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The Ascent, by Barry Ryan

The story of Irish cycling's golden years, from the rise of the Nouvelle Éire to the fall of Pat McQuaid

The Ascent, by Barry Ryan
The Ascent, by Barry Ryan

Title: The Ascent – Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling's Golden Generation
Author: Barry Ryan
Publisher: Gill Books
Year: 2017
Pages: 388
Order: Gill
What it is: The story of Irish cycling's golden years, from the rise of the Nouvelle Éire to the fall of Pat McQuaid
Strengths: Ryan can write and he's not afraid to take some sandpaper to the gilt and show what lies beneath
Weaknesses: Fuck me, but the Irish don't half swear a lot

They were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play
~ Yeats

The year is 1987, the place Wexford town, in the south east of Ireland. It's the last Thursday of August, the golden hour of summer, the holidays drawing to a close. Tonight, though, Wexford is happy, tonight Wexford is celebrating. Tonight, the circus is visiting: Pat McQuaid has brought his Kellogg's-sponsored city centre critérium series to the fading harbour town. And the stars of the show are the four Irish riders racing on the continent: Martin Earley and Paul Kimmage, the hard working heroes pulling for others; Sean Kelly, whose palmarès includes victories in Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Giro di Lombardia, Paris Tours and the GP des Nations as well as Paris-Nice, the Critérium International and the Tour de Suisse; and Stephen Roche, the man of the moment, the man who just one month before had added the Tour de France to his Giro d'Italia victory and joined a club of legends that started with Fausto Coppi and includes Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault.

And what a show the Irish riders put on for their new-found fans: victory the night before, in Dublin, had gone to Roche; tonight in Wexford it's the turn of Kelly to run rings around the pack of mostly British professionals McQuaid has enticed across the Irish Sea. After, the Irish riders retire to White's Hotel, where they are staying. There they're joined by Frank Quinn, who manages all four, along with his assistant and Kelly and Roche's two brothers-in-law. A quiet pint in a quiet bar is out of the question and so they stay in the hotel and order room service. Their rooms being too small they take to the hotel's hallways, food, drink and bodies spread out on the carpeted corridor.

Of all the stories told about the Nouvelle Éire – above the stories told of victories, beyond the stories told of defeats – it is this story of Kelly, Roche, Kimmage and Earley relaxing together in the carpeted corridors of White's Hotel that most captures my imagination. The image created has about it something to cherish. A certain innocence and purity. A casual camaraderie we all want to believe in. Even knowing all that we know.

We have tested and tasted too much, lover -
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
~ Kavanagh

Barry Ryan's The Ascent – Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling's Golden Generation tells the story of the Kelly-Roche years, the 1980s and into the 1990s, the years of plenty in which Irish cycling scaled improbable heights. Sean Kelly was the King of the Classics. Stephen Roche won Grand Tours and the rainbow jersey. Martin Earley, Paul Kimmage and Laurence Roche all served as domestiques on the continent. After having tried his luck on the Continent, Alan McCormack was making a living as a professional in the United States, as was his brother Paul and another Dubliner, John Brady. Pat McQuaid was organising televised races in Ireland and the UK. David Walsh was chronicling it all in books, newspapers and magazines. Frank Quinn was managing some of the riders and publishing Irish Cycling Review. Irish cycling had come a long way since the memory dimmed days of Shay Elliott.

The main story of those years – the successes, the sorrows, the scandals – is pretty well known today. The books Walsh wrote about Kelly and Roche can still be found, second hand. It's only five years since Roche took his second stab at autobiography, four since Kelly took his first and every other month you find some new exclusive interview with one or other of them, waxing lyrical about the past and telling us how brilliant/brutal (delete as appropriate) the present is. Paul Kimmage and David Walsh, their personal stories have become bound up with those of the fall of Lance Armstrong and the rise of Chris Froome. And Pat McQuaid, well it may be four years since he was ousted from his position as head of the UCI but, as the recent election showed, we haven't yet stopped talking about him.

How, then, do you take a story that has been mined free of wonder and return to it that which has been lost through repetition?

Cork city in September and a grey sky so low it might drown in the Lee. The crowds are sparser than in the years of plenty, but the diehards are padded out by the weekend shoppers, hemmed in by the barriers as they make their way home from Roche's Stores or the Queen's Old Castle. They pause, having no alternative, to watch the spectacle.

They see the boys of summer, not in their ruin, but inclining toward their rest. It is nearly time. Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche are autumn's men now, and the 1992 Nissan Classic is almost certainly the last.

A mass of bodies and bikes and embrocation and swear words whizzes past, and sweeps onto St Patrick's Hill, and all eyes are strained for a sight of one of the lads. A young Lance Armstrong is somewhere in this peloton, in the red and blue of Motorola, and nobody notices. Men like Phil Anderson, Adrie van der Poel and Andrei Tchmil are mere accoutrements.

From the bottom of St Patrick's Hill, the crowds watch the cyclists weave against the gradient, then grow smaller and fainter as they melt into the gloom towards the summit. A figure in white moves ahead, and a man leaning across the barrier hazards that it might be Roche, but nobody is sure. Ten minutes later, the cyclists hurtle past the same spot, and the man realises it wasn't.

