The Tour of Ireland started in the worst weather conditions we had seen all year. This 1150-kilometre race was to take place over eight consecutive days in September.
A hard rain fell for the first three days and as it was not yet winter our accommodations in rural Irish hotels had no heat. We tried to dry our woolen jerseys and shorts by putting them over chairs at night and we stuffed our shoes with newspaper to soak up some of the moisture.
The race started and finished around Dublin, with a focus on the beautiful and wild northwest of the country. The stage finishes were in Cavan, Derry, Letterkenny, Bundoran, Ballina and Tullamore.
We began with a one-mile prologue time trial along the Bray promenade, finishing with a drag up the Putland Road. The following morning we rode into the centre of Dublin for the first stage proper. As the Irish Cycling Federation team was being sponsored by Clery’s, a large department store on the main city street, we were asked to parade in front of it before heading for the start.
The Irish Cycling Federation team included myself, Bernie McCormack, a seasoned international whose sprint was a match for anyone in the race; Eugene Smith, who was having the best season of his career with a win in the marathon Dublin to Galway and back event; Anthony Ellard, another Dubliner who had several good placings to his name; and Stephen Roche, the youngest member of the team who was riding his first Tour of Ireland.
Our manager was the former professional rider Peter Crinnion, who had won the prestigious Route de France in his racing days. Crinnion recognised that despite the presence of Roche and McCormack, we were not a formidable team.
British Airways had assembled a powerful squad that featured the Scotsman Robert Millar, who would later win the King of the Mountains at the Tour de France, as well as several other top riders including John Shortt, Bob Swailes, Denis McCarthy and the Scotsman Sandy Gilchrist.
The first stage took place over one hundred and sixty kilometres from Dublin to Cavan, and as we left the city, the first drops of rain began to fall. This was our first taste of the conditions that would accompany us most of the week.
There was a strong crosswind from the northeast for the first eighty kilometres, which I felt all the more when ten of us broke away from the main group.
We rode in an echelon while the rain started to lash. I felt out of place as riders like Phil Anderson and Robert Millar made the constant anti clockwise changes look easy. After an hour of fighting for shelter I found myself asking why I had followed a rush of blood to the head to join the break rather than stay in the safety of the main bunch.
As we reached Dundalk, after around 80 kilometres, Stephen Roche roared up from the bunch along with John Shortt. I was Stephen’s only teammate in the breakaway, but I was also struggling to hang on. I realised too late that after the fast start I had not eaten enough over the first two hours of racing and now had the dreaded hunger knock.
I slowed almost to a standstill and was so shattered that when the remnants of the bunch passed me a few kilometres later, I couldn’t hang on. I ended up with a group of about thirty riders who crossed the line miles behind the break. Any illusions about finishing in the top ten of the Tour of Ireland were already gone – and this was just the first full day.
Stephen was to be my roommate for the duration of the race. He had already established himself as a leading contender with a strong performance into Cavan, where he finished with the leaders. Our hotel room in Cavan town was damp and cold, but Stephen was in fine form and he chatted about his prospects of winning the entire race.
“I’ll help you any way I can,” I told him, although I was worried about just getting through the next day’s stage into Donegal.
“I’d say the day after tomorrow is the big one,” he said. “I’ve got to have a go on the Gap of Mamore and put some time into Shortty and his BA boys.”
He was referring to the most feared climb in the entire race. The Gap of Mamore in the far northwest of the country is an incredibly steep ascent on what is now known as the Wild Atlantic Way. It was once the only route to the land of Urris, where the inhabitants were often entirely cut off from the outside world during bad winter storms.
I had climbed Mamore in the Tour of Ireland three years previously. I knew that taking an inside line on its bends was suicidal, as the gradient was so steep the front wheel could lift off the road and deposit a rider into the ditch. The climb itself was only just over a mile in length, but the gradient averaged 25%.
After a restless night when I could not seem to get any warmth into my feet, Peter Crinnion banged on our door and told us that it was time for breakfast.
When I tried to put on my racing shoes, they were still soaked from the previous day, despite having newspapers stuffed into them and being placed hopefully against the cold radiator. It took me several minutes to get the laces untied. I could feel my spare pair of socks absorbing the water as we squelched down to breakfast.
