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News feature, April 12, 2005

Building towards Beijing: Part II

In complete contrast to British Cycling's attitude, infrastructure, development programs - and a decent-sized budget - Shane Stokes takes a look inside the Irish team camp in Part II of this Cyclingnews' special report, and discovers there's plenty of work to be done if the country's to be anywhere near competitive in Beijing.

The luck of the Irish

Ciarán Power
Photo ©: Emmanuel Isnard
Click for larger image

By Simon Jones' estimation, British Cycling is currently funded to the tune of eight million pounds for a four-year cycle. Sponsorship also adds to this treasure chest, providing a sound financial base for both their long and short-term campaigns and strategies. In contrast, Cycling Ireland gets a far smaller level of government backing and, indeed, is currently in debt. For that reason its approach to the 2008 Games is considerably different.

Looking back at the Athens Games last August, just four Irish riders took part. Mark Scanlon and Ciarán Power lined out in the road race, with the latter taking a highly credible thirteenth place. Robin Seymour and Jenny McCauley competed in the men's and women's MTB cross country events, finishing 30th and 23rd respectively. No track riders qualified for the Games.

It is in this third area that the scene on either side of the Irish Sea differs considerably. The latter wing of the sport was identified several years ago by British Cycling as being an area with a high potential return of medals. It was able to convince - and later prove - to the government that investing in track cycling was a good way to secure Olympic and world championship success. For Cycling Ireland, though, that task has been a more difficult one.

Suggestions that a velodrome might form part of the proposed Sports Campus Ireland project a few years ago failed to materialise into anything more definite; governmental budget cutbacks played a part in this, but so too articles penned by shortsighted journalists who ridiculed the notion of building a velodrome. The irony is that these same writers applauded the Government granting millions to the indigenous sports of Gaelic football and hurling which, with the exception of the short Australian Rules series, never feature in international competition and which will never produce a single Olympic medal.

Currently, Ireland has just two velodromes; the open air, bumpy concrete-banked tracks of Sundrive Road in Dublin and Orangefield in Belfast. As a result, Irish riders have to fly to Manchester to take part in proper velodrome sessions, making it highly unlikely that there will be a full track programme to approach that of Great Britain anytime soon.

Road warriors

'The question is, what do you do with the kids when you do find them?'

- Irish head coach Padraig Marrey explains the issues associated with minimal funding

Instead, it will be the road riders who will carry the bulk of the country's expectations into the next Olympic Games. Ireland currently has several solid professionals which Cycling Ireland hopes will progress into stronger riders. Former world junior champion Mark Scanlon and Ag2R Prévoyance team-mate Philip Deignan look like good bets for the future, while Power and David O'Loughlin [see our interview with David O'Loughlin] should be reaching a natural peak in 2008. Nicolas Roche looked like a real prospect until he declared for France several weeks ago, but that still leaves promising amateurs such as Tim Cassidy and Paidi O'Brien, who are both currently coming through the ranks.

In contrast to British Cycling's hands-on approach, Irish head coach Padraig Marrey explains that circumstances mean that CI will be taking more of a back seat in the run-up to Beijing. 'To be honest with you, the athletes that are competing professionally on the road at the moment are the only prospects we have of a medal. As regards their race programs, Cycling Ireland has very little input into it as their pro teams pretty much dictate what they will ride. For our part, we have to make sure they get to the world championships and, if eligible, make sure they get to the European Championships. But other than that, their teams will have the most influence on them over the next few years.'

Irish road race champion David O'Loughlin
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
Click for larger image

'As regards the Olympics and the world championships, the guys who are pro are racing against the best in the world. They are in big teams so they are subjected to race after race after race at world-class level. Once at that point, there is not a whole lot we can do for those riders. Our goal has to be to get the athletes up to a level where they are going to be scouted by pro teams. Once past that point, Cycling Ireland can't do a whole lot for them, except get them to the world championships, get them to the Olympics, and do whatever we can to help them with regards to carding money.'

Taking to the track

Marrey does, however, intend to work closely with some of these athletes whenever their schedule permits. 'I'd like to do quite a bit of work with them on the track. We would like to see our top road guys giving it a go, at least. Without singling out any riders in particular, O'Loughlin and Scanlon have expressed a good interest in it. Obviously these guys are good on the road. If you look at the likes of the Australians, you can see what is possible. Stuart O'Grady is good on the road as well as being good on the track, winning an Olympic medal there.'

'For our road guys, the events they would possibly compete in would be the pursuit, the points race and the scratch. The endurance events, basically. The thing is, as of now we are not sure what they might be good at so we have to look into that. There is going to be quite a bit of work with them, especially over the next two winters.'

Investing for the future

Sean Kelly Academy launched in Belgium

While Cycling Ireland has nothing like the resources of its counterpart across the water, it recently launched an initiative which significantly boosts the prospects for those aiming for pro contracts in the future. Last week, the Sean Kelly Academy was launched in Belgium, the project a significant expansion of the current CI set-up in Merchtem. In effect, the federation is moving their high performance element overseas.

Belgium will function as the new base for almost all international competition, with physiological testing, coaching and race support all part of the setup. The location near Brussels offers a large choice of events to riders of all levels, from youth competitors right up to seasoned internationals.