Twice more the scene repeats itself. Generous applause follows the riders all the way up the ascent, but for those viewing from the bottom of the hill, the cheers fade gently as they grind towards the impalpable greyness at the top. Twice more, the man draped over the barrier says that Roche is off the front, and on the final occasion, he turns out to be right.

The finish line is a couple of hundred yards to the right, and the sound of the public address system doesn't carry. After the race ends, riders freewheel as far as the crowds at the bottom of the hill, and murmurs of the result travel by induction along the St Patrick's Quay: ''Twasn't Kelly or Roche who won anyway.'

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
~ Yeats

Variants of that image painted by Ryan of “a grey sky so low it might drown in the Lee” repeat in The Ascent – there's the “swift December dusk” that comes tumbling down, or “those suddenly dark afternoons when winter encroaches on autumn without so much as a whisper” - and help situate the tale told. This is a story that exists between the light and the half light: entre chien et loup, the French say, that part of the day when the light is so low you can't tell a dog from a wolf. In The Ascent it isn't always clear if our childhood heroes really were the characters we thought them to be, with Ryan simultaneously showing them to us in all their luminous glory while also pointing to the shadows and the things lurking within.

Take Kelly and Roche. Roche always paints himself and Kelly as the synthesis and antithesis of Coppi and Bartali, all the successes of the Italian campionissimi without the polemica of their media-exaggerated rivalry. That that is a bastardised version of reality was always known, but just how much so was not quite clear. We knew of stories such as Roche giving Kelly a dig out en route to victory in the Giro di Lombardia in 1983 and we knew of stories such as Kelly putting the knife in when Roche punctured at a crucial moment in Paris-Nice in 1987. Roche has always suggested that the latter was just a speed bump in their relationship but Kelly's autobiography, Hunger, painted it as being taken much more seriously. Throughout The Ascent, Ryan explores the complexity of the relationship between the two Irish champions of champions, reveals the rivalry the legends prefer to hide.

There's also the relationship between Earley and Kimmage, which is revealed to have had much darker undertows than have heretofore been understood. Or there's Alan McCormack, the fifth green jersey at Villach, a man who was not so much air-brushed from the accepted history of that day as just forgotten about. There are casual comments, such as Brian Holme on how Roche loved the cougars among his fans at races. And then there's the doping. When it comes to the doping, Ryan spares no one's blushes. There's the revelation from Paul Kimmage that the never before named other two critériums he doped for were those Irish races McQuaid organised in 1987, in Dublin and Cork. We are reminded of Kelly's failed tests and of things Kelly prefers to forget, such as what Willy Voet wrote about him in Massacre à la chaîne. The stain of EPO is hinted at, in the Indian summers both Kelly and Roche enjoyed in the 1990s. And there's blood transfusions, with Ryan resurrecting an over-looked comment from Roberto Visentini after his 1986 Giro victory and leaving the reader to wonder just what was really going on at Carrera in the 1980s.

None of this, though, is allowed to block out the light: Ryan drops these things in gently, while still celebrating the glory of those years, in part by a whistle-stop tour through the greatest hits of the Nouvelle Éire, in part by showing the regard in which its stars were held.

The crowds at the roadside for that year's race were of the kind reserved for a Papal visit, and the by-now traditional go-slow in protest at stage distances and Roche's public dissatisfaction at his £10,000 appearance fee did little to dampen the national mood. Kelly, of course, won the race for the third time in a row. 'It was wild altogether,' Pat McQuaid says. 'We had something like 85,000 people on a five-mile finishing circuit in Limerick, and the population of Limerick at the time was only 60,000. On the last day in Kilkenny, the crowds were so big that the bunch went off in two different directions in the confusion at the start. We were on the radio, trying to find them - “Where are you? Where are you?” - and we eventually got ourselves sorted out two or three miles down the road. It was huge.'

There had never been an Irish sporting phenomenon quite like the cycling boom. This was before the Irish football team had ever qualified for a major tournament and long before the Irish rugby team's appeal moved beyond a small caste of private schools. Olympic gold medallists like Ronnie Delaney and Dr Pat O'Callaghan had been respected, but competed before the advent of television in Ireland, and thus were neither as well known or as adored. By the mid-1980s, Kelly and Roche could be seen competing in colour on Irish television screens. Their faces and accents, their quirks and foibles were familiar to an entire nation. No contemporaries in other sports, not even Barry McGuigan, commanded the same level of adulation across the country.

The real strength of The Ascent, though, isn't in the tales told of Kelly and Roche taking on and beating all comers. The real strength is in the lesser tales: Martin Earley and Alan McCormack, who rarely speak about that time, and Paul Kimmage, who speaks here with a frankness that still captures the pain and the glory of those years. For those who already know the stories of the Kelly-Roche era well these are the tales that make The Ascent an enlightening read. These are the tales that shed new light on the Nouvelle Éire and let the wonder shine once more.

The Ascent, by Barry Ryan
The Ascent, by Barry Ryan