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Conor Dunne: Early days in Belgium, Carrick-on-Suir, big news

Posted on: February 15th, 2019

Irish elite cycling champion Conor Dunne has been riding on the international scene since 2009. He’s worked had and made progress every year; always remembering to enjoy it along the way (Photo by Israel Cycling Academy, homepage photo by Karen M Edwards)

 

By Luke Maguire

Irish national champion Conor Dunne got his 2019 season underway in Argentina last month at the Vuelta San Juan.

After a long spell without racing, Dunne was glad to be back in the action, despite pulling out through illness before stage five.

At 6’8, Dunne is currently the tallest professional cyclist in the world. He has a vibrant, quirky personality to match his physical size.

On the bike, however, his is a serious and professional approach. And though his debut in San Juan didn’t go to plan, he hopes to build up again for the Belgian classic races.

“Argentina was really hot; 40 degrees plus on some days,” said Dunne of the early season action in South America.

“We were really suffering in the heat. The crowds are mad there, they love the cycling.

“Personally, I’m just glad to be back racing after such a long lay-off. The plan now is to get back fit and get back to Europe all guns blazing.”

But it’s not just racing on his agenda now, with some big news emerging from the Dunne camp today.

He and partner Stacey Kelly have a busy and exciting time ahead as they will become parents for the first time in about 12 weeks.

And from that point the Israel Cycling Academy rider will combine pro cycling with fatherhood.

“We’re expecting a baby boy on May 11th, we can’t wait,” he said. “All is going well so far; fingers crossed. And I’ve already bought 10 basketballs for practice when he arrives.”

 

An early career win in Belgium in 2010, where he rode races, and spent some full seasons, in the period from 2009 to 2013 before landing a place with An Post-Sean Kelly (Photo: Gerben Doornaert)

 

Dunne and Kelly live in the south of France close to Sam Bennett. Indeed, the two Irish riders share many of the same training roads.

“Sam was sick over Christmas unfortunately so I couldn’t take him out and batter him. I think really he was just a bit scared I’d drop him!” grinned Dunne.

“I was back in Ireland a lot over Christmas and the weather was really mild. So the conditions were perfect for training.

“Cycling around Carrick on Suir is still huge. I was out training with riders from there a lot over the winter.

“You roll down outside Super Value on the weekends and there’s always a big group,” he said of numbers in what has always been a centre for cycling in Ireland.

“I was out one rainy Saturday morning and there was over 20 of us in the group. It’s a big boost to the morale to train in a group and the banter is great.

“The roads are very heavy in Ireland compared to the Continent. The cycling season truly begins in Belgium in February.

“And it’s raining and freezing cold in Belgium in February. So I find the Irish winter is ideal preparation.”

 

Winning the opening stage of Rás Tailteann into Longford in 2013; collecting the yellow jersey for his troubles (Photo: Sportsfile-Rás)

 

Dunne claimed his most prestigious victory last year when he held off the likes of Nicolas Roche and Ryan Mullen to win the national road race championships.

Reflecting on the title win in Sligo last July, Dunne says it meant as much to those around him as it did to him.

“It was massive for me. It’s a race I had been trying to win for a long time. It meant a lot to me and to my partner Stacey (Kelly) and her family too.

“I’m happy to be coming into this season with the Irish colours on my back and plenty of racing on the horizon.

“The goal is to get to the biggest races and hopefully do the Irish jersey proud.”

Born and raised in Hertfordshire, Dunne now splits his time between France and Ireland.

“Nice is my training base and then at Christmas and during the summer months I spend time around Waterford because that’s where Stacey is from.

“The roads around Waterford and the Comeragh mountains feel like home to me now.”

 

On the attack in Belgium in the Handzame Classic in 2015, his second season with An Post (Photo: Lydia Van de Meerssche)

 

Dunne properly burst onto to the Irish scene as a lanky 21-year-old by winning stage 1 of the 2013 Rás Tailteann.