I never once heard Stephen complain about the conditions or anything else for that matter. His powers of recovery from hard races were beyond anything I had ever seen. At breakfast, he chatted away about various riders in the race, but was mainly focused on the British Airways squad and Billy Kerr as the riders to beat.
Peter Crinnion showed us the race route and told us that he expected it to be a ‘sprinters day’, at which point Stephen declared that ‘Ah sure, we’ll still have a go!’ Bernie McCormack just nodded, but the rest of us were not as enthusiastic.
I felt as though I didn’t have the fitness to really make a difference. I was just hoping that I could improve my form the longer the race went on.
As it turned out, Tony Lally won the long stage into Derry, but Stephen held his high overall position comfortably. We more or less hung out in the bunch all day as the rain continued to pour down. Our faces were covered in all sorts of muck as the spray from a hundred pairs of wheels reminded us why Ireland was so green.
“Anyway, tomorrow’s the big day, Mick,” Stephen said when we got back to our hotel room that night.
If our room in Cavan had been damp, Derry was downright cold. Again, there was no chance of getting our shoes to dry out before the stage over the Gap of Mamore the following day.
We followed a typical pattern after each stage. Find the hotel, grab our bags from the team car, check in, jump into a bath and then fall into bed for an hour of rest before Peter Crinnion would bring in a flask of tea. Then it was a case of changing into a tracksuit and finding the dining room, where we would devour whatever fare the hotel could provide. We would discuss the stage over dinner and then Crinnion would brief us on the following day’s race.
Our bikes were covered in mud, so the order of the night was to clean and oil them before taking a stroll through town to loosen up our legs before getting what felt like a life-saving leg massage from Paddy Doran. We were usually in bed before ten.
The next morning my toes were covered in chilblains and driving me crazy with itching. As I was going to buy some food for the race from the local grocery, I also discovered that my legs had not recovered from the previous stage at all, and I started walking down the stairs backwards to avoid the pain in my quads.
John Shortt, Phil Anderson, Mick Nulty and Billy Kerr escaped long before Mamore in what was to be the key move of the entire race. Again, I was Stephen’s only teammate in the chasing group before we reached the climb, and we were both forced to do all of the work while Robert Millar and Sandy Gilchrist of the British Airways team shadowed us along the winding roads of Inishowen.
At one point, John Lackey, who must have seen what was happening, jumped out of his race organizer’s car and started waving a flag to indicate that there was a ‘prime’ just ahead. I think it was his attempt to stir the rest of our group into some kind of action, as the leaders had pulled away to almost a five-minute lead.
As it turned out, nobody bothered sprinting. Stephen and I continued to work together, with eight other riders sitting on behind us. As I happened to be at the front, I won the pot.
When we reached the lower slopes of the climb, Stephen danced on the pedals as only he could. He disappeared up the road and no one could follow him, not even Robert Millar. There were still sixty five kilometres to ride to the finish.
At one point, a hairpin on the climb was so steep that the rider beside me could no longer turn his pedals and keeled over on top of me, knocking me straight off the edge of the road. I fell into some gorse bushes and a spectator hauled me out.
It seemed as if there were bodies and bikes strewn all over the mountain, so instead of trying to get my bike moving again, I wrenched off my racing shoes and began running towards the summit with my bike on my shoulder, cyclo-cross style.
As I approached the top, I sat down to put my shoes back on for the descent. Again, I couldn’t get the laces untied with my frozen fingers.
“Jaysus Cusack, what the hell are you doing?” shouted someone. It was the race organisor John Lackey, shaking his head in disbelief and filling my ears with his trademark laugh.
I finally jumped back on the bike and Lackey grabbed my saddle, giving me a huge heave over the top. It was the most terrifying descent I had ever seen – straight down like one of those Olympic ski jumps. Through the misty rain, I could make out the North Atlantic in the distance, but what really caught my attention were the white specks below, which I reckoned were sheep grazing close to the road.
In a matter of seconds, my speed was around eighty kilometres an hour and I was gripping the handlebars like grim death. I was thinking of the late Polish rider Ryszard Szurkowski, who I heard was nicknamed ‘Sheepkowski’ after he struck and killed a sheep while also breaking his leg on a descent in Wales.
