Giro d'Italia,Tour de France,Vuelta a Espana

The Grand Tour hat-trick: A stage win in each

18 Jun , 2012  

The biggest stage races in the sport of cycling are the Grand Tours. Consisting of three weeks of racing, the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana are each more than twice as long as the next longest stage race at the top level of the sport. To win one of these races is the pinnacle of any cyclist’s career.

Only five riders have ever won all three of these races. They are Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Felice Gimondi, Bernard Hinault and Alberto Contador. No rider has ever won all three in the same year. In fact, it is relatively rare to even complete all three in the same year.

Riders who are capable of winning multiple Grand Tours are clearly among the pantheon of cycling greats and some of the best cyclists the sport has ever seen. But within each Grand Tour lies the opportunity for riders to win a stage.

For most riders, winning a Grand Tour is an impossiblity, but similarly, for most riders, winning a stage of a Grand Tour is a very real dream and something most professional cyclists are capable of and aim towards. Winning a stage of one of these races can make an entire career.

Joaquim Rodriguez is the most recent rider to join the club.

As such, there are plenty of riders who fall into the category of riders who have won stages of all three Grand Tours in their career. In fact, there are 82 of them. Joaquim Rodriguez was the latest to join the club after he won Stage 17 of this year’s Giro.

So who was the first the manage this achievement?

The first year that this feat became possible was in 1935 when the Vuelta joined both the Giro and the Tour on the cycling calendar. Although the Tour de France was much more of an international affair, in early years both the Giro and the Vuelta very much remained races for Italian and Spanish riders respectively. Thus, in the 1930s and 1940s it was rare for riders to even ride two different Grand Tours in their careers, not to mention three. Of course, the interruption of war along with the problems of travel in the aftermath of war did not help matters throughout this period.

It wasn’t until the mid 1950’s that the hat-trick was finally achieved and there followed a flurry of completed Grand Tour stage winning hat-tricks in the proceeding years.

The honour of being the first rider to win a stage in each of cycling’s Grand Tours goes to the Italian, Fiorenzo Magni. He had already won stages in three separate editions of the Giro d’Italia (winning two overall) and won stages in five separate editions of the Tour. He probably would have won the Tour in 1950 had he not been forced to abandon due to Gino Bartali’s gripe with the French crowd.

Fiorenzo Magni was the first man on the list.

But Magni was still missing a stage win in the Vuelta, a race he had not even entered before 1955. But in a 29km time trial around Barcelona that year, Magni beat Mario Baroni by a single second to seal the hat-trick and be the first of the 82 riders to do so. Magni went on to win another stage of the Vuelta that year and followed that up with his third and final victory in the Giro d’Italia.

During Magni’s final Giro win later on in 1955, the second Grand Tour stage winning treble was completed by Bernardo Ruiz, just 22 days after Magni had completed the first. The floodgates had opened and more and more riders began to actually compete in all three races throughout their careers. The following year in 1956, the feat was achieved four times, by Rik van Steenbergen, Miguel Poblet, Hugo Koblet and Nino Defilippis, the first three of which all rounded off the treble at the same race, the 1956 Vuelta.

Adriano Baffi - Almost like father like son


In 1956, after Poblet’s three stage wins in the Vuelta, he went on to win four stages of the Giro and then won Stage 8 of the Tour into La Rochelle to become the first rider to win a stage of all three Grand Tours in the same year. Amazingly, the next rider to complete the hat-trick, also did so in the same year, that was Pierino Baffi in 1958. The only rider since to have emulated the feat of Poblet and Baffi is Alessandro Petacchi who repeated the trick in 2003.

Also worth mentioning, is that Baffi’s son Adriano almost emulated his father in taking a career hat-trick. Baffi junior rode for prominent teams such as US Postal and Mapei-QuickStep before retiring in 2002. He won five stages of the Giro throughout those years as well as one stage of the Vuelta in 1995. He narrowly missed out on all three when he was pipped to the line by Johan Museeuw on the final stage of the 1990 Tour de France on the Champs Elysées.