The initiative, which is believed to be the first of its kind in Irish sport, is one which Cycling Ireland hope will lead to greater success and more professional contracts in the future. Participation in the academy is subsidised via Irish Sports Council grants given to CI, with riders paying a small amount each week for food, accommodation, transport and support at races by a soigneur and mechanic.

First impressions were certainly good. Olympic Council of Ireland president Pat Hickey was very positive about what he saw at the launch. 'I am absolutely thrilled with the project,' he said. 'I think it is extremely professional and it is showing the lead to a lot of sports in Ireland as to what should be done. For example, I believe my own sport of judo should be doing something this in Paris, as France is the strongest country in Europe in that sport. They should be looking at something similar.'

'I think this is going to be great for the athletes. They seem extremely happy, and from what I understand, the location means they have a choice of up to six races in a day. So it couldn't be better for them.'

Sean Kelly, who spent much of his career in the area and has lent his name to the Academy, is confident that it will boost the prospects of Irish cyclists competing at a high level in the future.

'It is a great opportunity for riders, people of all categories can come here and race as part of an Irish community abroad. There is a big choice of competitions and a good support structure,' he said.

'I think we will get a crop of young riders coming through over the next few seasons because of the academy. We had a few lean years, but we are definitely on the right track now. I think this will help the Irish scene go from strength to strength.'

Look out for an in-depth feature on the Sean Kelly Academy soon.

Marrey is planning on taking a longer-term approach as regards his brief as CI head coach. 'To be realistic, what I'm looking at is the 2012 Games. We have to work with a new batch of guys. That last batch that came through, with Scanlon and Deignan, has been worked upon for the last five or six years. Our task is to start working with young riders and to bring them right through the levels. That is what this is all about; planning for the future.'

To that end, Marrey is overseeing a transformation in the coaching structure in Ireland. Cycling Ireland is currently in the process of recruiting other coaches, preferably those with experience of international racing. Double Olympian Robin Seymour will take the position for mountain bike racing, Brian Nugent will occupy the track slot, while the road coach vacancy is due to be filled shortly. The idea is that these will work with Marrey and new provincial coaches to set up a network and bring riders right up through the ranks.

'It is a whole new set up, a radical new coaching structure and something which hasn't been seen before,' he explains, 'so it is going to take a while to get it off the ground properly. What we are looking at is developing a structure that will be self-supporting. Let's say I go out of the sport tomorrow, the idea is to make sure that there is a legacy left behind me so things don't fall asunder. It happened before, and we had nobody over the coaching.'

'The problem is that currently, we are six or seven years behind other countries, and if you look at the likes of Britain, we are more than ten.'

A man's gotta know his limitations...

'It is almost a total overhaul for cycling in Ireland'

- Marrey believes a sea change is required if the next batch of Irish cyclists is to be succesful on the world stage

As mentioned earlier, the big problem for Irish cycling is a lack of funding. Marrey's role is one of the very few paid positions in Cycling Ireland; most of the others involved in the sport are working as volunteers. That throws up obvious problems, including imposing limitations on the identification of young talent.

'Screening is something that will have to be done in the years to come, but in the foreseeable future, it would be hard to do,' he states. 'Okay, literally speaking, the testing itself is very easy to do... That's no problem. The question is, what do you do with the kids when you do find them? Great Britain has perhaps 30 people working full-time with the Talent Spot in England, but we have one or two development officers working for the whole country which, in reality, is not going to be enough to bring these kids on.

'There are other problems. The kids may come from a very poor background, so that means you got to seek sponsorship for bikes, you got to seek sponsorship for the payment of coaches and for other things. After all that, you have to wait and see if they are keen enough to keep with the sport. They may be in an area where there is no club so that has to be looked at as well. Testing of the kids is actually simple, it is the actual follow-through and the commitment to it for the years afterwards where we currently have limitations.'


For now, Cycling Ireland's strategy is to work with the young and developing riders to try to make them as strong as possible. The federation will assess them with its new BT (bike technology) units, measuring the power output and monitoring their progress. CI is also set to relaunch its rider base in Belgium, encouraging more riders of each age group to spend time abroad competing in international events, and also proving coaching support there.

The tactic of using an overseas base worked extremely well in the past for Irish riders living in Marseilles and racing with the VC La Pomme team; Mark Scanlon, Nicolas Roche and Philip Deignan all got pro contracts this way. By doing the same in Belgium, CI hopes to further the development of promising Irish riders, a measure that it hopes will pay off in the years to come.

'What we have to look at is the young, talented cyclists coming through,' says Marrey. 'We need to get them up to a point where they are going to be competitive at world-class level. They are not at the moment; we do not have an abundance of riders at that level. Okay, a few guys have come through and got contracts, but we need to work on the next wave of riders and keep things going.'

'It's going to take time to pay off. As regards the coaching element, at the moment we are pretty much at a developmental stage throughout the whole spectrum. Our pro riders have moved off and we are bringing our new batch of youths and juniors and under 23s through. Likewise, our mountain biking and track is starting virtually from scratch.

'So it is almost a total overhaul for cycling in Ireland. The way we have to approach it is from the viewpoint that you're not going to get somebody up to world-class level in a year. That is impossible, unless we ID someone who is just incredibly talented. We have to work methodically, step by step, and hopefully we'll reap the benefits of that in the years to come.'

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