Sam Bennett brought some much-needed glory to Ireland on Sunday evening when he stormed to his second stage victory this year on the Champs Élysees, bringing home the green jersey. The green jersey represents the leader in the points competition and Bennett became the first Irishman to don the jersey since Carrick-On-Suir compatriot Sean Kelly picked up the last of his four green jerseys on the international stage.
This article however is not meant to be a report on a glorious three weeks for Irish cycling but rather discuss the present and future state of the sport on this island. While many businesses are struggling to survive during the Covid-19 pandemic, bike shops have boomed with many reporting that stocks are only beginning to be refilled again due to the increase in numbers of those taking up the sport be it in a social or competitive capacity. Forgive me for getting political for a moment but Sam Bennett is not the only one to be donning the green jersey at present. Environmentalists are understandably pointing out the emergence of numerous and cycle lanes dotted around the country as a means of transport and exercise.
Politics aside, Bennett’s success leads to a broader question on the overall health of the sport when it comes to producing elite cyclists. Bennett for one was born in Belgium to a father playing professional football in the country at the time. He is however a product of the Irish system, coming through the ranks of the now-defunct An Post, chain reaction team spearheaded by Sean Kelly. Bennett, however, is an exception. The two other cyclists who would be seen as spearheading the profile of the sport in Ireland are Nicholas Roche (twice in the top ten of the Vuelta De España) and Dan Martin ( 6th in the Tour de France in 2017. Both are related but most importantly developed their talent abroad with Roche spending most of his life in France while Martin was born and raised in England, qualifying through his Irish mother. Both are extremely proud to represent Ireland and have been fantastic servants to the sport but are in the twilight of their careers.
The future of Irish cycling has the potential to be very promising. Corkman Eddie Dunbar is a talented rider who finished in the top 30 of last year’s Giro D’Italia while 20-year-old Ben Healy is also one to look out for in the coming years. While cycling is seen as a participation sport, it does have the advantage of tradition compared to other sports in a similar state. Not every island can boast of having three Tour de France winners in two different classifications. Add this to the multiple medalists on the track, Martin Irvine and Lydia Boylan just to name a couple, from a country that does not even have its own velodrome. Cycling Ireland CEO Matt McKerrow spoke to RTÉ Sport in the aftermath of the tour and said that “the folks at Sport Ireland assure me it’s the next priority.” It is hoped that it could be in place at the National Sports Campus in Abbottstown before the 2024 Paris Olympics. Imagine what could be achieved if the proper facilities are put in place? It certainly is a tantalizing prospect.
However, it will require more than promises to bring cycling back into the mainstream of Irish sport on a permanent basis. Contrary to popular belief, the sporting field does not have a short memory which doesn’t help cycling’s image. Although the authorities have done a decent job to clean up doping within the sport it still comes with a stigma, which isn’t helped by fresh doping allegations against the Arkea-Samsic team 24 hours after the tour’s completion. The team led by Colombian cycling legend Nairo Quintana insist that they are innocent and have nothing to hide. It would be a real shame if the sport was to be tarnished again by doping especially after a phenomenal three weeks of racing in which a star in Tadej Podagcar of Slovenia had been born.
Of course, another star in green was born during a magic three weeks in September. Another iconic moment in Irish sport was recorded in the City of Love, providing that bit of hope that we could all do with right now.