Sunday 21 January 2018

Cycle of life: Ireland's contribution to cycling history is well worth celebrating

Stephen Roche wears the yellow jersey in Dijon during the 1987 Tour de France.
Stephen Roche wears the yellow jersey in Dijon during the 1987 Tour de France.
1880s John Boyd Dunlop with the first bicycle to have pneumatic tyres
Bikes parked in O'Connell Street in 1950s Dublin.
Shay Elliott takes a ride in a pram after arriving at Toulouse during the 1961 Tour de France.
Sean Kelly rides during the individual time-trial of the 1989 Tour de France.

Conor O'Hagan

Ireland took to the bicycle from the beginning. As early as 1898, the bicycle was transforming the streets of Dublin to the extent that over-imaginative commentators predicted the eventual conversion of the Liffey's muddy bed into a giant concrete cycleway. And to think it was only another century later that we got the Luas…

In his book Cycling in Victorian Ireland, Brian Griffin quotes a November 1897 piece by the editor of the Irish Wheelman, JC Percy, surveying recent developments in the cycling trade in Ireland, declaring: "Cycling has now found its level, which happily is a very high one. It is no longer a fad or a fancy, but an established factor in modern everyday life… The army of riders is increasing with constant and steady growth, and will continue to enrol in its numbers, members of every age, sex, and rank."

By this time, the 'boneshaker' and the 'ordinary' or 'penny farthing' had been superceded in the cauldron of technology, and from the mid 1880s the safety bicycle - as it became known in more or less the form we see today - was a practical and reasonably accessible alternative to horse-drawn transport.

But perhaps the most formative of all the developments that transformed the bicycle into a usable, everyday convenience for the world came about in Belfast, when veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop hit upon the invention that has borne his name ever since. In an effort to make his rather sickly son's tricycle more comfortable on city cobbles, Dunlop applied pneumatic rubber tyres, having first - or so he thought - invented them.

This single modification overcame one of the most stubborn obstacles to mass adoption, and though Dunlop himself made little or no money from his invention (he was later shown to have merely re-discovered an earlier innovation), despite going into business with a factory off Dublin's St Stephen's Green, the pneumatic tyre - to this day the point of contact between virtually every wheeled road vehicle and the ground - became the foundation of a vast global industry.

The comfort it brought to the bicycle rider not only revolutionised cycling, it enabled a leap forward by eliminating the need for complex, heavy and expensive suspension devices, a need which only resurfaced a century later with the rise of off-road cycling for sport - a gratuitous discomfort if ever there was one.

Anyone who has ridden a 'Dutch' continental-style roadster with its fat, springy tyres favouring comfort over speed will understand the relief with which Dunlop's invention was greeted by Victorian bikers.

Around the same time, cycling was for the first time being adopted as a competitive sport, with the Irish Road Club - still thriving today - founded in 1890, the origins of a tradition in road racing which has served Ireland with distinction.

The 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games came at a time when Irish sportsmen still competed internationally under the British flag. But the cycling team which travelled to Sweden sporting oversized shamrocks on their vests was a notable exception. The team, mounting Dublin-made Lucania machines, was unlucky with the prevailing weather in the endurance event, took over 12 hours to complete the course and failed to medal, but was noted for its fortitude in extreme conditions and received special commendation from the Swedish organisers - four of whose gold-winning team failed to complete.

But it wasn't until the 1960s that Ireland's golden age of competitive cycling really began, and it was the great Shay Elliott who led the way, with multiple wins on the Continent for various professional teams and in 1963, a glorious three days in the Tour de France's yellow jersey.

Elliott's experience, and the stimulus it gave to the domestic scene, paved the way for the two greatest names in Irish cycling; close contemporaries and true cycling Hall of Famers in one of the toughest of all international sports.

It's hard to overstate just what monumental achievements the parallel careers of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche were. In an era not short of legends, Kelly's performances in the 'Classics' and Grand Tours made him one of the most respected and feared competitors on two wheels - a quiet, hard man, respected and feared wherever he competed. Kelly's seven-in-a-row Paris-Nice wins stands as one of the all-time great cycling feats.

That Irish cycling was at the same time able to boast Stephen Roche added a distinctly 46A flavour to the late 80s. The Dundrum man's annus mirabilis of 1987 saw him achieve one of cycling's Holy Grails - a Giro d'Italia, Tour de France, World Championship triple that had been done only once before, and is the preserve of the truly great.

In all, five Irish cyclists have won nine stages of the Tour de France, with Martin Earley's five Tour completions and a stage win in 1989 crowning a career which later saw him compete in the inaugural Olympic Mountain Bike competition in 1996, and most recently, Dan Martin's 2013 victory sprint on Stage 9 - a national performance that more than holds its own with, dare I mention it, our immediate neighbours England and their 24 stage wins to date.

Two of our most exciting prospects in recent decades - Nicholas Roche and Dan Martin - continue to carry the Irish flag at the highest level, ensuring that the British, despite two recent Tour de France titles, don't have it all their own way.

And the extent of the current cycling on Ireland's roads and mountains surely means we'll be back at the top - or somewhere close - before too long to write another page in the annals of cycling.

Irish Independent

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