There is one Irish cyclist on the list but perhaps surprisingly it is neither Sean Kelly or Stephen Roche. Kelly won many stages of both the Vuelta and the Tour but only rode the Giro once, towards the end of his career in 1992. Kelly did not feature prominently in the race at all before abandoning after Stage 15.

Seamus Elliott - The only Irishman who bagged the hat-trick

It is a similar story for Stephen Roche, who having won stages of both the Giro and the Tour, only rode the Vuelta once, again towards the end of his career and again in 1992. The best Roche could manage was sixth place on a couple of stages on his way to a 14th place overall.

The only Irish rider to have won a stage of all three Grand Tours is Seamus Elliott. The first Irish cyclist to make it on the European scene had won a stage of the Giro in 1960 and two stages of the Vuelta, one each in 1962 and 1963. He sealed his own hat-trick on the cobbled roads of Roubaix in the Tour de France of 1963.

With over 80 riders having achieved this feat, it is to be expected that there are a couple of riders who have done it only to be retroactively stripped of victories. The number would stand at 84 if it were not for Alberto Contador losing his stage wins in the 2011 Giro (he won the 2008 Giro without winning a stage), and Leonardo Piepoli who was stripped of his only Tour de France stage win in 2008.

There are of course all the names you would expect amongst the 82 riders: Merckx, Hinault, Anquetil, Van Looy, Van Impe, Jalabert, Ullrich, Cavendish, Cipollini, Gilbert are all present on the list. But there are a host of lesser known riders who are eprhaps less familiar: Sergei Utchakov, Ercole Gualazzini, Ward Sels, Guido Carlesi and Vicente Lopez Carril.

Damiano Cunego - The most likely rider to join the list in July?

This year’s Tour de France is fast approaching and therein provides 21 opportunities for a number of riders to complete the hat-trick. There are seven active riders who have won a stage of both the Giro and the Vuelta but are still waiting for the big one in the Tour de France. Two of these riders, although still active, ride for teams who will not be present at the Tour: Danilo Di Luca and Robert Forster.

This leaves five riders who, if selected for the Tour, have a chance of joining the existing 82 rider list: Francisco Ventoso, Igor Anton, Mikel Nieve, Leonardo Bertagnolli and Damiano Cunego.

A special mention must also go to Wouter Weylandt, who having won a stage of the Giro and the Vuelta was robbed of his chance of completing the hat-trick when he was tragically killed on the third stage of the 2011 Giro aged just 26.

*Victories as part of a team time trial have not been included. Only individual stage wins in road stages or individual time trials have been included.

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World Championships

Ireland’s best World Championship performances

25 Sep , 2011  

The cycling road race world championships takes place in Copenhagen today where the winner is awarded the famous rainbow jersey. This year’s race will be 266km and will be over relatively sprinter-friendly terrain. Ireland will have three entrants in the men’s road race, Matt Brammeier, Daniel Martin and Nicolas Roche.

Irish riders have contributed to the long history of cycling’s most prestigious one day event. Here’s five of the most notable Irish performances:

5. Matt Brammeier (2010) – Last year the road race took place in Geelong, Australia. The route consisted of an 85km stretch before entering a 16km circuit which the riders would tackle 11 times. The world championships usually takes place on a circuit and it was unusual to have such a long point to point section before commencing the laps around the start/finish line. This unusual quirk in the route design almost lead to one of the biggest upsets in world championship history.

On the initial 85km journey from Melbourne to Geelong, five relatively unknown riders, including Irish champion Matt Brammeier broke clear. With all the major nations refusing to take up the chase in the peloton behind, the quintet created a massive gap of 23 minutes.

As the race approached the loop around Geelong, the peloton was in real danger of entering the finishing circuit as Brammeier’s group were already completing their first lap. This would mean all five riders would be back in the peloton but would be a 16km lap ahead of everyone else. Nobody would be able to take back time like that at this stage of the race.

