WHEN we sit down at the end of a long season and reflect on how it went, it is hard to look past the top three riders, and praise the way they raced and thrilled the fans both here and in the Isle of Man.
It is also the time of the year for the championship awards, and the social nights where the top riders are appreciated by both fans and clubs. This week I have chosen my National riders of the Year, and next week I will announce my local riders.
1st Michael Dunlop
When Michael Dunlop parted company with Gary Ryan and Street Sweep Racing to run his own team, I - along with a lot of fans - were sceptical of the machinery that he was to race. Getting the start he wanted to the season, by winning three races at the Tandragee 100, looked great for Dunlop, but it was after the North West that it was plain to see that the Suzuki was not the machine to have in the ultracompetitive Supersport 600 class, with top-end speed so important at the TT and Ulster Grand Prix. The garage at Street Sweep in Lusk was raided, and Peter O'Flaherty's 600 Yamaha (the bike that Michael rode in 2011) shipped off to the Isle of Man for the TT. It was do or die for the 23-yearold Ballymoney rider, but the gamble paid off. Dunlop won the Second Supersport race, having broken down while leading the first. He then finished second to John McGuinness in the Superstock race. With three wins to his credit at the TT, and now signed to the Honda TT Legends team, his future over the course that he so wants success on is now there for the talented rider. Despite being beaten in the Grand Final at Skerries by his great rival Ryan Farquhar, Dunlop's season really took off after that. At Walderstown he took three wins, and a few days later back in the Isle of Man, and the Southern 100, he took five wins from five starts, and the course record to go with his tally. He came home and took another treble at his home races at Armoy, and then at the Ulster and Dundrod races he scored three more wins. To finish off his season Michael went back to the Isle of Man for the Classic race, and took his third win in the Classic class. At Killalane he also took the Superbike race and the Country Crest Grand Final, and to cap off the year he went to Scarborough and competed in the sidecar class with Dan Sayle in the chair, and the pair really opened everyone's eyes with great results in top-class company. Dunlop is a class rider, and while he is temperamental, and at times runs into trouble with the authorities, he has matured into a true road racer, to follow the steps of his late father Robert and Uncle Joey, and that is why he is my national rider of the year.
2nd Ryan Farquhar
It is very easy to be emotional when you look back at the season, and the way it turned out for Ireland's most decorated road racer. Ryan Farquhar was in the twilight of his tremendous racing career, and it was common knowledge that the Dungannon rider was going to cut down on his racing and concentrate on promoting the 650 Supertwin class that he single-handedly created, and brought it to where it is at the moment. What was to happen in the Isle of Man during the Manx Grand Prix changed the whole season and career of Farquhar. The tragic death of his uncle Trevor Ferguson, who was riding Ryan's own 650 Kawasaki in the Supertwin race, saw Farquhar announce his immediate retirement from the sport. Farquhar's domination of the Irish road race scene saw him retire with 199 wins to his credit, and there is no doubt, had he raced at Killalane he would have surpassed the 200 mark. It was at Killalane a few years ago that he beat the legendary Joey Dunlop's record, but instead of claiming another milestone he bowed out of racing with a lap of the course with his close friend John Burrows, who also announced his retirement that day. Farquhar's season had seen him in usual dominant fashion, and at the North West he had his bikes in the first three in the Supertwin class in their first race on the course. He also won the same class at the TT and the Ulster. Right from the start of the season at Cookstown he was on the pipe, and all through the season he was scoring multiple wins. One of the best races that I have seen him race at was the Grand Final at Skerries, where he rode around Michael Dunlop at Finnegan's corner to take a classic win. Ryan Farquhar will be remembered for his distinctive style, and machinery preparation. A rider who spoke his mind, but yet cared for the sport and the way it was going. His creation of the Supertwin class has grown, and now recognised at all the 'Big Three' Internationals, and I am sure that while he has retired from racing he will be involved in some way in the future.
3rd William Dunlop
William had a great year, and were it not for injuries that he sustained at the North West which left the TT hard to race and get the results that he deserved, his season would have been so much better. William took the first 600 win at the North West, and the first International win for his boss Wilson Craig, but he crashed in the Superbike race. The injuries that he received took a long time to heal, and while he was fastest in practice for most of the week at the TT in the 600 class, it was the long race that took its toll. In race one of the Supersport class, it was between him and his brother Michael for the first two laps, but William had to settle for third in one of the closest ever TT races, won by Bruce Anstey. In race two he retired, and he also retired in the Superstock race, citing injuries from his NW crash. Returning to Skerries, William took the opening Superbike race, and followed this up with a win in the 250 class. His bad luck followed in the 600 race when he crashed heavily at Gillie's leap, and was lucky to escape serious injury, getting away with a dislocated shoulder. The following week he was back in action at Walderstown, where he took two wins and a close second to Michael in the final. Another double at Armoy was followed by another International win at the Ulster in the first 600