Thursday 22 February 2018

Paul Kimmage: Only the privileged (or motorists) are free to use Ireland's highways

Local authorities are making it harder to stage cycling events

Local authorities are making it harder to stage cycling events
Local authorities are making it harder to stage cycling events
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

The most important thing (about sport) from a government point of view is participation; trophies and medals are really important and we want to, and do, support our high-performance athletes as much as we can, but the most important thing is to get people taking part in sport, and taking part collectively. It's one of the good things that's happened in the last couple of years that more people are actually participating in sport and physical activity than have in the past.

Leo Varadkar with Ger Gilroy on Wednesday's Off the Ball

You have to hand it to Leo Varadkar (well, you don't actually but I'm going to) – when it comes to being Minister for Sport he does more than talk the talk. He swims and runs and rides a bike and was one of 430 starters last year in the 3D Sprint Triathlon at the National Aquatic Centre in Blanchardstown.

His time (1:39:10) for the 750m swim, the 15km bike ride and the 5km run wasn't good enough for the prizes but Varadkar clearly enjoyed the experience and signed up a month later for his second triathlon in Athy. "I need to work on the bike," he smiled. "People kept on passing me out."

Hey Leo, welcome to our world.

The Minister won't be competing in Blanchardstown this year. Neither will anyone else. On March 24, the organisers announced that the event had been cancelled due to "ongoing difficulties in the Fingal area regarding triathlons and bike races being held on public roads".

The public road in question was a 10km stretch from the exit of the aquatic centre on Snugborough Road to the turning point for the bike ride near Kilbride in Co Meath.

Lochlann Walsh is the president of Triathlon Ireland and a member of 3D, the promoting club: "They're good roads with very little traffic on Sunday mornings," he says. "The only real problem was the exit of the aquatic centre but we had that fairly well managed after ten years of running it."

There was a time, not so long ago, when the only requirement to run any sort of bike race in Dublin was a few homemade red flags and some trusty volunteers to raise them at corners. Today, we're a lot more civilised and are bound by Section 74 of the Roads Act 1993 and its two most salient paragraphs:

(2) A person who intends to hold, organise or promote a road race shall give at least one month's notice (or such other period of notice as may be prescribed by the Minister) in writing to the road authority and to the Superintendent of the Garda Síochána within whose district the road race is to be held.

(3) A road authority may by notice in writing: (i) prohibit the holding of the road race (ii) prohibit the holding of the road race unless specified conditions or requirements are complied with (iii) impose specified conditions, restrictions or requirements in relation to the holding of the road race which must be complied with.

Fingal County Council is the granting authority for Dublin. In general, once they've been notified and have received the documentation (indemnity insurance etc), they require race organisers to confirm that one of the following criteria has been met:

(a) A temporary road closure under Section 73 of the Roads Act 1993 has been/will be applied for to facilitate the event and will be in place during the event; or, (b) A 'rolling' Road Closure, policed by An Garda Síochána, is in place for the full extent and duration of the event; or, (c) At all times during the event, the Rules of the Road and all provisions of the Road Traffic Acts will be complied with in full by all persons participating in any way in the event.

On January 27, four months before their triathlon in May, the organisers were informed by gardaí at a meeting in Blanchardstown station that they would have to close the roads. "We approached Fingal County Council to apply for a road closure," Walsh says, "and they told us to save our money (the fee is €1,000). They said, 'You're not going to get a road closure in that area. There's too many industrial estates and they need 24/7 access'." Two further meetings were held; the gardaí wouldn't budge, neither would the council, and an alarming trend was flagged by the website Irish Triathlon when the event was cancelled.

To date a few of the key incidents forced by a new interpretation of the 1993 Road Traffic Act include: cancellation of all mid-week bike races in North County Dublin: previously over 20 mid-week bike races were organised by Swords Cycling Club, Dublin Wheelers and Cycling Ireland's Women's Commission; cancellation of one of the 2013 Balbriggan Duathlons organised by Fingal Tri Club; last-minute shortening and time change of the 2013 NAC Triathlon; making the cycle stage of the 2013 Skerries Triathlon non-competitive; and now the cancellation of the long-running NAC Triathlon.

It's also worth noting the cancellation for traffic reasons of both the Portmarnock Triathlon and the Howth Triathlon in 2012. In 2011, there were five triathlons in north county Dublin, there may be none by the end of this year."

Hey Leo, what's going on?

The mecca for cycling in Dublin used to be the Phoenix Park. There were five circuits to choose from – the two-mile, the three-mile, the five-mile, the Khyber Pass and St Mary's (or 15 acres) – and it was the home to most of our great races, like An Tostal, Rás Tailteann, the Tour of Ireland, the Coast to Coast, the Grand Prix of Ireland.

The custodians of the Park, the Office of Public Works (OPW), like to pretend that nothing has changed.

The Park, according to their website, is still a "green lung for the city" and home "to over two thousand sporting and recreational events annually". Unfortunately, none of those events are bike races. The last time a race was held in the Phoenix Park? A Wednesday evening in May 2010.

Alice Sherratt of the Irish Road Club was the organiser that night.

"I had meetings with the OPW and they put us on the Khyber pass circuit," she says. "It was a great circuit, hard to manage, but we ran it and it was great but the following day I was called in and told we couldn't have it any more because the hospital (St Mary's) people, coming into change shifts, were complaining.

"They told us we could have it if we ran the races at eight o'clock at night, which was totally impractical. They just didn't want us. The Park was the ideal place but we were put out of it, literally. They don't want to upset the motorists. I went to meetings with them and pointed it out that in major cities in other countries they close the parks at six o'clock and hand them over to the public but they wouldn't entertain me."

The OPW's Maurice Cleary attended some of the meetings. "I can't remember all of the details," he says, "but if you want to write to us, I can look at the files and come back to you with answers. I do know that the ball park has slightly changed now and that the guards insist on road closures for racing bikes."

"Would it not be a solution to just close the gates?" I suggest. "Oh absolutely, but the problem is that I think there are 30,000 (car) journeys through the Park every day."

"But if you close the gates they will have to go around the Park."

"Well, that's true."

Hey Leo, there are 35 bike races held annually at Central Park in New York. The gates are closed every day from 10am to 3pm and from 7pm to 7am. And at weekends from 7pm on Friday to 7am on Monday. What's the story with the green lung?

The Irish Road Club have moved their evening races to Mondello Park in Kildare. At least four clubs – Dublin Wheelers, Swords, the Irish Veterans and Lucan – now run their events in Co Meath. Last week, two of the oldest (and best) races in Co Dublin – the Harry Reynolds and Ben McKenna memorials – were almost cancelled but for a last-minute reprieve. But for the showcase events it is business as usual.

Next month, 200 riders in the Giro d'Italia will swoop into Balbriggan (home of the Harry Reynolds) and race, traffic-free, on beautifully resurfaced roads – the work started last week – along the coast to Skerries and Swords. The message will be: Céad Míle Fáilte from Fingal County Council and An Garda Síochána. They will have no idea just how privileged they are.

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