The race organisers urged the peloton to speed up so that such an awkward outcome would not materialise. The peloton obliged and the group was eventually caught.

Brammeier’s group came within 50 seconds of turning the entire race on its head.

Matt Brammeier with his breakaway companions in the 2010 worlds (via

4. Seán Kelly (various) -There were only two major one-day races that Seán Kelly didn’t win throughout his amazing career, the Tour of Flanders and the World Championships.


Kelly was notorious for staying competitive throughout the entire year, ‘A Man for all Seasons’ they called him. If Kelly had concentrated solely on winning the Worlds then he perhaps would have taken at least one rainbow jersey.

The closest Kelly came to tasting victory were two bronze medals in 1982 and 1989. Agonisingly, he finished in the top 10 on five other occasions. But it was never to be for one of the greatest riders cycling has ever seen.


Sean Kelly finishing third in 1989 behind Dimitri Konychev and Greg LeMond

3. Shay Elliott (1962) – Before Roche and Kelly dominated world cycling in the 1980s Shay Elliott paved the way for English-speaking riders in the professional peloton. He won a stage in all three of the Grand Tours, and in 1962 he almost won the World Championships.

In Salo, Italy he found himself in the race winning move and under normal circumstances would have been a favourite for the victory. But Jean Stablinski was also in the group. The Frenchman was a top rider himself, having won stages of the Tour de France, and the overall of the Vuelta a Espana in 1958.

He was also Elliott’s friend and godfather of Elliott’s son.

So when Stablinski attacked coming towards the finish, Elliott sat up and refused to chase. The Irishman won the sprint for second place but by staying loyal to his friend Stablinski, he had forfeited the best chance he would ever get to win the rainbow jersey.

Shay Elliott with Jean Stablinski in the rainbow jersey and five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil.

2. Mark Scanlon (1998) -It wasn’t in the men’s road race but in 1998 Mark Scanlon did win a rainbow jersey by crossing the line first in the junior race. He won a four man sprint beating no less than future Milan-San Remo winner Filippo Pozzato into second place.

Scanlon subsequently turned pro and spent four years at what is now Nicolas Roche’s AG2R-La Mondiale team. He moved on briefly to race for an American domestic team but retired shortly afterward aged just 26.

He is 30 years old now and would be in the prime of his professional cycling career. But a combination of the derogatory attitudes of his French team-mates and the presence of drugs in the pro peloton nullified his enthusiasm for the sport.

He is now living in Sligo and working as a sports nutritionist.

Mark Scanlon winning the worlds junior road race in Valkenburg in 1998

1. Stephen Roche (1987) – Roche had already won the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France that year. Only one rider, Eddy Merckx, had ever won these two Grand Tours and went on to take cycling’s ‘triple crown’ by also winning the rainbow jersey in the same year.

But Roche went to the World championships in Austria that year with no aspirations of winning. He was there to work for his team-mate Seán Kelly who had a fantastic chance to finally win the rainbow jersey that had eluded him so far in his career.

The race was unfolding perfectly as Kelly and Roche entered the final few kilometres in a group of about 20 riders. Roche was marking breakaway attempts while also saving something in reserve to lead Kelly out in the sprint.

But with less than 3km to go, Roche marked an attack that nobody behind followed as Kelly and the other race favourite, Italian Moreno Argentin, marked each other. Roche found himself in a front group of five riders coming into the final 500 metres. Kelly’s group was too far back at this stage to catch up in time for a sprint finish.

So Roche attacked.

He sped up the road beside the barriers through an impossible looking gap. He caught the others by surprise and by the time they had realised what had happened, it was too late. Roche crossed the line solo to seal the final leg of cycling’s Triple Crown and with it a place on the top of the podium of the history of cycling.


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Vuelta a Espana

Dan Martin – Is he the first Irish rider to….?

29 Aug , 2011  

On the first day for two years that an Irish rider wins a stage of a Grand Tour…I decided to skip the cycling and go to the pub to watch the football. Murphy’s law!