“That Rás was the most fun I’ve had at a race in my whole career,” he said of his impressive breakaway win and yellow jersey.

“I loved every minute of it. I had been in Belgium already for a season at that point and then came back to Ireland to ride the Rás with the Carrick on Suir team.

“Paul Lonergan was the team manager and he really looked after me. I had just returned from a stage race in Italy and was on strong form.

“I managed to get away to win the first stage into Longford. I’ve ridden the Rás four times now in my career. But that first stage in 2012 was definitely the highlight.

“For most of my amateur career I was living in a house in Belgium; training in the rain, eating frites and riding home from races in the dark.”

 

With the others on the 2018 Worlds Irish team. Left to right: Dunne, Ryan Mullen, Nicolas Roche and Dan Martin (Photo: Sean Rowe)

 

Having just turned 27 years, Dunne is approaching his best years as an athlete. He’s now in his sixth season riding for pro teams.

Looking back on his career so far, he has fond memories of his humble beginnings in Belgium where life was less than glamorous.

“My career has gone by in a flash,” he said of the decade that he’s been riding UCI-ranked races.

He began taking in international races as a junior, mostly in Belgium, and would ride there before joining An Post-Chainreaction in 2014.

After two seasons with that squad he rode for JLT-Condor, a UK Continental team.

During his 2016 with that team he impressively won the Rutland-Melton International Cicle Classic; one of Britain’s hardest one-day pro races.

He then stepped up to Aqua Blue Sport at ProContinental level; riding for the team in 2017 and last year until August when the team collapsed.

He had just signed a two-year extension but has landed on his feet with Israel Cycling Academy; also a ProConti squad.

 

Winning the Irish elite road race title in Sligo last summer. Within weeks his team ended but he has bounced back well (Photo: Caroline Kerley)

 

Even before Irish cycling fans became aware of Dunne’s ability when he won the Rás stage, he had some very tidy results in the bag; scoring a string of top 10s in stages of UCI ranked races as a teenager back in 2009 and 2010.

And by 2011 he had become a fixture on the Irish U23 team; riding the U23 Europeans that year.

He’s represented Ireland in the Europeans or Worlds every season since then; riding both some years.

A look back his career over the last 10 years reveals relentless progress; an inexorable nudging forward every year to his current status as established pro, Irish champion and breakaway specialist.

“When you move away at a young age you learn quick how to fend for yourself,” Dunne said of his salad days in Belgium.

“A lot of race craft and tactics you have to figure out for yourself because as the only foreigner on a Belgian team.”

 

With team mate Daniel Pearson during his time with Aqua Blue Sport; a successful stint despite the unfortunate demise of the team (Photo: KarenM Edwards)

 

He continues of his early days in Belgium: “I had no power metre when was racing in Belgium as I just couldn’t afford one.”

He was also a beneficiary of a grant system set-up to help young riders in his position.

“As an amateur I was lucky enough to getting €400 a month from the Dave Rayner fund. My rent was €200 a month

“I’d try and spend €30 a week in Lidl. Then if I won some prize money I’d treat myself to a few beers.

“It’s mad thinking back on it, but it was so much fun. They were simple times and definitely some of the best years.”

 

Height means extra work

His large stature means he has to take a bit of extra care in certain areas of his training and lifestyle.

“To make sure I stay pain free on the bike I have to keep on top of my stretches and do a lot of core strength work.

“I also need to remind myself to fuel properly as I burn through a lot of calories, especially during hard training. Dodging the tree branches is another obstacle because of my size!”

In early January it was off to Israel where Dunne linked-up with his new teammates at the first training camp of his new team.

“It was an intense camp, we did a lot of training and then we were seeing the sights,” he explained.

“It was my first time in Israel and I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it really surprised me actually.

“There are 30 riders on the roster from all over the world. The team has some huge ambitions. One of the main goals is to ride the Tour de France in 2020.

“I’ll just focus on the training and hope that the team get as many race invites as possible.”

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