I reached the bottom of the climb in one piece, but saw the road rise up again for another climb. This one was nothing like Mamore, but my work earlier in the day was beginning to catch up to me. I struggled across the finishing line eight minutes behind the leaders. John Shortt had now taken over the lead. We were only three days into the Tour, and I was feeling knackered.
By the end of the day, Stephen had moved up to fifth overall, but was a hefty five minutes behind the new race leader. He did not seem bothered in the least.
“There are a few hard stages left before Dublin,” he said at dinner that night. “We can put a scare into the BA boys yet!”
The morning after Mamore I watched as Stephen checked his pulse after waking up.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I dunno. About 48” he said. “What’s yours?”
I tried counting for a minute.
“Ah Mick. You’re joking me.”
“I’m not.” I had not recovered from the previous day’s exertions at all.
The next stage was another soggy one hundred and fifty kilometres stage from Letterkenny to Bundoran. There were several crashes on the wet roads outside Glenties, but Stephen managed to miss them all and ended the day in third place overall, though still five minutes behind Shortt.
I had begun to regain some form as the race entered its fifth day. On the stage into Ballina, I got clear with a group of ten others after just a few kilometres and we quickly built up a three-minute lead on the main pack. On fairly flat roads with plenty of twists and turns, I felt confident that I had a shot at winning the stage.
That was when Peter Crinnion drove alongside and told me to stop working.
“Stephen is coming up in a group behind. Wait for him,” he said.
I did as I was told, and was amazed at the speed with which Stephen and several other strong riders bridged the gap to the break. John Shortt and the British Airways team were missing.
“Come on Mick,” Stephen shouted at me as he went by. The speed was incredible and we were stretched out in one long line of pain and suffering – I could not imagine how even riders like John Shortt and Robert Millar could ever catch us at this pace.
Bernie McCormack was riding so hard that it took me about two minutes to get out of his slipstream and hit the front of the race. After a few kilometres of this torture, I went back down the line for a rest, but no one was willing to let go of the wheel in front. I barged my way in and ignored the curses.
The next time I hit the front, I felt a hand on the back of my neck and I was pushed sideways. It was all I could do to keep my machine on the road. It was John Shortt, who in between gasping for air, took the opportunity to let me know what he thought about our tactics. Unbelievably, the British Airways lads had managed to bridge across.
“Would you attack your friend when he crashed?” shouted John.
As I was just following orders, the only response I could think of was to tell John to f-off, but the thought that advantage had been taken of his crash seemed wrong.
What had looked like a perfect stage for me became a battle of the race leaders. For the rest of the stage, Shortt tailed Stephen like a mongoose after a snake. Behind, riders were spread out all over the Mayo hills. Those unfortunate enough to be in the main group when Shortt crashed were still crossing the line an hour after the winner.
We were not far from the finish when my back tire exploded. I stood by the side of the road waiting for a spare, but Peter Crinnion had already driven on to the finish and the race service vehicle was behind the main bunch. I lost several minutes and cursed my bad luck. I had gone from having ambitions of a stage win to crossing the line in a miserable 48th place.
The next day was a fairly flat stage into Tullamore. Stephen escaped Shortt’s attention near the finish and gained back a few seconds, but was still the better part of five minutes in arrears in the general classification, although he did take the lead on points accrued for stage placings. I managed to make the leading group also and jumped up several places overall
We knew that the penultimate stage into Dublin the next day was Stephen’s last chance to challenge for the overall victory. It would be a tough one hundred and sixty kilometres, with a detour through the Slievebloom Mountains before a fast one hundred and ten kilometres into the Phoenix Park. Just how fast, we had no idea, but the prevailing west wind had a surprise in store for the seventy riders remaining in the race.
Not once did Stephen complain or ask for help from any of us. I reckon he and Peter Crinnion had pretty much decided that the team was no match for Shortt and his cohorts.
“See if you can get into the early break,” said Stephen at dinner. “I’m going to have a go in the mountains. It’s my last chance.”
The next morning, as I held the hotel banisters to avoid further reminders that my legs were still full of lactic acid, Stephen clapped me on the back cheerfully.
“This is it, Mick. All or nothing today!”
