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Pat McQuaid on the 1998 Tour de France in Ireland, warts and all

Posted on: July 23rd, 2018

Tour de France yellow jersey in Dublin in 1998, Chris Boardman. Working with coach Peter Keen, the duo began British cycling’s revolution that saw its riders transition from also rans to dominating the Tour de France.

 

Pat McQuaid on the 1998 Tour de France in Ireland

 

 

Former UCI president and the man behind the Tour de France’s  visit to Ireland two decades ago, Pat McQuaid (above), reflects on the arduous planning and great success of the race’s three days in the Republic.

But he also remembers the cloud of the Festina doping affair and the negative impact it had on his plans in the years that followed.

 

By Pat McQuaid

It is exactly 20 years, July 1998, since the Tour de France Grand Depart took place in Ireland.

The idea started in 1993 whilst I was a member of an ad-hoc committee set up by the then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Gay Mitchell, and headed up Tony O’Reilly, to bring major sports events to Ireland.

During a brainstorming meeting of the committee, when it came to possible cycling events, I suggested the Tour de France could come to Ireland.

Heads popped up all around the table – “How? That event only goes around France.”

I explained that I was actually working on the Tour de France coming to the UK the following year.

And I’d been thinking about Ireland as a possibility. It couldn’t follow the same pattern of what was happening in 1994 in the UK.

It was starting in France and coming into the UK via the new Channel Tunnel. Then it was spending two days in the UK and going back on the short sea route.

If the Tour was to come to Ireland, it would have to be a Grand Depart. That means it comes in leisurely the week before the event. And after the first few stages the race would have to get back overnight to continue on its way around France.

The committee was very positive about this and asked me to follow up. So in Andorra on a rest day on the 1993 Tour I asked Jean Marie Leblanc, the race director, for a meeting.

He was a close friend for many years, including having visited Ireland on an annual basis to see the Nissan Classic – and to enjoy Irish culture.

So I knew I would be positively received by him. I explained the interest in Ireland and how I envisaged it could happen.

Having listened, his response was: “Pat, if it is possible, it is possible.”

In other words; if it was logistically possible, if the financial commitment necessary could be met and if the political will was there; then the Tour director would certainly consider it positively.

That was all I needed to report back to the committee. And that started the long, and sometimes very arduous, task of getting the Government on board and putting the logistics in place.

 

Steels wins into Dublin; Cipollini on the deck just inside the gates of the Phoenix Park at the end of stage 1.

 

A figure of £1.5m was necessary; as well as all the logistical elements such as road closures, venues for the race headquarters and ferries to return the race to France.

It took three years, mid 1996, before the then Minister for Tourism Enda Kenny could go to Cabinet and get approval for the spend.

This was because the Irish Government had never, up to that moment, funded a major sporting event to come to Ireland. So we were setting a precedent.

Once the decision was taken and announced, and the route unveiled; then I have to say everyone involved from Government departments, Dublin City Council, the Office of Public Works in Dublin Castle and Phoenix Park, the county managers and engineers right down to village committees along the route gave the event a hugely positive response.

Everyone pulled out all of the stops along the way. I worked with Alan Rushton and Mick Bennett as intermediaries between the French and the Irish. At times this was hugely challenging.

Shutting down Dublin for the weekend and the implications for air traffic control, public transport, railways, access to hospitals and so on all had to be planned in great detail.

All of the towns and villages along the route got into the spirit of having the Tour pass through. And all had French-Irish festivals planned for the period of the race.

Indeed, as is the case in France, they all dressed up their homes and shops in colourful and imaginative decoration.

In 1997, one year before the Grand Depart, we had a major operation on the Tour.

Firstly we had several decorated vehicles which took part in the Tour pre-race cavalcade; giving out information on Grand Depart 1998.

And we also brought over senior personnel from all of the relevant Irish entities who were involved in the planning for 1998; from county and city officials to Garda members.

They came in groups of between four and six and usually stayed for two or three stages.

When they went home they were replaced immediately by another group.

This was extremely important to the eventual success of the event in Ireland. For most of them; it was their first time actually seeing the Tour live.

And getting them inside the huge logistical machine that moved the race around on a daily basis was crucial.

The Tour arranged for each visitor to meet their counterparts in France. They got to discuss expectations and to see how the French approach worked.

This proved to be critically successful as they got an appreciation of the size and scale of the event. And that assisted them greatly in their planning work in the final year.

 

The Tour de France stage 1 in Tallaght and Wicklow.

 

Our regular planning meetings around the route in the winter-spring of 97-98 were a lot more fruitful. Now we had locals in the planning meetings with personal experience of how the Tour moved.

One of the biggest headaches we had was getting the ferries to bring the race back from Ireland to Roscoff after the finish in Cork.

