Gearing up for another big year

Brian Nugent scratches his head and tries to tot up the number of days he has spent abroad with Irish cyclists this year — but can only offer a very rough estimate. “A lot,” he eventually settles for.

Gearing up for another big year

“Well over 100 days of racing anyway, and the same training… the rest probably analysing the two and seeing how we can do it better next time,” he adds.

The 35-year-old Cookstown native hasn’t yet been in the job of Cycling Ireland head coach for 12 months yet, but his fingerprints are all over some of the country’s finest achievements this year.

He’ll take a few days off this week but will be back in Majorca on Sunday with his protégés, Martyn Irvine, Ryan Mullen, Eoin Mullen and Caroline Ryan, training for next month’s World Cup in Mexico with one eye on the World Championships in Colombia a month later.

All bar Eoin Mullen medalled at a major championships this year and the latter brought to 38 the number of medals the Irish team has clocked up at European and world level, across the Paralympic and Olympic programmes in the last two years. Of that haul, 20 have come on the track, remarkable for a country without a velodrome.

Nugent has been likened to Team Sky and GB’s head coach Dave Brailsford for his meticulous approach to training and competition and though charged with challenging for silverware and overseeing the build-up to the 2016 Games in Rio, even he struggled to put words on his first year in the position.

“If you had said to me at the start of the year we’d have a year like we did, I’d have said you were dreaming,” he confesses. “It has been truly unbelievable.”

Federation chief executive Geoff Liffey is asked for his highlight of the year and even a man as shrewd and structured as he is, gets lost in one long unbroken montage of golden moments.

“Well, first you had the announcement of next year’s Giro starting in Ireland; that came the same day as Martyn Irvine’s gold medal at the World Championships, which led into the road professionals coming to the fore; Dan Martin winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Volta A Catalunya, leading into strong performances in the Tour and The Vuelta. Then came Nicolas winning a stage of the latter and of course the summer also saw the emergence of Ryan Mullen in winning two European U23 Championships track medals.

“He followed that up with a seventh in the World Championships and towards the end of the year we saw Martyn Irvine come back and claim his first Omnium medal at the Europeans followed by a World Cup gold medal in Manchester and then of course Caroline Ryan winning the country’s first Elite women’s World Cup medal in the Pursuit.”

Add in Philip Deignan signing for Team Sky, Sam Bennett winning a stage of the Tour of Britain and subsequently penning a professional contract with NetApp-Endura, and talk of the Tour of Ireland returning in 2015, and it makes quite a picture.

But aside from the performances of our top riders, almost as satisfying for Liffey and Nugent is the sheer volume of cyclists now on the road, tuning into the sport.

“More people than ever before are cycling,” says Liffey.

“There has been a 50% increase in the number of cycling events and charity cycles since 2008, the Bike2Work has been a huge success, Cycling Ireland’s (CI) membership has shot up with a 370% uptake in the last four years and there’s a 100% increase in women’s membership. We’re in a good place right now,” he adds.

Nugent qualifies that: “CI membership has gone from 5,000 to over 20,000 in the last few years. It’s incredible the number of people who want to be involved in the sport and have an interest in it.

“It means there’s more money available for the performance athletes, but we must keep working at every level — particularly underage, so the numbers coming through will increase, instead of decrease like in the past. I really want to try and crack that drop-off rate and keep people in the sport because at the end of the day, it’s not all about winning things.”

Despite that, Nugent is only too aware that to raise the profile of the sport, there must be moments like Martyn Irvine winning the country’s first Track World Championships medal for 116 years. Because with a limited budget, there’s the constant dilemma of fund allocation. Do you pump money into the performance level in an effort to win medals and raise the profile, or invest it in development programmes at the detriment of the likes of Irvine and Ryan?

“It’s a delicate balance,” Nugent accepts. “But we as a federation are judged purely on results and the better we get, the more consistent we get, the more the Sports Council can give us — and justify giving us. We’ve been consistent over a number of years now and shown a trend that we can be successful. The success we’ve had this year in all our squads gives us a louder claim for support,” he adds.

Liffey is singing from the same hymn sheet: “The feedback from the Sports Council has been positive and they see we’re moving in the right direction. They have to balance the requirements across multiple sports but they do take a strong focus on projections towards the Olympics and with Martyn and Caroline showing up so well, it becomes harder to ignore.”

The criteria for funding (or carding) of athletes — which has always been a contentious issue — is set to be redirected back from the Sports Council to some governing bodies, with cycling in the frame to be one of those to handle its own affairs.

Dan Martin, who spent time as the world’s number one rider this year and believes he would have ended the year as number one, but for his crash that forced him out of the Vuelta — is a firm believer that the money must go to the developing riders, not the developed.

“I meet the carding criteria, but I don’t need that money. Guys riding for An Post-Chain Reaction and other developing guys, they need the money to help their careers.”

A lack of knowledge of the sport’s intricacies has long been a reason for people not taking it into their hearts, says Darach McQuaid — brother of former UCI president Pat, and one of the movers behind the Giro d’Italia coming to Ireland next year.

“There was that gap to the Kelly and Roche era where if you don’t follow cycling, you might be a little confused about the sport; like what’s the difference between a Grand Tour and a Classic and why is this guy winning five stages but not taking the yellow jersey? All the intricacies of the sport that regular folk don’t understand.

“But with the amount of media coverage the sport has had the last couple of years, the level of understanding has come back to the general public, and that is so important because if you don’t understand something, you certainly won’t buy into it.”

Of course, the year wasn’t all positive and the Cycling Ireland AGM in April was all about one man, Pat McQuaid and would CI’s members nominate or reject him to run for the presidency of the UCI.

What followed was an ugly and protracted battle for McQuaid against his only opponent for the position, Britain’s Brian Cookson.

The Irishman was personally attacked — often by Irish cycling supporters — accused of collusion with disgraced American Lance Armstrong, before he was defeated by Cookson at the UCI Congress in Florence in late September.

The fallout from that resulted in Kelly and Roche losing key seats in various commissions within the sport’s governing body, and McQuaid said their losses were the collateral damage of his own fall from grace.

“I am to some extent not surprised, but at the same time there are few more experienced people in world cycling than Sean and Stephen,” said McQuaid.

“It would seem that they are collateral damage to my loss, which is a pity and now Ireland has no influence in world cycling,” he added.

As well as that, the suspending of the Commissaire’s Commission — which featured Antrim man Michael Robb — represents another reduction to Ireland’s presence on cycling’s world stage.

Said McQuaid: “Kelly is one of the most experienced people in cycling and he’s involved in the system in running a team. Roche has a son doing well at the highest level and would therefore get feedback from him as to what is going on in the peloton on a load of issues — doping, race length, transfers, rest days, race radio — all elements Roche Snr could then bring forward to the PCC.”

However, in spite of the loss of those four voices inside UCI, Liffey, Darach McQuaid and Nugent all refute the idea that anything will really change — and each have their own roles in ensuring the sport keeps its reputation and integrity while maintaining the challenge for medals.

“We stretched ourselves to the max this year to get a lot of programmes up and running, but they went from strength to strength,” said Nugent. “It was a hell of a year, but we want to do the same thing next year, and the year after and the year after.”

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