Exploring Ireland’s cycling history: A look back at famous faces and memorable races

By We Love Cycling

The history of Irish cycling stretches back more than 150 years – so there’s been more than a few significant milestones along the way! Indeed, many’s the post-race social or mid-ride pitstop spent debating the finest homegrown heroes to sit in the saddle, or trading recollections of the seminal moments in the sport over the years.

With that, prepare for a little tour down memory lane – as we revisit a handful of the faces and races that shaped cycling in this country…

Shay leads the way!

Crumlin’s Shay Elliot wasn’t merely a trailblazer in Irish cycling, but for all cyclists outside of mainland Europe; the first English speaker to win a stage of, and lead, the Vuelta in 1962 – to add to a burgeoning list of accomplishments – he’d already staked a claim as an icon. He stepped it up a level in 1963, though, claiming the third stage of the Tour de France – and with it, the yellow jersey. His three days in yellow would stand alone for Irish riders for a further two decades, and remains an achievement with few equals…

Now we’re Rás-ing

Though the blue riband event in Irish cycling has been ongoing since 1953, the early days weren’t without their complications – a feud between governing bodies prevented many would-be entrants from getting in the saddle. Thankfully, events over the two decades following saw things begin to thaw, and by the time young amateur Stephen Roche rode to victory in 1979 the annual race had become a staple of the sporting landscape; more on him to come later, though…

Three is the magic number

Having snagged a podium finish at Le Tour in 1985, Stephen Roche was well fancied to go on to even greater things – but his 1987 season surpassed all expectations. After becoming the first Irishman to win the Giro, he followed it up by riding down the Champs Elysee as Ireland’s first and only winner of cycling’s most famous race – and then capped an annus mirabilis with victory at the World Road Race Championship, the only rider alongside Eddy Merckx to complete the fabled Triple Crown.

Kelly’s a hero

After a full five years as the world’s top ranked road cyclist, Sean Kelly’s resumé was packed with stage victories, points classification wins and plenty more accolades – but no Grand Tour triumph. In fact, it was beginning to look like that’s the way it would stay, until the penultimate stage of the Vuelta in 1988. Overhauling a deficit in the final time trial, the pride of Waterford finally had a GC win, and the crowning achievement of a glittering career.

A very Grand Départ!

While the 1998 Tour might be notorious elsewhere – some going so far as to nickname it the Tour de Farce – it will always have a special place in the memory in Ireland, as the Grand Départ took place on our shores. Through three days – a Dublin city time trial, a loop taking in the Wicklow Gap, and a ride from Enniscorthy to Cork, the country came to a near standstill to take in one of the planet’s most storied events right on our doorsteps. A bid to repeat is currently on the table, to give a new generation an opportunity to experience it for themselves, too…

Those medalling kids

When Catherine Walsh claimed bronze in the Women’s Individual Pursuit B at the London Paralympics, it was truly a moment of history; the first medal of any colour, for a cyclist male or female, at an Olympics or Paralympics Games. Of course, it served to open the floodgates – through which Mark Rohan quickly raced, followed by the likes of Eoghan Clifford, Katie George   Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal in the years after – and was even paired with a bronze for Walsh in the Time Trial days later.

Martyn makes history

The World Track Cycling Championships had gone a full 116 years without a single Irish foot stepping on the podium, but Martyn Irvine changed that when claiming a silver medal in the Individual Pursuit in 2013. It was a famous achievement that was celebrated for, well, roughly an hour – and that’s because later the same afternoon the Down man went one better, landing gold in the Scratch Race. Talk about a good day’s work…

Fancy a little more cycling history? Take a brisk journey through a history of cycling in six stops!