Monday 19 November 2018

Banteer's Pocket Rocket

Eddie Dunbar
Eddie Dunbar

Ciarán Lennon

A little time in the fog can sometimes help sharpen your focus. Suffering a concussion is not meant to provide clarity, but Eddie Dunbar has come out the other side of an uncertain six months with a clearer picture of the person he is and the athlete he wants to be.

The talented young Corkman has plotted a steady course for success over the last four years, but a heavy crash in Italy caused an unexpected interruption. It ruined half his season, but Dunbar has learned much about himself since.

He expects some effects to linger, like the pain he still feels in the arm he broke 14 years ago. He still suffers some headaches, but a long rest has blown away the clouds and left him refreshed ahead of a new year and new challenge. "I got to know myself really well because of it," he says now. "And I don't think many 21-year-olds get that chance. And because of it I think I'll be a better person and stronger person."

For those who don't know him so well, his surname has been sending ripples through Irish cycling for some time; his achievements drawing comparisons with Seán Kelly and Mark Scanlon, his riding style grabbing the attention of Eddy Merckx.

The pocket rocket from the north Cork village of Banteer caused an unmerited, he suggests, stir when declaring his Tour de France ambitions when just out of school, but his victory in last year's U-23 Tour of Flanders was anything but. He will be a new piece of the 2018 jigsaw for Aqua Blue Sport, the team with Cork roots adding one of their own. They're excited about his potential, and the sort of power numbers Dunbar's slight figure has generated during their tests has created some giddiness amongst their performance experts.

Not that Dunbar is a numbers-type and at 21 he already has enough experience to know racing is anything but a controlled environment. It can deliver the most shuddering of reality checks.

In the opening day of the U-23 Giro d'Italia in June, Dunbar crashed badly, his head taking the brunt of the impact. He was left dazed and in pain but the full extent of the damage didn't emerge for some months.

"I didn't realise what it was until August," he admits. "I was told to take two weeks off, didn't do that being the stubborn person that I am, didn't listen to doctors, kept it very quiet, went back on the bike after five days. I go out on the bike and I had constant pain in my head and I just didn't give it the respect it deserves."

Attempts to return to racing at the Irish Nationals saw Dunbar pull out of a race for the first time in his career. "I was seeing stars with two laps to go," he says. Other attempts were aborted after the Velothon Wales in July and the European Championships in August.

"Rather than take the three weeks off, I ended up taking three months because of it. And that was my own fault and I'll admit that, I was very naive to it and I paid the price, missing out on the races I did. But for my long-term health it was the best thing I could have done. And the three months I took off could be three years in my career now.

"So you have to look at it that way. Yeah, it was a tough time, but the worst of it is behind me, that's for sure."

Slowing down doesn't come naturally for any born racer. Dunbar had spent the last two years with one of the world's elite development teams, full of young blood, all in a hurry to get places. "I didn't realise how hard [it was to do nothing] because I've been cycling for 10 years, I stopped in August, and when you've free time; your friends are in college, your friends are working, you realise life goes on.

"You're very easily forgotten about when something like that happens, and that opened my eyes then another bit. And that was hard to accept but the good thing that I did learn from it was that if something like that does happen again I know how to deal with it mentally, because mentally that was really tough."

It was an especially difficult period for his American Axeon cycling team. In April, their team-mate Chad Young suffered horrific head injuries after crashing on a descent at the Tour of Gila, in New Mexico. The talented American was airlifted to hospital but died a few days later. The terrifying realities of the sport you love are hard to ignore when they come calling to your door.

"It was a shock, like losing a class-mate, because the team is such a close-knit team. It did affect the team, it affected the staff as well," he explains. "And, I suppose, from a personal view he died from a head injury and that's something you kinda brush off, and you think you can't leave that scare you, because you're going to have a fear of that in races yourself. It's very rare but there are chances of it happening.

"And then when I had a concussion and a head injury myself, you realise just how easy something like that can happen and it's completely out of your control, which is the scariest thing.

"But as I said, if you want to progress in the sport and achieve what you want to achieve you have to block that out."

Dunbar admits his experience has changed his perspective. His objectives remain, but the impact of the last six months can't be erased. "I still have my motivation and I still have the things that I want to do in cycling, that hasn't changed at all, but certainly you do realise there's lots more to life than the sport you're in," he says with maturity beyond his years. Monday was officially his first day as an Aqua Blue rider.

The first Irish professional outfit reflects his own characteristics: young, ambitious and quick to make an impression. The team, owned by Corkman Rick Delaney, excites Dunbar, who knows the opportunity to ride for the Irish team may not present itself again. They also provide the perfect platform for the next step in his career.

"It's a very experienced team, a very mature bunch of cyclists. There's plenty of years of experience there, it's a lot different than going into an U-23 development team. Guys are more relaxed about what they're doing. There's no eagerness... well there is eagerness there but they just know how to control it."

Dunbar talks about taking 'baby steps' after his enforced absence, although the prospect of riding the Ardennes classics in April is a source of motivation. He knows this is a year not to be rushed, which is a test in itself for someone who hasn't been shy about declaring his career goals. Observers smiled at his long-term plans to target the Tour de France, Nicolas Roche suggested he should think about taking it one step at a time. "I've been known for doing that, I don't think there's a problem in saying what you think. That's just the person I am, I don't mean anything by it. It doesn't mean I'm a young cocky kid, I'm not that guy," he says.

"It just got taken out of proportion. I mean, you ask any cyclist if they'd like to win the Tour de France and find me one that would say 'no'. I think believing you can do something is half the battle."

In April last year, Dunbar showed he can deliver on the big stage when the pressure was on, making a big statement with his victory at the U-23 Tour of Flanders, the cobbled race more suited to the heavyweights than a 56kg bantamweight from Banteer. "To win that was massive," he says.

"The minute I crossed that line the relief was just unbelievable. Honest to God, it was like someone lifting a weight off your shoulders.

"Everyone's always expecting a big result from me, and I knew it would come but I just need time, you know. And I always say to people, just give me time and it will come."

He knows he'll have to be patient this year, but he's refreshed and has a clearer vision of the road ahead in a sport he passionately believes in, despite the recurring storm clouds. And despite the team's base in the south of France and spending some time in Girona last year, Dunbar has no plans to leave Cork. It's where he's happiest.

 "I like training on Irish roads, there's nothing wrong with them, they've made me what I am so I'll continue to train here because that's what works." He won't forget where he's come from and he knows where he's going.