As we approached the mountains, I attacked out of the main field and tried to bridge the gap across to a small group that included my training partner Peter Morton. I had made it three quarters of the way across to the Morton group, which included a Spaniard who would later drop everyone, when we turned directly into a strong headwind.
A press car came back to monitor my progress. I was gasping for air, about five hundred metres ahead of the peloton and now just fifty metres off the leading group.
“Tell Peter…,” I gasped.
Jim McArdle, the reporter for the Irish Times, leaned out of the window.
“What did you say?”
It was no use. I couldn’t get the words out and I watched as Peter and his group slowly disappeared.
“Good try Mick,” said Stephen, as the bunch surrounded me. We both knew that given the freedom to escape, he would have not only caught the lead group, but probably also motored straight past them all if he had felt like it. He was just biding his time. I was too shattered to respond, and slipped down the field to sulk about the one hundred and forty kilometres to the finish.
Somehow, I managed to struggle over the Slievebloom Mountains with all that was left of the bunch after a tough climb – a group of fourteen riders. Other groups were forming behind, but they would finish miles behind us. Ahead, Stephen was already in full flight and had somehow given Shortt the slip. Now the final cards of the Tour were being played as we turned east towards Dublin.
Stephen had Robert Millar for company, as well as Bernie McCormack. With sixty five kilometres to go, he had opened up a lead of over three minutes on Shortt. After six days and almost nine hundred rain-drenched kilometres, he was now within two minutes of the race lead. The strong tailwind was playing a part – coming through the town of Monasterevin Stephen was clocked riding at sixty-four kilometres an hour on a flat road.
Now it was Millar’s turn to be the spoiler. He blocked Stephen wherever possible. His tactics included going to the front and soft pedaling to reduce the pace, knocking Stephen’s water bottle out of his hand; and somehow getting between him and Peter Crinnion when the manager came alongside in the team car.
John Shortt managed to recover on the run in and cut the gap to just over two minutes. His race lead was secure and now there was just the final eighty kilometres circuit race around the hilly Strawberry Beds circuit in Dublin to go.
I finished 28th on the day, miles behind the race winner, but an hour ahead of the last rider. At one point, we were moving so fast that I could not keep up with the pedals in my highest gear, which for some reason was only a 52×14. The British rider Alaric Gayfer kept up a stream of verbal abuse towards me for not working harder.
“I can’t pedal any faster, you idiot!” I yelled at him in frustration at one point.
The night before the final stage we went back to our houses in Dublin. After a week isolated from normal life it was surreal to sit in the warmth of the sitting room, wearing dry clothes and later sleeping in a comfortable bed.
The following morning, I rode fifty kilometres around the south Dublin hills to warm up before the afternoon stage. I felt that I had finally got my form back, but it was too late to make a difference to the outcome of the race.
I broke away with Peter Morton, Oliver McQuaid and Bernie McCormack on the first of seven eleven kilometres laps. Each time we passed the spectators gathered at the finish line, the commentator would excitedly tell the crowd that Stephen Roche was in the breakaway. That he also mentioned my three companions by name suggested that I was being somehow mistaken for Roche.
Some of spectators yelled “Go wan Stephen!” each time I gasped, bobbed and weaved up the steep hill beyond the line. I knew I looked nothing like the elegant ‘pedalleur de charme’ that was Stephen Roche. I was not sure whether to be pleased about the comparison.
“He’s pretending you’re Stephen, Mick,” said Ollie. “Enjoy your moment in the sun!”
Behind us, Stephen continued to create problems for John Shortt and his team by attacking up the hill every lap, but the stage was too short for him to make up the three minutes needed to take the yellow jersey from the leader.
With a lap to go, Bernie McCormack leaned over as I passed and said “Have a go Mick!” I didn’t reply.
The last thing I wanted to do was attack Peter or Ollie. If it had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have hesitated, but these were good mates of mine. At the same time, I knew that I finally had the form to hold a lead and if I did attack, it was possible that I would somehow hang on to win the stage.
For a minute I had a vision of crossing the finish line alone, hands held high in the air, the Irish national jersey on my back, the crowd cheering, but I just couldn’t bring myself to push the gear lever forward, jump out of the saddle and try to kick away from my friends.