In fairness, there are worse games I could have chosen to watch instead of sitting in and watching the cycling. Arsenal’s humiliation was fantastic enough but then I heard the news that Dan Martin had won the mountain stage of the Vuelta and taken the king of the mountains jersey. And as a born and bred Dub, if I was inclined to get excited about the Gaelic Football, then it was just about the most perfect day of sport imaginable.

In the wake of Martin’s victory, I’ve been getting a few questions via email, facebook and twitter; questions mostly starting with ‘Is Dan Martin the first Irish rider to….’.

Dan Martin - The fourth Irish rider to win a stage of the Vuelta a Espana. (via

So the following is an attempt to wrap up all the stats queries after yesterday’s stage:

Is Dan Martin the first Irish rider to win a stage of the Vuelta?
No. Three other Irishmen have won a stage in the Vuelta a Espana.

Seamus Elliott, the first Irish rider to achieve success on the continent, won two stages of the Vuelta in his career, in 1962 and 1963. He is also the only Irish rider to have won a stage in each of the three Grand Tours.

Sean Kelly wrote his name all over the history of the Vuelta throughout the Eighties. He won 16 stages in total, the fifth most of all time. He also won the points classification four times, a record he shares with Laurent Jalabert. And of course, he won the race overall in 1988.

The two cousins Roche and Martin go on the attack and lead the Vuelta - fantastic! (via

Philip Deignan won a stage in the 2009 edition of the race, Ireland’s last victory in a Grand Tour before Dan Martin. He beat Roman Kreuziger in a two-man sprint to take the win and the time he gained that day also contributed to his ninth place finish overall.

Is Dan Martin the first Irish rider to win a mountain stage of a Grand Tour?
No. Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Martin Earley have all won a mountain stage of Grand Tours in the past.

Stephen Roche won a mountain stage of the 1985 Tour de France. Kelly won a mountain stage in both the 1986 and 1988 Vueltas and Earley won a mountain stage of the 1986 Giro d’Italia.

I’m not 100% sure what category of stage each of Seamus Elliott’s Grand Tour victories were, so if anybody knows feel free to leave comments.

Is Dan Martin the first Irish rider to win a Grand Tour stage while wearing a leader’s jersey?

Martin was actually ranked fourth in the combination classification when he won the Vuelta stage behind Sylvain Chavanel, Joaquin Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno. But Rodriguez was leading the points classification, Moreno was in the king of the mountains jersey and Chavanel chose to wear his French national champions jersey instead of shouldering the combination jersey. As such, Martin got to wear the white jersey of leader of the combination classification for the day.

But he is not the first Irish rider to win a Grand Tour stage while wearing a leader’s jersey.

Sean Kelly won a whopping 14 stages of the Vuelta over the years while wearing the points leader’s jersey. Stephen Roche also won the final stage time trial in the 1987 Giro d’Italia while wearing the Maglia Rosa.

Is Dan Martin the first Irish rider to wear two different leader’s jerseys in a Grand Tour?

Stephen Roche wore the green and yellow jerseys in the 1987 Tour de France. Sean Kelly actually wore three jerseys at various stages in the 1983 Tour de France, green, yellow and the combined jersey. And Kelly won both the G.C. and the points classifications in the 1988 Vuelta, wearing both jerseys along the way.

Is Dan Martin the first Irish rider to wear the king of the mountains jersey in a Grand Tour?

At least, I think so. Kelly and Roche have certainly never worn the king of the mountains jersey in either the Giro or the Tour, and Roche has certainly never worn it in the Vuelta.

Kelly in the Vuelta is the only possibility. But I’m finding definitive data on the Vuelta mountains competition in the eighties hard to come by.

Can anybody help? Did Sean Kelly wear the Vuelta’s king of the mountains jersey in 1987 or 1988?

