The Tour of Ireland will be back

Irish cycling fans have been hit with the news this week that there is to be no 2010 edition of the Tour of Ireland. In a press release, the organisers said:

“Despite significant commercial and public sector funding, current economic conditions have meant that the additional investment required to make the event viable has not been forthcoming in time.”

But the release goes on to give us hope for 2011:

“We fully intend to bring it back for 2011 when the private sector environment is stronger”

This will not be the first time that the Tour of Ireland has been shelved over the years. The race was first run in 1953 where it started as a three day event and continued until 1956 as ‘An Tostál Tour of Ireland’ by which stage it had become an eight day race. The race was not run in 1957 (the only reason for this I can find is a vague mention of the Suez Crisis of 1957). It was revived by the Cumann Rothaíochta na hEireann (C.R.E., translates as the Cycling Association of Ireland, a precursor to today’s Cycling Ireland), again as an eight day race. Although the race was run over eight days, in some years such as 1968 and 1970 there were as many as 11 stages with shorter afternoon stages being held on some days. The race received a boost in 1970 when both Raleigh and Dunlop came on board as sponsors which increased the prize fund from £450 up to £650.

The Raleigh Dunlop Tour of Ireland continued until 1978 when Dunlop decided to end their interest. However Raleigh continued on unperturbed and the race was renamed the TI Raleigh Tour of Ireland up to and including the 1981 race. In January 1981, Jim McArdle of the Irish Times wrote the following:

“In spite of the withdrawal of many sponsors from varying sporting events because of the recession, Irish Raleigh are continuing their involvement with the Tour of Ireland Cycle Race next August.”

A sentiment which the race could benefit from in the recessionary times of this decade! Despite this declaration from Raleigh, they finally ended their marriage with the race in 1982. The following year in 1983 the race received a huge blow when some team sponsors pulled out and there was a general lack of interest with only 26 competitors signing up for the race. At this stage Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly were major forces in international cycling but were not permitted by their team managers to return to Ireland to race in their national Tour because they had contracts to race in bigger events on the continent.

Sean Kelly wears the yellow jersey (complete with massive rip) in the Nissan Classic.

In 1984 the race made a return. Roche had made noises the previous winter that he could be persuaded to take part. With the prospect of Roche competing, interest in the race increased. Efforts were made to also get Kelly on board, with the race organisers even promising to change the route of a stage so that Kelly’s home town of Carrick on Súir would host a stage finish, if the classics ace was to agree. Eventually both Kelly and Roche decided not to appear, as the dates of the race which had been moved from August to May interfered too much with their preparations for the Tour de France. But the race carried on regardless and eventually the race organisers enticed Calor Kosnagas to sign up as a title sponsor for the race.

In 1985 Nissan came on board as sponsor and the race took on what has been its most famous guise as the Nissan International Classic. Nissan provided a huge financial boost to the race which RTE had agreed to cover every night on T.V.  Finally Roche and Kelly were persuaded to come home and take part in their national Tour which had been moved back again to the other side of the Tour de France, this time in September. Kelly went on to win the next three editions of the race overall. Along with Ireland’s two great sporting heroes, many more of cycling’s biggest names entered the Nissan sponsored race between 1985 and 1992. Tour de France winners Greg LeMond, Pedro Delgado, Joop Zoetemelk and Lance Armstrong all took part in those years, along with further big names such as Eric Vanderaerden, Phil Anderson, Steve Bauer, Erik Breukink, Johan Museeuw and Olaf Ludwig. Sadly, Nissan ended their sponsorship in 1992 and as a result there was to be no Tour of Ireland in 1993, not for the want of trying however as then race director Pat McQuaid said:

“Everything is being considered in the talks [with sponsors] and hopefully we will have something sorted out in the next couple of months. So much work has to be done well in advance that I will have to go ahead with mapping out a route but we will be aiming to make big changes to give the race a new different look….it is expected that there will be live television coverage next year so that would be a big attraction to a new sponsor.”

Alas, it was not to be. The cancellation of the race also corresponded with the decline and eventual retirement of both Roche and Kelly. Consequently, there were no more major Irish cycling stars in the professional peloton which made finding willing sponsors even more difficult. The race disappeared from the cycling calendar for 15 years.

The Tour of Ireland was resurrected under it’s current guise in 2007 sponsored by Fáilte Ireland and has been run successfully for the past three years. In 2007 and 2008 it had been organised as a five day stage race, but last year the race was reduced to three days due to financial reasons. Race director Alan Rushton said at the time:

“We have had to be realistic with the race budget in view of the recession, however, we continue to focus on gaining additional resources for future editions of the race”

Mark Cavendish wins his third stage in a row during the 2008 Tour of Ireland.

Despite the reduction of the race, arguably the two biggest draws in cycling Lance Armstrong and Mark Cavendish made their way over last year. If not most people’s favourite racers, they are certainly the biggest draws to the non-cycling fan. Russell Downing, now of Team Sky, won the race after a final stage which had to be reduced due to the typically appalling bad weather that had hit Cork City that day. The weather made the ascents of the outrageously steep St. Patrick’s Hill even more difficult. However, the global recession which has hit Ireland particularly badly has now ensured that the Tour of Ireland race organisers could not find the sponsorship required to stage this year’s race. According to race director Rushton it takes €1.5 million to make the race a reality. The lack of available finance  is so frustrating when we see in the papers everyday that the Irish government are throwing billions of euro at Anglo-Irish bank willy nilly.

The last time the race was cancelled, it took 15 years to resurrect it. Although the current race directors comments are comparable with those made by McQuaid back in 1993, hopefully the result will be different this time around. The recession monster is still peering over all our shoulders but there are major differences in favour of the race returning that were not apparent in 1993. This time around, Ireland does have major cycling stars on the rise. Nicolas Roche, Daniel Martin and Philip Deignan are all still young talents who will get better and better. In addition, the Rás Tailteann has shown us that there is more to come from young Irish racers, Sam Bennett and Philip Lavery to name but two, are looking like great prospects. The An Post-Sean Kelly team, although now registered in Belgium, provides a platform to which young Irish talent can be launched into professional cycling careers. There has never been more cyclo sportifs available for enthusiastic amateurs to take part in. I daresay that cycling in Ireland is the healthiest it has ever been. For these reasons I am hopeful that the Tour of Ireland will return next year. It is a great race with a great history and I look forward to standing on St. Patrick’s Hill in the pissing rain in August 2011.

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