Ireland’s Tour de France History

Luxembourg only have five riders currently racing on Pro Tour teams. Of these five, three of them are among the best in the world, Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck and Kim Kirchen. They have each won one of cycling’s classics, they have each won a stage of the Tour de France and they have each worn the yellow jersey. The fact that they have managed to produce such riders is made all the more remarkable due to the fact that the country has a population of  only half a million people with a land mass comparable to that of County Meath.

Frank Schleck had the misfortune of crashing out on the cobbled Stage 3 of this year’s Tour and has recently released a picture of his devastated shoulder. One of Kim Kirchen’s major goals for the year was to be the Tour de France, but he was unable to take part for a very sobering reason. He suffered a heart attack on the 18th June and as a result was placed in an induced coma. He was released from hospital last week and it is not clear when or if Kirchen will return to professional cycling. This leaves Andy Schleck as the sole representative of Luxembourg in this year’s Tour de France which he is hoping to win. He is currently the leader of the race and should he wear the yellow jersey all the way to Paris he will become the 4th Luxembourg rider to do so after François Faber (1909), Nicolas Frantz (1927,1928) and most recently Charly Gaul (1958). It is a very rich Tour history for such a small nation.

As a small country on the outskirts of the cycling stronghold of mainland Europe, Ireland can be equally as proud of its own history in the Tour de France. Only eight Irish riders have ridden the Tour in the past, but half of whom have won a stage in the race. Ireland’s first ever Tour competitor was Séamus Elliott in 1956, a race which he did not finish. However he was to return again in 1958 when he took 48th overall bagging five top 10 stage placings along the way, including a 2nd place finish behind the Dutch rider Gerrit Voorting. Elliott went on to take part in six Tours de France altogether, finishing three of them. His career defining moment came in the 1963 Tour when he won the 3rd Stage which finished in Roubaix. By winning the stage he also took over the race leader’s yellow jersey, becoming only the second rider outside of mainland Europe to do so, after the British Tom Simpson had achieved the feat the year before. Elliott went on that year to help his team mate Jacques Anquetil win his 4th Tour de France.

After Seamus Elliott rode his last Tour in 1964 there was a gap of 14 years before another Irishman entered the race. This was the formidable Sean Kelly who burst on to the scene in 1978 by winning a stage in his first Tour de France. Kelly was best known for his classics victories but he also had an immense record in the Tour. He finished the race in 7th place in 1983, 5th in 1984 and 4th in 1985. He also won five stages of the Tour, surprisingly his last came as far back as 1982.

But five stage wins doesn’t adequately illustrate the prominence with which Kelly presented himself at the Tour. He finished in the top 10 of a Tour stage on more than 100 occasions. In 1985 he finished 2nd on an agonising five stages, and finished 3rd on a further four. In 1984 he racked up a remarkable 16 top 10 placings and yet unbelievably he was pipped for the Green Jersey competition on the final day by the Belgian Frank Hoste.

However he did win the Green Jersey as the winner of the points classification four times, which was a Tour record until Erik Zabel went one better in 2000. He also won the intermediate sprints competition on a record three occasions. A record which is likely to stand forever as this contest was rendered defunct after 1989. In 1983 he wore the yellow jersey for one day. A day which he claims to be one of the proudest of his career despite the fact he suffered terribly over the Pyreneean climbs of the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde.

Sean Kelly sparked off a golden era for Irish cycling. For the ten years between 1983 and 1992, Ireland had at least two riders competing in every Tour de France. One of the riders present in all but one of these years was of course Stephen Roche. The man from Dublin won the Tour in 1987 beating off the challenge of Pedro Delgado and Jean-François Bernard. He also finished on the podium in 1985 only four and a half minutes behind the winner Bernard Hinault and less than three minutes behind second placed Greg LeMond. He won four individual stages over the years, along with a team time trial win in his triumphant Tour in 1987. His last stage win, and Ireland’s last, came 18 years ago in 1992. Roche also finished in 9th place overall that year.

Throughout these wonderful years for Kelly and Roche, three other Irishmen also rode in the Tour de France. The most successful was undoubtedly the bespectacled Martin Earley who, whilst riding for Sean Kelly’s PDM team in 1989 became the fourth man from Ireland to win a stage in the Tour. The pair of them also helped PDM win the team classification that year. In total Earley rode eight Tours de France, finishing five of them. Paul Kimmage, now a famous journalist rode the Tour in 1986, 1987 and 1989. He finished the race at his first attempt taking two top 10 stage placings along the way.

In 1991, Stephen Roche started the Tour with his brother Lawrence in his team alongside him. Kelly and Earley also started the Tour that year. Of the four, Lawrence Roche was the only one of them to make it to Paris. After Stephen Roche rode his last Tour de France in 1993 there was another lull in terms of an Irish presence in the race. It wasn’t until 2003 that national interest returned when former Junior World Champion Mark Scanlon took to the startline for the French AG2R team. He finished in a creditable 89th place.

Then last year the third Roche to ride the Tour, Nicolas, revived the Irish presence in the race once again. He rode strongly throughout, defending the yellow jersey of his team mate Rinaldo Nocentini for over a week and he even took 2nd place on the stage to Besançon. Despite not riding specifically for the G.C. he finished his first Tour de France in an impressive 23rd position. This year however, Roche has expressed his desire to put in a strong G.C. performance. Until the race reached the high mountains, Roche had maneuvered himself into 8th place overall. A couple of tough days in the Alps saw him drop to 17th place, but a cheeky breakaway toward the end of Stage 10 allowed him to claw back over a minute and he moved up again in the G.C.

It would have been marvelous to have had Roche, Deignan and Martin all competing in the Tour this July. But Roche, like Andy Schleck, is doing a fine job of flying the flag solo for a country which has had a vast influence on this grandest of Grand Tours. He currently sits in 13th place overall, the same position his father finished in his last Tour 17 years ago. If he was to stay in 13th until Paris he will have achieved his goal of a top 15 place and he will have written another line in the proud history of Irish riders in the Tour de France.

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  1. Louis Moriarty - February 10, 2012 @ 9:49 am

    I am looking for a picture of Sean Kelly wearing yellow jersey in 1983 tour of france

  2. claresey - January 23, 2014 @ 8:56 pm

    can you tell me did paul cahill ever cycle a bike?
    is it true he is a nerd?

  3. Rico Kells - January 23, 2014 @ 9:09 pm

    For sale : 1 Soma touring bike,unused to date but will sell after miserable failed Wicklow 200 attempt

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