Without this, the event could not have happened. Thankfully, StenaLine came to the rescue here and did a magnificent job.

One ship went from Dublin after the prologue and stage 1. A second left Rosslare after the Enniscorthy start and the other two left Cork on the Monday evening.

With only two possible berthing slots in Roscoff, it was important that the first two ships had unloaded and left before the second two arrived.

These big carriers had to be taken off their usual routes for three days. They were placed in Ireland ready to load up and leave. And then after unloading in Roscoff the ships were brought back to their usual routes.

It was a hugely costly operation for StenaLine, running into millions. But they provided the service as they felt it was important for Ireland.

And so the Tour arrived and took over Dublin, and indeed was greatly supported by all and sundry.

People travelled from all over Ireland, and many from abroad, to witness this French sporting spectacle taking place in Ireland.

The prologue started in College Green and passed by Leinster House, Merrion Square, St Stephens Green, Winetavern St on to the quays to finish on O’Connell Street.

It was won by British TT specialist Chris Boardman and he took the yellow jersey.

Stage one went from Dublin out through a crazy Dundrum, home of 1987 Tour winner Stephen Roche.

Then the race went on through Bray and into the Wicklow Mountains before descending back through Blessington to finish up the main road of the Phoenix Park.

A big disappointment for me was to see Mario Cipollini crash just inside the gates of the park.

It would have been great to see ‘The Lion King’ storm up the finish line to victory on a straight absolutely suited to him. But it was Tom Steels who took the honours.

I actually didn’t go on the stage that day because straight after the start in Dublin I had to go up to the finish in the park to look after things there; in particular a lot of political guests.

I remember well during lunch in the hospitality area and beside me was Pádraig Ó hUigínn, a Francophile and more importantly secretary at the Department of Finance.

He was, in effect, the top civil servant in the country. He had been very useful to us in the years preceding; advising us on how to weave our way through the corridors of power.

We were watching on the television monitors in the area and suddenly he turned to me as the peloton were passing the Blessington Lakes with the Wicklow Mountains in the background. The helicopter camera seemed to dwell on this image for a handful of seconds.

Padraig said to me: “Pat, this is going out all over the world live as we watch. No money could pay for the images like that and the promotion Ireland is getting.”

Coming from him that meant a lot and made up for the sleepless nights. It was also justification that the Government investment was worthwhile.

Indeed soon after the Tour’s visit the Irish Government announced a new strategy specifically aimed at bringing major sports events to Ireland

 

The racing in Ireland was a success and was very well received. However, while the Festina affair didn’t really blow up until after the Tour de France had left Ireland, Virenque and his team mates were already under pressure. It took several days for the full complexion of what was going on to emerge in what was the last days of the pre-internet age.

 

Another interesting snippet from that weekend was that we now had a new Fianna Fail government and Enda Kenny was no longer in power.

The Tour invited Enda and his wife to dinner in Dublin on the Saturday night as a gesture of gratitude for his support of the project from the beginning.

Monday was another hugely successful stage. Early in the morning we all headed down to Enniscorthy for the start. I followed in a helicopter, watching the peloton meander westwards. We stopped in Carrick-on-Suir to see the passage through Sean Kelly’s town.

It was a bit mad with pints of Guinness being passed around liberally on the stage. In the middle of the day!

We moved on to Cork to be informed that the race leader Chris Boardman had crashed and was out of the race.

The stage was won by Czech Jan Svorada and then everybody headed for the port. As with the previous stages, the crowds all along the route did the Tour de France proud.

Ireland looked magnificent and the event was a huge success.

I couldn’t finish without mentioning the ‘Festina affair’. Of course Tour de France 1998 had, unfortunately, a big cloud over it.

News crept into Dublin through various sources that Willy Voet, masseur of the Festina team, had been stopped in northern France on his way to Ireland with a boot load of drugs in his possession.

Naturally, we felt this was going to explode a nuclear bomb in Dublin and damage irreparably all of our work that went into the event.

On the Saturday, Jean Marie Leblanc called myself, Alan and Mick to a meeting and told us what he knew. It was a fast moving story and obviously he was extremely angry.

However, he told us that because of the work that Ireland had done with the preparations, the Tour would try to keep a lid on it until they knew more facts and indeed until they were back on French soil. And this they more or less did to their credit.

From a personal point of view I was also extremely angry.

As most of the readers will know, the Nissan Classic finished in 1992 and cycling took a big dip in Ireland with the retirements of Kelly and Roche.

Le Tour en Irlande was to be the catalyst for getting a new stage race going in Ireland.

We had the Government on board; such was their delight at the success of the Grand Depart. However, during the following three weeks as the Tour imploded in France so also did our hopes of getting Government support for a new stage race in Ireland.

That experience, that disappointment, was to be a major driver of mine in later years dealing with anti-doping in the UCI.

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