How did you first get involved with bike racing?
There was actually no tradition of racing in my family although everyone had bikes. My Dad & Uncle would have ridden everywhere so being on a bike was second nature. I was interested in riding and when I decided to join a club I went for The (St. James ) Gate CC. They were the only club in Guinness at the time that accepted outsiders (non-employees) and it was known that one of their members, Philip Clarke, had been captured during an arms raid on a British Army Barracks, which added a bit of allure for me at the time. Those earlier days of cycling in Ireland were highly poIiticised and it was virtually impossible to be impartial at the time. Not long after joining the Gate CC I was roped into being club secretary and that was really the start of my involvement in the admin side of the sport. Over the years I progressed through to eventually become President of the NCA (National Cycling Association) as it was known at the time. I put in a lot of hard work over the years and have been lucky to have worked with very good, like minded people which ultimately culminated in the previous 3 Irish Federations (NCA, ICF & NICF) merging in 1987 to form what we now recognise as Cycling Ireland.
|Dermot Dignam 2012|
Do you cycle these days?
I do when I can although the racing days are probably over. I did race consistently for a number of years in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s, rode my first Rás in 1959 and the last in ’72 with a few missed years in between but the body isn’t as compliant as it used to be as I have a back injury that comes at me every so often despite two operations. It stopped me racing a number of years back and I had a hiatus of more than a decade from the bike. I did some serious mountaineering during this time, going as far as scaling the summits of some icy Himalayan Peaks but the bike always called me back and I managed a few more years racing as a Vet. These days I ride for pleasure when I can.
How long have you been involved with the Rás and how did it start?
My first involvement with the Rás was as a rider in ‘59. I rode my last Rás in 1972 and after that was involved in the organising committee with 1979 the first one where I was the sole organiser. I had a bit of a break in 1981 but ever since 1983 I have’nt been able to escape! My best Rás performance was in 1961 when I managed 7th on General Classification, had a number of stage placings over the years including 2nd to the great Paddy Flanagan into Navan and just holding off the legendary Sé O Hanlon.
|Race Director Dermot Dignam|
What makes the Rás so unique?
For starters, the history of the Rás is really fascinating. I think its fair to say that the history of the race is tightly woven with the political and cultural fabric of the country as a whole as we have moved through different times. In many ways, the Rás was ahead of the times. The race was started in 1953 as a 2 day race instigated by Joe Christle who at the time was a very public and active Sinn Fein figure but from the early 70’s when there was a change in the structure of the organising committee and I started to get involved we tried to make it as all inclusive as possible and we were certainly ahead of the times in this regard. These days the politics have abated and the Rás has developed into the premier cycle event in Ireland with an ever increasing following at home and abroad with growing respect and increasing stature on the International calendar. It’s a unique event that gives us a platform with which we can show the pride we have in our country and allows us showcase our organizational skills, the hospitality of our people and the beauty of the countryside. In other countries a bike race is just another bike race but in Ireland the Rás holds a special place in our culture similar to the way the Tour de France holds a special place for the French people. It is an expression of pride in ourselves and what it means to be Irish.
Do you have any cycling role models?
I took to the sport simply for the love of it so I did not really have any heroes at the time that I looked up to. Shay Elliot was around in my day but for political reasons lets just say he didn’t get my full support as a fan! *
*There were 3 federations in the country at the time. The 32 counties NCA of which Dermot was a member, the CRE (Cumann Rothaiocht na hEireann, which confined itself to 26 counties, and the NICF (Northern Ireland Cycling Federation). Hostility between the 3 sides was common with many a curse been thrown from one side of the road to the other when groups of opposing political views passed!
What was your favourite Rás was there any edition in particular that stands out?
For me, there is no one edition of the race that stands out. Each Rás brings its own memories and milestones. A couple of dramatic incidents do stand out. One is the nasty crash a couple of years ago when the head of the bunch, on a descent and a blind corner, ploughed into an oncoming 4x4 that had not heeded a request to remain on a side road. It was carnage and the rest of the days racing was neutralised but thank God no-one was life-threatenedly injured although one Spanish rider went home with a severed finger and there were a number of serious fractures. The safety of the riders is always a huge concern so incidents like that can shake you. On another occasion, going through a loyalist stronghold in the North during the 1980’s, we were confronted by an Orange Parade taking up the whole road which had evidently been staged in our honour. There were some very angry locals quite vociferous in letting us know what they thought of us and where we should go but eventually the bunch managed to get though in single file without incident. Successfully bringing the race down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown at the height of the Drumcree protests was another great occasion.
In your opinion how has the Rás changed/evolved over the years you have been at the helm?
There is no doubt that the race now is less political and more professional in many aspects but in my opinion it had to go this way to survive. To give it its place on the UCI International Calendar this change was necessary. If it was kept as a race for purely domestic riders the cost and logistics would be virtually the same but it would be far less attractive for sponsors and public alike in an era where cycling really has turned into an international sport.
Is it still a race for the County Riders?
Yes, without a doubt. Of course its hard for the domestic lads to slug it out with the pros but if it was easy there would be no achievement in it. There is no other race worldwide that offers the same opportunity for local riders to race against guys such as Tony Martin (winner 1997 and current World Time Trial Champion) and many others who now ride at the highest level. In my day there weren’t foreign riders participating but you suffered just as much in the hands of the biggest Irish riders. Back then, most Irish guys with the strength and talent who nowadays would most likely be riding the Tour de France, did not go abroad so we had to try and keep up with them which was just as hard as it is for the county riders these days. Aiming to take part in a Rás needs dedication and preparation and for most guys that have jobs and families to juggle, it requires commitment and is a huge physical and mental demand but it can be done and is done every year by dozens. You have to work hard but the rewards are worth it!
What is the biggest challenge for the successful continuation of the Rás in Ireland?
The success of the Rás is in huge part due to the volunteers that run and organise it each year. They are the people that bring the passion and commitment to it which gives it such a special atmosphere. I cannot thank them enough. The race is still run on a voluntary basis and I believe if this changes it is doomed. A race run purely for profit risks losing touch with its roots and if the Rás was to ever lose touch with the grassroots volunteers and cyclists that make it what it is it will not survive.
What is the key to helping Road Racing take off in Ireland? – eg media coverage? More facilities? More volunteers etc? Funding? Involving Youth?
This is something I have often thought about over the years. Cycling has had surges and dips in popularity over the decades and at the moment it is extremely popular but a lot of those new to the sport are not interested in racing. Its hard to know exactly what would work especially in such a harsh economic climate where resources are scarce but I always considered the GAA as a fine example of just how successful an organisation based around volunteers can be. They mobilise communities and youth of all ages very successfully. If we are to have another Sean Kelly or Stephen Roche it depends on youth development and getting as many involved as possible. If we can restore and build community spirit in our clubs and counties akin to the GAA we could foster a healthy competitive spirit and pride in our young cyclists that I’m sure would increase the racing numbers and give us some international stars! Parents are also afraid to let their kids on the roads these days but we should encourage more closed circuits such as what has been developed in Corkagh Park. Providing a safe environment is huge, look at the success in the UK with Track & BMX, BMX is back here now too with huge numbers of kids taking part which is great to see. I’m sure these kids would have as much fun grass track racing too which used to be the cornerstone of all community sports meeting and was even staged in Croke Park. Wouldn’t that be interesting if we could join forces with the GAA to share their pitches to revive the grass track scene …I’m sure we’d find another Sean Kelly then!