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World Championships

It’s a World apart

27 Sep , 2010  

For some riders, the pinnacle of a cycling career is to win the biggest race in the world, the Tour de France. For any generation, there are few riders who can claim to be genuine contenders for this honour. For the next three or four years the yellow jersey will probably be won by one of only two riders, Alberto Contador or Andy Schleck. There are a number of other possible candidates, but something would have to go badly wrong for both Schleck and Contador for them to stand a chance. The likes of Cadel Evans, Vincenzo Nibali, Denis Menchov, Samuel Sanchez and Ivan Basso will all be talked about as Tour contenders next year but all will likely fall short.

The World Championships however is different. In any given year there are dozens of riders who stand a genuine chance of being declared World Champion. The Tour de France suits the same sort of rider no matter what the route, but the profile of the World Championships changes sufficiently year on year to give every type of rider a shot at the title at some stage during their career. In what other race have past podium finishers included riders as diverse as Miguel Indurain, Mario Cipollini, Johan Museeuw, Cadel Evans and Marco Pantani?

As well as the route, another major difference between the Tour and the Worlds are the teams which take part. In the Tour de France (barring late withdrawals) every team starts with the same number of riders, and these are riders which are used to riding together as a unit all year. In the Worlds, team sizes can vary hugely and teams are assembled based on nationality for one day a year only. In the upcoming World Road Race in Geelong, Australia, teams which have qualified to field the maximum number of riders will have the luxury of fielding nine men. This maximum of nine has been in place since 2005, previous to this, teams with a maximum allotment could field 12 riders, and the team of the reigning champion could field up to 13.

Since 2005, of all the podium finishers at the Worlds (that’s 15 riders for those counting), only one rode for a team without the maximum of nine riders. That was the Dane Matti Breschel who took a bronze medal in 2008 with only five team mates. In the past 30 years, only 14 riders have medalled at the Worlds without the maximum number of team mates. That means that 85% of riders who ended the race in the top three, were all able to call on the maximum amount of team mates throughout the race.

Throughout these past 30 years, only four riders have managed to land the rainbow jersey with truncated teams. The most recent to do so was Romans Vainsteins in 2000 who was part of a three man Latvian team. Previous to this was Lance Armstrong in 1993, as part of the USA team who could actually boast a substantial ten riders of a possible twelve. His compatriot Greg LeMond won the Worlds ten years earlier with only two team mates. Finally, of course there was Stephen Roche in 1987 who won the rainbow jersey as part of a five rider Irish contingent. Although it’s true for every race, it’s clearly no less true in the World Championships that having a large number of team mates is a massive help.

Shay Elliott alongside team mates, 1962 World Champion Jean Stablinski who wears the Rainbow Jersey and Jacques Anquetil, the five time Tour de France winner

Of the 14 medals won by riders without the maximum number of team mates since 1980, Irish riders can account for four of them. Sean Kelly has come third twice, in 1982 and again in 1989, while 1987 winner Roche also took a bronze in 1983. But neither of the great Irishmen were the first from these shores to get their hands on a World Championships medal. Shay Elliott was the first to do so in 1962 when he was runner up to his trade team mate Jean Stablinski. Wikipedia has us believe that ‘Elliott sacrificed his chance for Stablinski’s benefit’ which seems to stem from an article written by John Wilcockson. However, Peter Crinnion, who would go on to partner Elliott at the 1963 World Road Race, reveals more in the excellent documentary on Elliott ‘Cycle of Betrayal’. Perhaps ultimately Elliott did sacrifice his chances for Stablinski but there were more sinister dealings which afoot that day in 1962.

Elliott was the first ever Irish rider to compete at the Worlds when he took to the startline as a one man team in 1956. He missed the 1957 edition, but competed every year from 1958 until 1966, each year on his tobler, apart from 1963 when he was joined by Crinnion, the 1960 Irish road race champion.

After the great Elliott raced the Worlds for the last time, Ireland had no entrants at all until Kelly came along in 1977. Remarkably, Kelly rode every edition from then until 1993, 17 consecutive years. But it was to be a race that Kelly would never win, a race which he admits he most regrets missing out on during his career. Kelly was joined intermittently throughout those 17 years by various team mates. Stephen Roche partnered him on nine occasions, including his own victory in 1987, where he rode selflessly, entirely at the service of Kelly only to find himself in the winning break in the final kilometre.