We held a two minute lead over Shortt, Roche and the others as started the final lap. Now the Adrenalin was starting to kick in and nobody was talking.
We were descending at speed towards the finish when there was the explosion that we all dreaded. Bernie’s back tub disintegrated but he managed to avoid crashing. Now there were just the three of us. The best of friends, but riding in total silence apart from the sound of our tyres making contact with the rough road.
With less than a mile to go we could hear the excited commentary as the lead cars crossed the finish line. Now we rounded the final bend and saw the banners ahead. Peter was the first to go, sprinting past myself and Ollie on the other side of the road on his highest gear. Ollie reacted quickly and I jumped so that I was right on his back wheel. I reckoned I was in a perfect position.
Then Peter threw his arms up, believing he had won the stage. He had crossed a white line, but it was not the finish. We were still about a fifty yards from the actual finishing line. Ollie swept by Peter as if he was standing still. What genius had painted two white finishing lines across the road?
In a split second, the decision was made. Ollie won the stage easily. I couldn’t even bring myself to pass Peter, who had stopped pedaling, let alone sprint for the win.
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In June 1973, Peter Morton and I decided to take part in our first ‘open’ race. We rode out to Skerries, where a beginner event was being held. I was still riding the Jim Soens bike that Jimmy Lally had kindly given me after I painted all eight hundred railings for him at Ballyfermot Secondary School. Peter was on his Bob Jackson.
The late Paddy Sullivan, who was known to all as ‘Honk’, was checking all of the bikes to see if they were roadworthy.
He put his fingers on the rim of my back wheel and pushed the tubular tire sideways. It came right off the rim.
“It’s completely dry,” he said.
At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. My tire being completely dry sounded like a good thing to me. I just nodded and said ‘Good’.
“Fix your crash hat!” he said, motioning me towards the starting line. “It’s on backwards.” Maybe he figured this skinny creature would not go fast enough around the corners to roll the tub.
As it turned out, he was right.
I was wearing a ‘skid lid’. It was, as John Lackey would have said, ‘less than useless’ in the event of a crash. Our so-called helmets were thin strips of leather filled with some sort of sponge. Even if I had it on the right way round, it would have given little or no protection in the event of a crash. In fact, mine was so loose it would have just fallen off my head. The leather also rotted from the Irish rain. Lab tests years later showed that the only thing these crash hats accomplished was to save cyclists ears from being badly damaged sliding along the tarmacadam.
We saw the expensive ‘Bell’ helmets in America during this time period, but thought of them as being worn by freds.
Peter did very well in the race, finishing just behind the leaders. It was obvious that he was a natural competitor. I got dropped on the first lap.
“At least try to look good when you are going out the back.” These words kept echoing around in my brain as I watched the bunch of riders disappear up the road.
It’s a strange feeling when you watch the last back wheel getting further and further away. As you are often still pedaling at a fair speed, the riders who have left you behind actually don’t seem to be going that fast. They seem to just ease away at first, then they are suddenly three hundred yards ahead. That’s when you wonder whether you could have suffered just a few minutes more and overcome the incredible burning in your thighs as your heart reaches two hundred beats a minute and your breath seems to have deserted your lungs. A sense of failure follows. Now you are not strong enough, not tough enough to make the grade. Even if it is just your first real race, the doubts flood in and you think about the option of taking up a sport where you only have to walk to the sideline if you are knackered, instead of maybe having to ride another eighty kilometres to reach the finish.
I raced with the Dublin Wheelers on the Navan Road every week of that first season. People like Tony McNally, Peter Rice, Pat Beausang, Liam Devine and other members of the club made sure that ‘Davy Cusack’s brother’ didn’t get too much of a hammering. I learned how to ride closer to the wheel in front – even though this was something I never really did well for my entire career – as well as the concept of doing ‘bit and bit’ in a group. I saw some improvement in my performance, and I couldn’t wait for Thursday night to come around so see if I could snag a few points in the club league. After a while, I actually started to place in some of the club races and decided I was ready to enter the National Junior Championships.
I never knew that anyone could ride their bicycles so fast up a steep hill. Sean Kelly, Alan McCormack, John Shortt and Terry Ferris all disappeared up the road right from the start. It looked to me as if they were on motorbikes.
