Cycling: Dublin promises fresh start

Andrew Longmore reports on ambitious plans to kick the 1998 Tour off in style
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The Independent Online
The final day of the Tour de France and the crowning of a new champion in Jan Ullrich is as good a day as any to celebrate the dark- haired figure with the infectious grin and expanding waistline who more often than not can be found dispensing fast-talking wisdom in the village every morning of the Tour. Ten years from his own annus mirabilis, Stephen Roche has been feted high and low, received awards and been paid tributes which have made his ears curl in delight and embarrassment. In France, his adopted home, where his popularity outstrips Laurent Fignon and Bernard Hinault, the main television station dedicated an hour-long documentary to his career.

"It's amazing the compliments that have come my way," he said one fresh morning in the Alps last week. "It's been very touching and very flattering." Only in Ireland has the anniversary of his victories in the Tour of Italy, Tour de France and the world championships - a treble achieved by Eddie Merckx alone before the Dubliner - not been accorded quite the attention it deserves. The celebrations have been postponed not shelved.

When the Tour gathers again, it will be on the handsome streets of Dublin to pay the ultimate compliment to the tradition of Irish cycling established by the sturdy figure of Sean Kelly and the flashing genius of Roche. On Saturday 12 July, the prologue will be a whistle-stop tour of historic Dublin, a seven- kilometre dash down O'Connell Street, through Old Dublin and past the rows of Georgian terraces to the finish across the Liffey. The following day, the 198-strong peloton in the 85th Tour will race down the East Coast to Bray and Arklow, sweeping over the Wicklow Gap and back into Phoenix Park for the end of the 110-mile first stage. A second stage will take the race past Sean Kelly's backdoor in Carrick-on-Suir and on to Cork City where three Stena Line ships will transport the whole cavalcade to Roscoff overnight in one of the most ambitious operations ever mounted by the Societe du Tour de France, the Tour promoters.

Roche has been a central figure in the symbolism much loved by both Ireland and the Tour. The 1994 Tour came to Britain as a celebration of the opening of the Channel Tunnel; the 1998 Tour comes to Ireland to commemorate the Irish-French rebellion of 1798, but in reality to honour Roche, Kelly and Shay Elliott, the first English-speaking cyclist to wear the yellow jersey, in much the same way Jacques Anquetil was at last given his due place in the pantheon before the start of the 1997 Tour at Rouen, Anquetil's birthplace. Ullrich's dominating victory completed a neat circle as Anquetil was also 23 when he won the first of his five Tours.

Symbolism does not come cheap, of course. The willingness of the Irish government to stump up pounds 2m helped to lure the Tour to its shores. In return, the Irish Tourist Board hope to make pounds 30m from the increased revenue not just from the three days of the race, but from the global marketing of Dublin and the beauties of the Irish countryside to its estimated television audience of 950 million. The Tour is as much grand scene as grand boucle in the first week. More than a quarter of a million visitors came to Ireland from France in 1996.

In between his jobs promoting cheese for Coeur de Lion and commentating for Eurosport, Roche has helped to host groups of Irish businessmen and councillors, whose first meeting with the Tour has opened eyes and tested naturally optimistic natures. Ireland staged the Nissan international race for many years, but the Tour with its 3,500 accredited personnel, fleet of helicopters, four fixed-wing aircraft and 500 radio channels, is on a slightly different scale. "I think a few of them wondered what they had let themselves in for," Pat McQuaid, one of the Tour in Ireland's co-promoters, said.

McQuaid first put the idea of Le Tour en Irlande to Jean-Marie Leblanc, director general of the Tour, five years ago. Leblanc's response was a Gallic shrug and "if it's possible, it's possible". Armed with that limited assurance, McQuaid hurried back to his government to elicit support and, within a few months, a full proposal was being considered by the Tour. With Elliott, who rode for Anquetil, Kelly and Roche lining up alongside Wolf Tone, the leader of the French-backed 1798 rebellion, the impetus for the project was overwhelming.

"The French have always loved Ireland and so the will was there from the start. They also know that the Irish people love their cycling and have supported it well down the years," McQuaid said. Ireland's own cycling fortunes have fallen away since the Eighties. The organisers hope the Tour will be the catalyst for change. "We want to inspire a new generation of Roches and Kellys," McQuaid said. Roche himself smiles at the thought. His homecoming should be worth the wait.