RTÉ Sport journalist
Former Sundays’ Well Underage Player Eddie Dunbar impress on the international stage
Ireland’s Eddie Dunbar notched a career-best result on Saturday as he claimed overall victory at the prestigious five-day Coppi e Bartali stage race in Italy.
The 25-year-old from Kanturk may not have won any of the individual stages but his results and cumulative time over the five days was enough for him to celebrate his first win as a professional cyclist.
And in doing so, he became the first Irishman to win a professional stage race since the recently-retired Nicolas Roche won the Route du Sud in 2014.
To put it further into perspective, not since Stephen Roche won the Giro d’Italia in 1987 has an Irishman won a stage race in Italy, the cycling term given to a race spanning multiple days.
“I’ve been on the team a few years now and everyone knows how much this means to me, it’s like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” he said afterwards.
“I knew I could be up there in races, GC-wise and I said, ‘once I get a good run I can be good enough to contest these races’. Everything fell into place this week and it’s a relief.
“The guys did a super job all week – they rode really well. We rode the stage today and controlled it from start to finish, it was great.
“I was grateful to all of the guys for believing in me and backing me these last few days to stick in there and it’s nice to finally get a win and show how grateful I am to them, and all the staff too.”
His talent has long been known to keen observers of the sport but his six years as a professional rider have not been straightforward, with injuries and bad luck often robbing him of the chance to show his full potential.
He had no such issues this week in Italy, however, as some truly brilliant performances coupled with a little luck and a very strong team ensured he claimed the overall win.
In the end, his closest challenger was his INEOS Grenadiers team-mate Ben Tulett who finished runner-up, just nine seconds behind him, with Marc Hirschi (UAE Emirates) rounding out the podium in third.
It’s a monkey off Dunbar’s back, for sure, as he joins an elite roll of honour which includes the likes of last year’s Tour de France runner-up Jonas Vingegaard and 2007 Tour winner Cadel Evans.
Some will argue it’s ‘about time’ Dunbar delivered on the big stage, but if we’ve had high expectations of him, it’s only because he won so prolifically as an amateur and his peers – Sam Bennett, Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche – have been so much more successful in recent times.
What also hasn’t helped Dunbar achieve more results for himself, arguably, is being at INEOS Grenadiers, a star-studded line-up with a budget big enough to buy the best riders and contest almost every race they enter.
Indeed, riding for arguably the sport’s biggest team has had its drawbacks with non-selection for races among them.
All the while, the years have slipped by and Dunbar is no longer eligible for the Young Rider Classification, a jersey classification that recognises the best-placed rider under the age of 25.
He is no longer in that category. He is no more ‘the next big thing’, or the rider with the potentialto be world-class and win Grand Tours. He is there. He is a big thing, and he is world class.
The sport is a fickle one. Teams fold, contracts get torn up, form vanishes, motivation wanes, injuries mount up. Global pandemics occur, seasons pass by and ‘next big things’ appear, only to be replaced by more ‘next big things’.
2020 was a complete disaster for Dunbar. It was a Covid-ravaged, crash-marred nightmare where he raced just 25 times. He missed the Giro d’Italia, the Vuelta A Espana and the World Championships because of injuries. Some were sustained in races, more in training.
That winter the team added salt in those wounds by acquiring some of the best climbing talent in the world to their squad by signing Dani Martinez from EF Pro Cycling, Richie Porte from Trek Segafredo, Laurens de Plus from Jumbo Visma and Adam Yates from Mitchelton-Scott.
It was hard to see him breaking into any line-up for a Grand Tour as he freewheeled down the roster.
In 2021 he started very well and showed glimpses of his best in June when he finished 12th overall at the Tour de Suisse while also winning the jersey for the Best Young Rider.
He helped the team to the overall win with some phenomenal efforts in the mountains and we sensed a breakthrough was coming.
But in the latter six months of last season, he started just five races and failed to finish two of them.
He retreated to Cork from his base in Monaco, as he often does, and took up running after a lengthy spell off the bike. It was almost back to square one.
Such a low ebb makes this week’s victory all the more remarkably sweet.
His win against the biggest names has proven that he hasarrived at the top level, and because much always wants more, the talk will now turn to what he can do next.
The Tour of the Basque country is another stage race that suits his characteristics as a diminutive, punchy climber and he will go there brimming with confidence, while the three Ardennes Classics between 10-24 April are others he could go very well in.
But if he does nothing aside from domestic duties for any one of the team´s more established men, he can take a lot of pride from the fact he has done something that only a fraction of pros experience in their careers, and that is win.
And from a domestic perspective, we can only hope it isn’t another 35 years before an Irishman wins a stage race in Italy.