I was dropped from the bunch not long afterwards and left to struggle around alone for the first of the two forty kilometres laps. I climbed off my bike as soon as I saw the line at the end of the first lap, and could only wonder how I could ever possibly achieve the standard of racing I had just seen.
I didn’t try too many more open races that season, preferring to just show up for the weekly club races. Peter, however, started to make a real impression. He was soon selected to represent Ireland at the schoolboy level and he amazed everyone by finishing third in his first international event in England.
I read Peter Ward’s book on bike racing entitled “King of Sports”, I decided that I needed to at least try to see what effect different types of training, food, sleep, gym work, and even having a bath, which was something of a rarity in those days, might have on my performance. I remember that Ward believed there were five parts to a successful cycling regimen – the four ‘S’s’ of Speed, Strength, Skill and Stamina, plus determination.
My brother had bought the late Tommy Simpson’s book entitled ‘Cycling is My Life’ and I read it several times for greater inspiration. Simpson became a hero to me – a rider who fought against all of the odds to make it in the cutthroat world of pro cycling, becoming world champion in 1965. His death on Mont Ventoux during the Tour de France in July 1967, which I had seen on the news that night, had made a huge impression on me years before I started racing.
Simpson was determined to win ‘Le Tour’ by any means possible. He started the stage in overall contention, but suffering from a gastric complaint that already contributed to severe dehydration. In an attempt to settle his stomach before the climb, he had stopped at a roadside bar and ‘stolen’ some brandy. A combination of amphetamines, alcohol and intense heat on the volcano all contributed to his death. His last words as his body shut down were “Put me back on my bike.”
I thought of the inscription on his modest grave in the mining village of Harworth. “His body ached, his legs grew tired, but still he would not give in.”
Another source of inspiration for me was of course Peter Doyle, who had taken on the might of world cycling in the 1968 Tour of Britain and almost pulled off an incredible overall win. He also won both the points and King of the Mountains jerseys in that race, as well as two stages. ‘Doyler’ made me feel proud to be associated with Irish cycling.
I created a sort of paper spreadsheet. I wrote down everything – including the weather, who I trained with, exactly what food I consumed, whether I did isometrics and/or circuit training, and how I felt at the end of the day. I had the right idea, but there was no real purpose to it – I just logged a lot of information. Strangely, I did not have a column for how well I placed in a particular race. Instead, I would write in the result on top of ‘Food Carried’.
Back pain was a common complaint in my log book. No one had ever measured me for my frame size, saddle height and stem length. If my toes could just about touch the ground while I was sitting on the saddle, all was well.
When it came to food, I had no idea about the correct combination of protein, fat, sugar and carbohydrates. Calorie intake was something I thought was for people worried about their weight. I had twenty consumable items listed, but there was no method to their intake. My list, in no particular order, included porridge, meat, potatoes, glucose tablets, chocolate, oranges, bananas, biscuits, tea, coffee, eggs, toast, cornflakes, desserts, and ‘drinks’.
I started to train for my first junior season with a positive attitude. In the absence of Kelly and company, who had all moved up to the senior level, Peter began to take control of the races, with me tagging along, mostly behind the flying Dubliner. Other riders started to emerge from the schoolboy ranks, like Paul Tansey, Damien Long, Tony Murphy, Kevin Sinclair, Alan McCormack’s brother John Mac Cormaic, Max Amman, Ritchie McCormack, Lennie Kirk, Tom Greene, Geordie Wilson, Anthony Ellard, Liam Wheatley, Fran Riordan, and Bernie McCormack.
By May of that year, Peter or myself were winning almost every junior race we entered. At the time, there was nothing scientific about our approach to racing. We just jumped on the bike at every opportunity. We had no coaches, no sports psychologists, and no tactical sense. It was still the era of ‘just try to train harder than you race’ attitudes.
When we returned to Ireland, I managed to finish second in the National Junior Championships to the Northern Irish rider Gary Wilson. I had broken away on my own on the last ten mile lap, but with about five miles to go Gary caught and passed me.
In the final junior race of my career, I beat thirteen others to the line for the win. Peter came in second. In fourth place was Stephen Roche, who had only just started his racing career.