Stephen Roche wins Ireland's first and only Rainbow Jersey thus far as Sean Kelly readys himself for a celebration in the background.

Roche attacked in Villach and soloed home with a group led by Moreno Argentin right on his heels as he crossed the line. Roche said afterward that he had no choice but to attack, there was no guarantee that the group containing Kelly would have caught his own group to set up a sprint finish for Kelly. Roche added that he was in a five man group out front, so if it came down to a sprint he said he would have come fifth. Amazingly for Roche, he nailed it and added the Rainbow jersey to the Giro and the Tour he had already won that year.

Other riders to ride alongside Kelly at the Worlds were Martin Earley (seven times), Alan MacCormack and Lawrence Roche (three times), Paul Kimmage (twice), along with John Brady and a certain P.McQuaid who both rode once. After 1993, when Kelly, Earley and retiree Roche all rode their last Worlds, there was to be another hiatus on the participation of Irish riders. This was ended in 2002 by David O’Loughlin, the three time Irish road race champion, who was to be joined by David McCann and 1998 Junior World Champion Mark Scanlon over the next couple of years. Then came the current crop of top Irish professionals, over the following years Nicolas Roche, Philip Deignan and for the first time last year, Dan Martin, all rode the Worlds for Ireland. Roger Aiken was also selected for his only appearance in 2008.

In total, 16 riders have represented Ireland at the Worlds, a paltry amount when compared to other nations. Nevertheless, in the medal count table, Ireland lie joint 8th with five medals alongside USA lying only behind the traditional cycling powerhouses Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland and Germany. The most riders Ireland have ever had present at the Worlds is five. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this was in 1987. This year Ireland will have three representatives, Nicolas Roche, David McCann and making his first appearance, the current Irish road race champion, Matt Brammeier.

This year, for the first time since the era of Roche and Kelly, Ireland have a rider in with a genuine chance of a podium place in Nicolas Roche. He is coming off the back of a great Vuelta a Espana, traditionally the best preparation for the Worlds, and will be aiming to tide his form over to next weekend for the big one in Australia. However, having only a three man team will definitely be an inhibiting factor. The number of team mates at Roche’s disposal will affect his race in two ways. Firstly there’s the physical aspect: in his AG2R trade team at the Vuelta he had eight men fetching him food and water and sheltering him from the wind. The energy that this work by team mates can save a leader is invaluable in a race which extends to over 250 kilometres.

Irish Champion Matt Brammeier and Nicolas Roche will ride the Worlds next weekend while Dan Martin stays in Europe to prepare for the Tour of Lombardy.

Secondly, having very few team mates suppresses the tactics which can be employed to maneuver Roche into a podium position. The likes of Spain, Italy and USA, all nine man teams, can send riders in early breaks to alleviate the pressure to chase, they can send riders on the attack in the latter stages to wear down opposing teams and they have a mix of sprinters and rouleurs to account for various eventualities. The likelihood is that when it comes down to the final 20 or 30 kilometres, both McCann (who will be somewhat fatigued from the time trial) and Bremmeier (who has never ridden a race of this distance) will be spent and Roche will be fending for himself.

It’s not unheard of for one man to pull himself into a medal position in a race like this. Think of the one man Swiss team at the 2008 Olympics. But that was Fabian Cancellara, and Nicolas Roche is not Fabian Cancellara. Roche, if he manages to remain at the front beyond 200 kilometres, will probably get one chance to choose the right wheel to follow. Sniffing out the right wheel, is something I mentioned in my last post, and thus far, is not a talent that Roche has displayed too often. In my opinion, it would take a very fortuitous set of circumstances for Roche to end up in the top three at the race’s end.

