Wednesday 23 October 2019

Dunne back from brink and ready to grab every opportunity

Conor Dunne during his recent training camp in Israel
Conor Dunne during his recent training camp in Israel

Ciaran Lennon

Conor Dunne carries a little extra responsibility on his broad shoulders these days. It comes as the guardian of the Irish champion's jersey, an honour he's held since soloing to victory at the national championships in Sligo last June, but in practice, he's had far too few opportunities to do it justice on the road.

The sudden collapse of his Aqua Blue team in August brought a premature end to his season, and put his own future in the sport in doubt, and with options in professional cycling shrinking by the week it was to his considerable relief that Israel Cycling Academy (ICA) offered him a one-year deal.

The 27-year-old, brought up in an Irish household in Hertfordshire, but now also an adopted son of Waterford, is determined to make up for lost time in his green and white colours starting when his ambitious team cross the start line at the eight-day Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina tomorrow.

"I'm just glad to be still racing at this level with that jersey on my back. When I first got it I was excited about racing in it and showing it off but in the end I didn't really get many race days in the jersey. So I was kinda gutted about that, so I really want to make up for that," he says.

"It's a responsibility as well, you're representing your country, so I want to do it justice."

Dunne had previously adopted a more selective approach to his racing, preferring big blocks of training to get him in peak shape for particular goals, but for 2019 he wants to take a different approach, aiming to be ready to empty the tank every time he pins a race number on.

After seeing his life as a professional athlete almost cut short, the tallest man in pro cycling (6ft 8in) knows that there's no point waiting for tomorrow.

"I'm not going to miss any opportunity I get to race, and to just try and show myself as best as possible every time I get on the start line.

"In September, during the dark days when I thought there was a good chance I wasn't going to continue, I was kind of kicking myself looking back at all the times when I felt I maybe wasted an opportunity."

The experience of the last six months hasn't changed his philosophy, however. He knows the value of being a team player and hopes that role gets the recognition it deserves in a sport where so many sacrifice themselves for so few.

"When you do the opposite of this you're found out very quickly. I can have a big negative effect. No one wants to be in a team with a rider who just goes for themselves all the time," he says.

ICA will offer plenty opportunities for Dunne to make a contribution to the team's goal of finishing in one of the top two spots in this year's ProContinental team rankings, in a bid to open the door to the 2020 Grand Tours. And with a wild card invite in the post from the Giro d'Italia, there are major incentives for delivering in the early part of the season.

After wintering in Waterford, where his girlfriend Stacey calls home, the Nice-based rider is ready to hit the ground rolling.

"I'm hoping that I can prove myself to be a resilient rider in the team, do a job on different sort of terrain and situations. I think I've been training super hard this winter, I believe in myself that I can step it up again. And be ambitious again myself."

Dunne will take the change in team in his giant stride and he was impressed by what he saw at their recent training camp in Israel, which was as much about introducing the riders to the 'home' country as preparing for the road ahead.

"Obviously, there's a complicated history to Israel, but it was just nice to be there, nice to hear the message the team brings, which is a message of peace and the will to try and unite people through cycling.

"I'm proud to ride for the team. Sport has only ever had a positive impact on my life and I really believe it can only be a positive thing. So really hope the message the team carries can be effective."

Vuelta a San Juan
Eurosport 2, tomorrow, 9.30pm

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