Halpin ready to make up for lost time
When the Suir Valley 3-Day gets under way from Clonmel this afternoon, Sean Kelly's An Post team will be looking to continue the trend of winning on home soil.
Having taken two stage wins and the King of the Mountains title at the Ras in May, they returned home from their Belgian base in July to win the National Road Race Championships in Sligo with Matt Brammeier.
This weekend the green-clad squad of Mark Cassidy, Ronan McLaughlin, Mark McNally and Conor McConvey will be joined by 22-year-old Skerries native Stephen Halpin, who will make his first appearance for the team in his capacity as 'stagiare' or triallist.
Each year, the UCI allows professional teams to give trials to promising young riders for the end of the season. A good performance can earn a full-time contract the following year. Halpin, though, is only back from a seven-week spell off the bike due to illness and is simply glad to be racing.
After a promising start to the season with Belgian amateur team SDG Rogelli, Halpin was hit by a virus in May and was forced to withdraw from the Ras after just four days. "I knew something was wrong before the Ras, but I didn't think it would be as bad as it was," said Halpin yesterday.
"I had talked to my doctor, Conor McGrane -- who is also the doctor for Cycling Ireland -- about it, and he said it could work either way, I could get better or worse. I decided to give it three or four days.
"I was able to go with a couple of moves at the start of the stages and I might have 100km of decent legs some days but once the real racing started I had nothing. No power, just empty legs. Every day, it got worse and on the fourth day, he told me to stop."
After further investigations, Halpin was forced off the bike for almost two months. "I was out of racing for around seven weeks," he says. "I had a virus in my blood and had a really low white blood cell count. I didn't really do much at all apart from rest and try and keep the weight off. I could chance the odd hour on the bike, but couldn't do anything hard or push myself at all."
Just when he feared he wasn't going to get a 'stagiare' spot with any of the pro teams, Kurt Bogaerts, the Belgian manager of the An Post squad, offered Halpin a place alongside Dubliner Philip Lavery for the end of season.
Back in action a month, Halpin is looking forward to joining Sean Kelly's men for the Suir Valley 3-Day today.
"Getting three days of racing in Clonmel this weekend should really bring the form on. I've only done about four races since coming back. I started back in Belgium, back in the deep end but I'm coming good again.
"I've been riding mainly kermesses, very fast, flat races and although they've been hard, I've finished them all and got 12th in the Trophee Zele last week. I'm still not flying, not 100pc, but I've been getting better every week.
"I've had to use my head a bit more and can't be as aggressive as I usually am, but I should be back to normal in the next two or three weeks.
"We have a good team with Mark Cassidy, Mark McNally, Conor McConvey and Ronan McLaughlin, who is back after breaking his wrist at the Tour of Belgium.
"We haven't really sat down and talked about it yet, but we will be going to win stages and the overall. Myself, I'm still not 100pc, but I'm sure I can be up there on stages."
Now in it's fourth year, the Suir Valley 3-Day has grown and this year has attracted riders from France, Belgium, the Isle of Man and England as well as an Irish development squad. Stage one gets under way at 1.0, starting and finishing in Clonmel.