It was a slow day, and the sun was beating down on the soldiers by the side of the road. There was a bright idea, which came from the photographer Stephen McCarthy, that we go into town to see Eddie Dunbar in the road race.
It’s striking sometimes how these moments have a way of making themselves remembered. First time hearing about Eddie Dunbar? Now read on.
Here’s the scene: we were in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, Sunday, June 21st, 2015, the longest day and still the hottest day ever experienced in my life. Somewhere over 100 degrees. Fahrenheit, naturally.
It was the first European Games – better known then as Pat Hickey’s Games, a year before his walls came tumbling down – and Irish interest was thin on the desert ground. Katie Taylor won another gold medal in the boxing. After that we were looking for the next generation.
McCarthy, of Cahersiveen stock, knows his cycling, as well he might. Just up the hill on the outskirts of the town you can still find the run-down house where Mick Murphy used to live, the original Iron Man of Irish sport, the 1958 Rás Tailteann champion, won on blood and sweat and tears in every sense.
Dunbar, in Baku, was 18-years-old, a hungry kid in cycling out to make a name for himself, from the north Cork village of Banteer. Population 355.
At some point early in the 215km race, starting and finishing on Freedom Square, road tar melting and white lines too, Dunbar was near the front, making clear his intentions. In the end, of the 125 riders who started that day, only 60 finished, including Dunbar, in 48th position. McCarthy was right: Dunbar was one to watch.
Friday, May 26th, 1989: Giro d’Italia, Stage 6, Potenza to Campobasso (223km)
‘Some bastard Italian attacked from the gun today. The first five kilometres were up a mountain and the attack split the field to bits. Before I knew what was happening, the three cups of Colombian coffee, swallowed just before the start, were coming back up my throat. My muscles, sore and stiff from yesterday’s marathon, took their time before responding and the climb was sheer hell… Where was the Giro of legend, where riders laughed and joked for five hours and raced for two?’ – Paul Kimmage, Rough Ride
Exactly 34 years on from that day, Dunbar got another proper taste of this in only his second Giro. In the face of the considerable gradient and inside the pressure of the GC, Dunbar did lose some time on Friday’s Queen Stage, to the rooftop of the magnificent Dolomites, the 183km from Longarone to Tre Cime di Lavaredo (the Three Peaks of Lavaredo) in northeastern Italy.
After 5km of climbing in total, finishing at 2,307 metres above sea level, Dunbar dropped from fourth to fifth overall, race leader Geraint Thomas, who turned 37 on Thursday, still looking primed for the second Grand Tour win of his life.
Consider the three riders ahead of Dunbar going into Friday’s Stage 19: Thomas is still proving his worth five years after winning the Tour de France, also finishing second and third; Primož Roglič, the 33-year-old Slovenian, has three successive wins in Vuelta a España, second and third in the Tour also; Joâo Almeida, the 24-year-old Portuguese rider, was fourth in the 2020 Giro, after wearing the Maglia Rosa for 15 consecutive days.
Dunbar’s time is only beginning. Since joining Team Jayco-AlUla for this season, the Australian outfit offering him a three-year contract and the chance to chase Grand Tour podium positions, his career has only now shifted in the direction that Baku that day promised.
Other moments have ways of making themselves remembered too. Around this day in 2020, the country still trapped in lockdown, Dunbar called me at exactly one minute past six o’clock, his reasoning being the signal wasn’t always great around his home in Banteer, and concerned my scheduled call might not get through to him. You remember that.
That was also one year to the day since he took third on the Giro’s 158km Stage 12 into Pinerolo, ending up 22nd overall in his first Grand Tour, still only 22 (and only given the call-up a week in advance after Ineos team-mate Egan Bernal broke his collarbone).
During that conversation, Dunbar also spoke of his head-planting crash on to the road, inside the final 1km of day one of the Baby Giro, in June 2017, resulting in a severe concussion which left him almost five complete months off the bike.
“That’s when I kind of realised I was living in a bit of a bubble, with cycling, got a little lost,” he said.
“You call your friends, and realise they were off in college, or my girlfriend, who was off in Spain. I was very close to quitting, a couple of weeks away maybe, had become a bit too strict about it, racing all the time, no real escape outside of cycling. I really thought I was done with it. It wasn’t a positive time in my life, and I realised I had to change a few things to enjoy the sport again.”
There had been other hard moments to overcome, chief among them the loss of his father, Eamonn, who died of a progressive kidney disease when Dunbar was only 13.
It was after the sudden collapse of the Aqua Blue Sport team, midseason 2018, that Dunbar was invited to join Team Sky, now Team Ineos, to ride alongside the likes of Chris Froome, and Thomas.
After Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche, both retiring after between them spending 35 seasons in the peloton, starting 43 Grand Tours, there was that question who might fill their cycling shoes. Along with his two stage wins in the Tour de France (2013 and 2018), Martin’s fourth place in the 2020 Vuelta, having sat in third overall for the first two weeks, remains the best Irish Grand Tour placing since Kelly won it outright in 1988.
Now, eight years on from Baku, Dunbar is on course to surpass that, sooner if not later. This Giro was his first Grand Tour as outright team leader, and the results are telling their future tale.
This general classification will ultimately be settled on Saturday’s penultimate stage, the 8.6km individual time-trial, which ends with a 7.8km climb, perhaps not enough for Dunbar to move himself onto a podium position. Still his time is only beginning.