IN ANOTHER GRAND coup for Ireland, one of sport’s worst-kept secrets was finally made public this week with confirmation that the 2014 Giro d’Italia will begin with three stages here in May of next year.
As cycling bosses, politicians and media gathered in Belfast and then in Dublin on Thursday to hear details of the Giro’s “Grand Partenza” and the €34 million of immediate economic benefit which organisers estimate it will bring, another success was unfolding thousands of miles away: Martyn Irvine, the 27-year-old track racer from Newtownards, County Down captured a gold and silver medal double at the World Championships in Minsk.
It was a historic moment, not least because it is more than a century since an Irishman has won a world track medal, and all the more remarkable because there is no indoor velodrome to support aspiring cyclists in this country. Before Irvine emphatically underlined the point, the need for facilities to match our ambitions was stressed again by Sean Kelly at the launch of the 2013 An Post-ChainReaction Sean Kelly team in Tielt, Belgium earlier this week.
Since 2006 Kelly’s team has helped promising young Irish riders develop and, hopefully, break into the professional ranks. Classed as a “third tier” UCI Continental team, the squad competes primarily in Belgium with 17 riders this season under the watchful eye of manager Kurt Bogaerts.
Of the 17, four are Irish: Ronan McLaughlin (25), Sam Bennett (22), Sean Downey (22) and Jack Wilson (19). Though they occasionally brush shoulders with cycling’s big stars — Bennett was edged out of a stage win by Mark Cavendish and Team Sky at the Tour of Britain last September — theirs is a world away from the spotlight and the household names.
(L-R) Bennett, McLaughlin, Downey and Wilson at the team launch in Tielt, Belgium this week (Sportsfile / Stephen McCarthy)
If there ever seemed to be anything remotely glamorous about lugging your body and bike across hard terrain, up challenging climbs and down the other side again, the life of these aspiring young cyclists makes it a lie. “It’s bloody hard work,” says Wilson, a former Irish junior champion and the newest addition to the team having joined from a Belgian amateur outfit at the end of last season.
With a handful of their team-mates the four live together in a house in Buggenhout, about 40 minutes north of Brussels. The daily routine seems monotonous but this is what it takes: wake at some time between eight and nine in the morning for breakfast; a training ride, which can last for an hour or five depending on what day of the week it is; home; stretch; dinner. Once that much is done, resting and recharging the batteries ahead of the next day’s toil is the priority. More often than not, that involves doing as little as possible.
“You learn how to be good at being bored,” Wilson says. “Us boys, we could teach people how to be good at being bored.”
“Before I wouldn’t have thought much about going out to play football for an hour,” McLaughlin says, “but it’s more important to sit there and rest your legs.” Books, DVDs, YouTube and Facebook are par for the course.
The man from Muff, County Donegal is very much the elder statesman of the Irish quartet. Now in his sixth season with the team, McLaughlin hasn’t given up on his own hopes of progressing to the next level — a move to Continental Pro team, a step below the elite World Tour — but he knows he can also play a big part in the development of his young housemates.
“If I can give them some guidance that I could have done with five or six years ago, or that I got from Kurt or Sean, that’s what I want to do.
When I was that age coming in to the team, I spent a lot of time living with Philip Deignan in France and training with him. He taught me so much that if I can do something like that for Jack and the other lads, that would be great.
It’s a give-and-take that is reciprocated throughout the team, whether it be in the cooking and washing up duties (McLaughlin is the unanimous choice when it comes to making dinner) or on a more basic level. Bennett and Downey are close friends having risen through the national age ranks together and after riding as team-mates at VC La Pomme-Marseille in France.
“People would say we’re like a married couple… we are like a married couple,” Downey admits. “The way I look at it, we’re more like brothers.”
“My girlfriend sometimes feels like it’s me and Sean in the relationship together and she’s the friend,” Bennett laughs.
“He’ll pick me up when I’m down and I’ll do the same for him. We’ll always look after each other. That’s what you need do when you’re away and you’re against all the other guys out there.”
When it comes to training, the team feed off each other’s strengths as well, Downey explains. When he wants to work on his sprints, he tags along with Bennett, the speedster of the group.
I know he’s a really good sprinter but if we go out I think, ‘I’m gonna beat you.’ And if the two of you are kicking the crap out of each other, you’re going to help each other develop.
But the fundamental contradiction which lies at the heart of professional cycling is obvious here as well. These guys — and their team-mates from Belgium, England, Australia and New Zealand — need to work together. At the same time, each of them desperately wants the stage win which would raise their profile and allow them to make the step up from Continental to Continental Pro.
Gediminas Bagdonas, winner of the An Post Rás in 2011, Roy Jans and Kenneth Van Bilsen have all made that progression in the past. With Bagdonas now out of the picture, Bennett is likely to be one of the main beneficiaries when it comes to gunning for wins.
“To be the main man is pretty difficult because there’s so many good riders on the team,” he says. “If I feel I can win a race and there’s an opportunity there for me, I’ll do everything I can to be the main man.
“I know when I’m not going good so I can’t be greedy and hold other people back either. If I’m going good, I’ll tell them I’m going good; if I’m going bad, I’ll give them a dig out so they give me a dig out when I’m going good.”
Downey echoes that: “If it comes to a sprint, you need to talk. Sometimes with the likes of Niko [Eeckhout, the team's 42-year-old veteran], you’ll know that if it comes to a sprint he can get a result, or last year with the likes of Bagdonas.
“This year there is no Bagdonas so we know that we need to talk to each other and be honest with each other.”
That honesty will likely come into play again this weekend with two races lined up in Belgium. Bennett, Downey and Wilson are part of the seven-man for today’s Beverbeek Classic while tomorrow, McLaughlin is in a squad of eight for the first Belgian Classic of the new year: Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.
It’s still early in the season but the unpredictable nature of races, not to mention the accidents and injuries which can scar a season, means you have to be ready when your chance arrives. At this level, one win can make all the difference.