Cyclo-cross in Ireland: behind the scenes of an emerging nation
During the Valkenburg-Limburg 2018 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships (February 3-4), traditional cyclo-cross nations such as Belgium and the Netherlands are likely to be in the spotlight. Although smaller cyclo-cross nations might not yet be in the medals, many are investing time and resources to help move their riders up the rankings. We take a closer look at the development of cyclo-cross in Ireland.
One week ahead of the UCI World Championships, there was an impressive ‘camp Ireland’ in the team parking area of the final World Cup round in Hoogerheide. For a whole week, the Irish selection is staying in Bertem (Belgium). The group is led by Andy Layhe, who must be Ireland’s most passionate promoter of cyclo-cross.
“I have been in my voluntary position as Cycling Ireland Cyclo-cross Co-ordinator for around a year and I have focused on implementing some solid structures to help us progress. Having grown up in England, cyclo-cross has been my life for 30+ years, winning the UK National Trophy Series and riding for my country across Europe and at the World Championships. Cyclo-cross is in my blood and what is worthwhile to me is seeing the younger riders enjoying the discipline and developing their skills,” Layhe states. He’s proud to see that cyclo-cross is booming in Ireland. “Cyclo-cross is our most rapidly growing cycling discipline,” Layhe said.
“Some 20 years ago, we had only a handful of riders doing cyclo-cross and it was only used for training for the road, during winter months. Some 20 years on, we have riders specialising in ‘cross. We also have four provincial leagues occurring each weekend through the season. On most weekends we can easily see up to 800 riders racing between youth and elite categories.”
Even some of the traditional cyclo-cross nations wouldbe impressed by these numbers. Yet Irish cyclo-cross riders haven’t yet left their mark at the highest level: “We have no professional cyclo-cross racers as such but Ireland has always had a tradition of road cycling, stemming from the Kelly/Roche era. We now have riders specialising in ‘cross, with riders taking part in races throughout Europe to gain experience and exposure to higher quality fields. One such rider is U23 David Conroy (Scott-Eurocycles.com) who has based himself in Belgium this season,” Layhe explains. “We have some way to go of course but we are slowly building the foundation of a solid national development squad from riders between U14 and U23. Our primary focus is developing the skills of our young riders, to equip them in their technical ability. We have many promising U14 and U16 riders coming through our system.”
These youngsters will receive a boost from a new dedicated training ground. “I was approached by the National Sports Campus in Dublin to design and provide a permanent cyclo-cross course and facility there. The National Sports Campus is headquarters to Ireland’s major sporting federations such as football, aquatics, equestrian and GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), so for cyclo-cross to be involved there is a huge bonus. I have designed a UCI-standard course and skills facility where we can develop our riders in one location. We hope one day to run a top level UCI event. Construction of the cyclo-cross course should begin soon,” Layhe said.
The cyclo-cross co-ordinator is trying to learn from experts, and invites them to Ireland to boost the motivation of his riders. “As part of my position, I took part in the UCI cyclo-cross camp in Switzerland during October. I joined [red., former] Belgian national coach Rudy De Bie and some very talented young racers from all over the world. As a result of being there, I invited Rudy over to Ireland to visit us and spend a day with our development squad. We have also had coaching sessions from Helen Wyman and former GB coach Martin Eadon. All have had a huge input into our squad riders’ development and we thank them for that.
The last few years has seen a spectacular growth of women’s cyclo-cross at the highest level. More and more top riders from other disciplines opted to spend their winter competing in several rounds of the Telenet UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup followed by the UCI World Championships. “Our women’s side of racing is also developing well and I have held women specific cyclo-cross coaching days which have been great fun. I advise and assist as many riders as I can on cyclo-cross, one such being 16-year-old Lara Gillespie. Lara, already a silver medallist in the Youth Olympic Games in the time-trial opted to focus on cyclo-cross this season, winning the FIXX Series overall and amazingly winning the Elite women’s national title just a few weeks ago. Lara is young so still learning and most importantly enjoying cyclo-cross to help develop her skills. As such, she has been selected to ride the Women Under-23 race at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships. Although one of the youngest riders taking part, she is there simply for the experience and enjoyment.”
Apart from the future training grounds in Dublin, Layhe has plenty more work on his plate to improve the level of cyclo-cross in Ireland. To realise his plans, money is required. Layhe managed to gain some help for his riders through sponsors KASK and Juice Lubes. To improve the quality of the races and the development, more sponsors need to step in. “We would like to attract bigger sponsors for our main events and incorporate a national league. With cyclo-cross being a non-Olympic sport, we struggle with funding compared to the road and track disciplines. I certainly hope this will change as the sport grows. After all, cyclo-cross can provide all the skills to young riders that they can then transfer to other disciplines as they mature. Remember, Peter Sagan began life as a cyclo-cross racer – where else did he learn his skills?” Layhe asks, with a wink.
Peter Sagan was the runner-up at the Treviso 2008 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in the Men Junior category. Slovakia isn’t the biggest cyclo-cross nation out there, so there is a possibility that Ireland could also deliver the goods.