I read an article recently in an old Cycle Sport mag which contained an interview with the Italian rider Michele Bartoli. He was discussing Liége-Bastogne-Liége and he said ‘If you’re stronger than the others, you have a great chance to show it. There’s never a surprise winner at Liége. The two or three strongest riders always fight it out to be the winner’. Because of the changing route every year, this is not always the case with the World Championships where there have been plenty of surprise winners in the past, Romans Vainsteins, Igor Astarloa and Rudy Dhaenens to name but three.

There’s been plenty of debate over whether this years Worlds will be a race for the sprinters or not. Regardless, it certainly isn’t a route which is as hard as Liége-Bastogne-Liége. Having tried to inform myself as best I can it seems to me the race will pan out more like a Milan San Remo and may not necessarily be contested by the strongest riders. If the race is controlled by the bigger teams, it is possible that it could come down to a sprint. But if enough teams and riders are willing and able to disrupt proceedings, there will be opportunities to attack and form a break in the latter stages. For it’s not only sprinters that have won a race like Milan San Remo in the past, Cancellara, Chiappucci and Fignon can all count themselves as winners in that race.

Roche’s best chance of success will be if the big teams who want a sprint (USA-Farrar, Germany-Greipel) can keep things together until 10 or 15 kilometres to go and then follow the right breakaway, while the lack of race radios may play havoc with the plans of the teams hoping to control the race in the final stages. Again, as in Stage 19 of the Vuelta, I would suggest that the right breakaway is the one with Philippe Gilbert in it. Easily said on paper, it remains to be seen how Roche’s form holds up on the day as there will be plenty of riders there who have prepared for the Worlds especially, even ignoring the Tour; Gilbert being the prime example of such a rider. It would seem to be the Belgian’s race to lose, but perhaps Roche can have his say in what is sure to be a fascinating race.

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Vuelta a Espana

Bono at the Vuelta a Espana

4 Sep , 2010  

In what year did Bono stand atop the winner’s podium at what was a great day for Ireland at the Vuelta a Espana?

The answer is 1962. Bono, Paul Hewson, of U2 fame, was but a 2 year old drawing on the walls in his house in Glasnevin in 1962. But, the Bono who made it on to the winner’s podium of the Vuelta 48 years ago was the little known Italian rider Ernesto Bono who claimed the biggest victory of his career by winning Stage 12 of that year’s race into the city of Logrono. The reason Ireland had cause to celebrate was that Seamus Elliott had retained the Vuelta race leader’s jersey. Elliott would go on to wear the jersey for a total of nine days that year only losing the jersey three stages from the end to eventual winner Rudi Altig of Germany.

Ernesto Bono, winner of a stage in the 1962 Vuelta a Espana.

In that 1962 Vuelta a Espana Seamus Elliott marked a number of milestones for Irish cycling. He won Ireland’s first ever stage of the Vuelta a Espana, he was the first Irishman to lead any of the three Grand Tours and he also finished the race in 3rd place, which meant he was the first Irishman to finish on the podium of a Grand Tour. This Irish presence at the Vuelta, established by Elliott, faded (as did the Irish presence in professional cycling in general) until Seán Kelly arrived on the scene in the late seventies.

Kelly won the race overall in 1988 taking the leader’s jersey from the Spaniard Anselmo Fuerte in the final time trial. But Kelly’s success at the Vuelta spanned much further than the year of his overall success. In total, Kelly won 16 stages of the Vuelta, the 5th highest tally of any rider, winning the points classification four times along the way, a record shared with Laurent Jalabert that still stands. Kelly is one of six riders who have won two Grand Tour points jerseys in the one year, the others are Rudi Altig (in that 1962 race), Jan Janssen, Eddy Merckx, Djamolidin Abdoujaparov and Laurent Jalabert. Kelly is also the only man to have won the points jersey four times in two of the Grand Tours, as he also won the Tour de France green jersey four times.

