Fab Four the wheel deal

Paul Kimmage said he felt like a member of the Beatles when he lay down, drowned in a pool of his own sweat, on the kerb at the top of O’Connell Street, basking in the moment of helping secure the Nissan Classic for his Irish compatriot Sean Kelly in 1987.

Fab Four the wheel deal

The pair, along with Stephen Roche and Martin Earley, embraced one another and celebrated just as they had done when Roche won the World Championships a month earlier in Villach, Austria.

“I often wondered what it would’ve been like to be a member of the Beatles and that day in Dublin gave me some indication,” said Kimmage. “Kelly and Roche were rock stars anyway, but I actually felt like one and Martin was one that day too. That was a special moment, the four of us there on the street and the crowds congratulating us. You couldn’t buy a feeling like that.”

Earley was, and still is, the least known of the four and though it was almost 30 years ago and the call takes him by surprise, he remembers it well.

“The Nissan was unbelievable. I’ll never forget those races, particularly around the streets of Dublin. The crowds were just incredible, guys were hanging out of trees and windows to get a look at the race, people forget how big those events were. They were absolutely massive and the best riders in the world were there.”

He’s also reminded that just one Irish rider won a stage of the Giro d’Italia before him – and only one since. Back then, Earley was up there with the best in the world.

“I still remember it well,” he recalls of that seven hour, 236 kilometre trek from Savona to Sauze d’Ouix. It was his biggest professional win — only the second of his career at that point, while the fact he beat superstars Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon made it all the more impressive.

“As a young lad I had only ever dreamed of riding as a professional. And there I was, competing in the Giro d’Italia and being able to win a stage so it was just an unbelievable feeling. Only a few years earlier I was riding races in the Phoenix Park,” he laughed.

“It didn’t change my life by any means, though, it gave me a bit of confidence. I had won a stage of the Tour of the Basque country that year as well so, I more or less knew where I was in the hierarchy. I knew I wasn’t one of the best riders by any means but I knew I wasn’t at the back of the bunch either. I knew, on my day, getting into the right break, I could compete with anyone, as long as the right people were there and the situation was right.”

Earley was a very clever rider – and coupled with his oversized glasses, looked more like a college professor than a bike rider. And he needed all his racing smarts to win that day in Italy.

“In fairness, if you look at the results and the people behind me [superstars like Roberto Visentini and Greg LeMond], there’s some amazing guys not that far behind but I was lucky because I was away in a break for a long time and the rest of the riders behind me got caught and I didn’t. I jumped at the right time and stayed away. I won it by the skin of my teeth, and that’s the beauty of cycling. You get into the right break and things happen. I’ll never forget that.”

A Tour de France stage win would follow two years later and he’d notch a number of notable top 10s, including seventh in the World Championships in 1989, while becoming national champion in 1994, but perhaps the moment that trumped all was when he helped Stephen Roche become world champion.

Earley, along with Kimmage, Alan McCormack as well as Kelly and Roche made up the team; the latter two seen as two of the favourites. His job was simple, bring back any break that Kelly and Roche weren’t in and when they would make their move late on, he was free to drop out if he wanted, knowing his job was done. Indeed, Roche and Kelly broke away with five others and Roche won with a late attack.

“That was an unbelievably proud day for the Irish team and for me, to be there as part of it, was very special. All the big nine-man teams were there and we were there contending with our five-man Irish team. It was unbelievable to have two riders up there with the best in Kelly and Roche. Everyone knew they were two to watch but they delivered. People can forget how good they were.

“You’d have to ask someone outside of the sport to gauge how good they really were because you know what cycling people will tell you; they were the best. Cycling wasn’t big at all before then and if it’s a minority sport now it was a far more minor sport then, but they gave it identity. People knew about the races they were in, and not just the Tour de France. The sport is a lot more mainstream now because of the internet and television but back then it was different. I don’t really know how big it was back in Ireland at the time because I wasn’t there, I was away racing and training, but it’s unlikely we’ll see another two like them.”

Earley retired in the mid 1990s with no regrets and now makes his living as an osteomyologist and sports therapist in the village of Hilderstone, 35 miles south of Manchester.

“I was 12 years a professional cyclist and I loved it but the suffering I went through… I’m lucky I had the career I did. I won big races. I made a decent career from it and travelled an awful lot. I knew when the time was right. I never cracked, but at the end, I knew I was at the end. I wasn’t enjoying it as much.

“Cycling has been a big part of my life but it doesn’t go on forever. I do charity cycles now and get out a few times a week, but more socially.”

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