string of victories by Ronnie Delany in the 1950s.

It just seemed normal that Irish athletes would be at the forefront in major competitions. It begs the question how did it happen and where did it go to? Especially when you have inspiration that should generate belief and expectation.

That golden generation in Irish athletics throughout the 1980s and 1990s was not just one or two athletes; there was always a bunch behind, trying to get noticed, sometimes even putting pressure on those leading the way.

I sensed there was a pressure to live up to the expectation. When you lined up to run for Ireland, you had to perform and prove your right to be there. This has always been my sense of how things work, how I continue to approach life and its challenges.

Only last weekend I took on a few physical activities that in a way I felt were a little beyond my current fitness, and if I was to weigh things up then, there was definitely an easier option.

Day one was a long undulating run. I had a bit of a niggling injury as I started out and wondered if I would even make 5km, but this was one of my favourite loops along the cliff tops and back along the beach. It would seem defeatist to turn around early. I just couldn’t give in without completing what I set out to do.

Then there was a swim in the sea. I’d been in for a quick dip the day before, just to cool off in the 32C heat that was backing up day after day. The only issue there was a shark spotted in the same area, just 24 hours earlier, so there was some apprehension about swimming out to sea.

It’s just 200 metres to the yellow cone at the beach in Torquay, just off the Great Ocean road, and from what I’ve been told once swimming in the sea, at least here in Australia, you’re never more than 200m from a shark.  Weighing things up I figured the sharks were more likely to be 200 metres out to sea, rather than floating around in the shallows.

I’ve just started back on my road bike again and have a big cycle planned for next year. I had the option to link up with the local cyclists on Monday morning. I didn’t feel I was ready to keep up, but knew I had to give it a go for as long as I could. You never improve just rolling around by yourself.

To best challenge yourself, you need to compare yourself to others. I often wonder do athletes now feel less pressure to prove their right to be there, when there are less people behind waiting to take your place. There can be a sense of complacency and acceptance of things as they are, in the comfort zone.

There was a time when there was an Irish presence in every European track meet, just like there was a time when Irish cyclists took victory in some of the toughest cycles around Europe, never far from the leading bunch in the Tour de France. Never questioned it either.

So what drives the ability to achieve greatness, to win races, to be respected and expected to be right up there competing for honours at the highest level?

It’s one of those almost unanswerable questions. Is it too easy to be a local hero, rather than risk taking on the world? It can be a tough choice, because it’s often a tougher life. Or maybe it is just a generation thing.