Kelly would have won the Vuelta in 1987 too if it weren’t for a saddle boil which forced him out of the race with three stages to go, whilst wearing the leader’s jersey. This would have led to the remarkable feat of Irish riders winning all three of cycling’s Grand Tours in 1987, as Stephen Roche went on to win the Giro and the Tour that year. Alas, it wasn’t to be, however, because the Vuelta took place in April back then, Kelly’s Vuelta victory the following year ensured Irish riders were indeed the reigning champions of all three Grand Tours.

Seán Kelly en route to taking over the leader's jersey in the 1988 Vuelta

Roche for his part, never focused on the Vuelta a Espana, usually preferring to ride the Giro d’Italia if a 2nd Grand Tour was in his race plans for the year. He only rode the Spanish Grand Tour once towards the end of his career in 1992 where he to took a top 20 placing by finishing 14th. Martin Earley finished the Vuelta twice during his career, also taking a top 20 place when he finished 19th whilst riding in support of his victorious team mate Seán Kelly in 1988.

Again, the Irish presence at the Vuelta was put on hiatus for a number of years until the current crop of Irish riders emerged. Dan Martin, Nicolas Roche and Philip Deignan have all completed the Vuelta at least once. The most successful of which has of course been Deignan who brilliantly won a stage and finished 9th in the 2009 edition. The year previous, in 2008, Roche also managed a fantastic 13th place overall in what was only his 2nd ever Grand Tour.

Roche and Deignan are currently competing at this year’s Vuelta. Deignan is recovering from an injury stricken season and is riding in support of his team leader Carlos Sastre. With the break up of team Cervelo, Deignan now finds himself without a team for next year and he will be hoping to prove his worth as a valuable team mate for the remainder of this year’s race in order to impress potential suitors. Roche on the other hand has been handed the leadership role of his AG2R team. So far, he has not shied away from the responsibility. Before the mountainous eighth stage he lies in 11th place on G.C. less than a minute behind race leader Philippe Gilbert.

While Roche is putting in a great performance he still finds himself in that G.C. purgatory of not being quite capable of pushing for a podium place, but also considered too much of a threat to be allowed up the road to battle for a stage win. Today will be a true test of his form and a gauge of his ability to challenge for the podium or even the top 10. Come this evening, if he has slipped down the G.C., I feel he should allow himself slip a little further. In two weeks time, would he prefer a 15th place on G.C. or a 45th place along with a stage win? His recent comments about his frustrations about his lack of wins in his career so far suggest he would prefer the latter, as would most Irish cycling fans I would imagine!

The recent death of Laurent Fignon has come as a blow to the whole cycling community. I have only recently finished reading his autobiography which was hugely entertaining, but scarcely revealing. The entire book is a narrative of his cycling career with barely a whisper of his personal life and relationships. From the many obituaries I have read it seems that he was indeed a thoroughly private man, but an animal of a competitor. As Jean-Marie Leblanc described him “Fignon was the precursor of the modern champions with…panache and impertinence”. He’ll be sorely missed.

There is no escaping the infamy of the eight seconds by which Fignon lost the Tour de France to Greg LeMond in 1989. But if I was to ask you, which is the smallest ever overall winning margin in any of the three Grand Tours? The answer, surprisingly is not eight seconds in the 1989 Tour de France, it is six seconds in the 1984 Vuelta a Espana, when the Frenchman Eric Caritoux beat the Spaniard Alberto Fernández by the slenderest of margins. Fernández entered the final time trial in the 1984 Vuelta with a 32 second deficit to make up on Caritoux over 33 kilometres. LeMond’s task was twice as difficult with only 25 kilometres to make up 50 seconds. The ‘real’ Bono once said ‘sometimes you can’t make it on your own’. Fernández as it turned out, couldn’t. Unfortunately for Fignon, LeMond could. However, influenced by the cover of his own book, I for one will choose not to remember Fignon as the rider who lost the Tour by eight seconds, but as the rider who won the Tour twice.

Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond during the 1989 Tour de France

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Tour de France

Ireland’s Tour de France History

15 Jul , 2010  

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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