Patrick's Hill defeated Lance Armstrong: the history of elite cycling in Cork

Patrick's Hill defeated Lance Armstrong: the history of elite cycling in Cork
Jan Svorada winner of stage two of the Tour de France from Enniscorthy to Cork in 1998. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE.

JAN Svorada: that name mean anything to you?

Well, it’s the answer to a question about a day when the eyes of the sporting world were fixated on Cork.

The Czech sprinter won the dash down the Carrigrohane Straight in 1998 when the Tour de France visited the city on the third stage of its Irish sojourn.

That stage had commenced in the home town of the great Sean Kelly, Carrick-on-Suir, and is famous for the moment the yellow jersey wearing Chris Boardman crashed as he crossed the Waterford – Cork county boundary as he was about to enter Youghal.

I can confirm that the Youghal natives were entirely blameless!

In 1998 Corkonians were used to witnessing the continent’s top pros tearing around their pot-holed roads. The Nissan Classic took place on the roads of Ireland from 1985 to 1992, coinciding with the golden age of Irish cycling when Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche were in their pomp, winning virtually every major race on offer between them.

Kelly won four of the eight editions of the race, while Roche won a number of stages.

One of the main features and highlights of the race, every year, was the sight of the pros tackling St Patrick’s Hill. Witnessing that particular brand of torture proved to be a popular pastime of the era.

The first time the race visited Cork in 1985 the peloton tackled the Hill, and the large home crowd went home happy at the sight of Roche pulling clear to win the stage, with Kelly a further ten seconds behind in second.

They were back on Leeside a year later, with the Australian Phil Anderson winning, with King Kelly back in third, while a year later in 1987 Kelly was denied again, finishing second to French man Joel Pelier.

Irish cycling was at its pinnacle then, in the year of Stephen Roche’s Tour de France triumph, with Kelly winning the overall classification that year, with the rainbow jersey-wearing Roche finishing as runner up, while Martin Earley and Paul Kimmage also had top 10 finishes.

Phil Anderson won in Cork again in 1988, while in 1989 the Belgian Eric Vanderaerden won in the city, in a race that he completely dominated, winning four of the six stages on offer, while home fans were left disappointed again a year later when Frenchman Bruno Cornillet stole away to win by an astonishing 10 minutes ahead of the peloton.

Kelly was back to win his fourth and final Classic in 1991 but once again he was to be denied in Cork, as he lost out in a duel with England’s Sean Yates, while in the race’s final visit to Cork in 1992 it was that man Anderson who again displayed his fondness for the finishing circuit by securing a stage that propelled him to overall victory that year.

A win in Cork in the Nissan Classic was to elude Kelly, but he did enjoy success on Leeside in the popular Kelloggs Criteriums of the mid-1980s.

Google ‘Kellogg’s City Centre Cycling 1986 – Dublin and Cork’ and you will discover a YouTube clip of a young Richard Keyes presenting an old ITV show on the Kelloggs criteriums that used to take place in Irish city centres in that era.

The first half an hour centres around the race in Dublin around the Dublin Castle/Christchurch area, but fast forward to 31.50 and you get to the Cork segment.

The map shows the route, and extremely short, sharp 840m route starting on Sullivan’s Quay, turning left over Parliament Bridge onto another left at the South Mall where the peloton quickly turn right onto the Grand Parade before a left at Tuckey Street, a left at South Main Street and another left at the bridge to bring them back onto Sullivan’s Quay.

The commentary of Phil Liggett and Jimmy Magee is pure nostalgia. The cyclists go flat out from start to finish with the winning move being made by England’s Tony Doyle and Kelly with about six laps to go.

Five other riders bridge across, including Roche, who then puts in a big shift to ensure the group goes clear. In the last lap, Kelly and Doyle are clearly the strong men in the race and it is the pair who swing left off of South Gate Bridge into the finishing straight for the final time, and Kelly burns his English rival with a terrific finishing kick to take the spoils.

The very colourful scene as the Tour De France passes the Western Star in 1998.
The very colourful scene as the Tour De France passes the Western Star in 1998.

There was a 15-year hiatus when the Nissan Classic went by the wayside in 1992, but the rebranded Tour of Ireland returned in 2007 with the very first stage ending in Cork. 

The Belgian Stijn Vandenbergh won the stage and the overall, while a year later Cork was given the honour of being the final stage finish, with Frantisek Rabon of the Czech Republic being the first across the line that year.

Cyclists applauded as they reach the summit of the Healy Pass in a scene similar to that in the Tour de France mountain stages in 2007. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Cyclists applauded as they reach the summit of the Healy Pass in a scene similar to that in the Tour de France mountain stages in 2007. Picture: Denis Minihane.

The very last pro race occurred a year later, with the final stage being a 185km ride from Bantry to Cork, which included three climbs up Patrick’s Hill. The big attraction that year was the presence in the field of one Lance Armstrong when he was still very much the star of the sport.

56 riders abandoned on the road from west Cork to the city, with only 47 battling their way through the monsoon conditions to finish. Lars Petter Nordhaug of Norway won the stage with the yellow jersey wearing Russell Downing happy to leave his breakaway companion have the win considering the Tour was his.

Armstrong ended up being one of the abandonees on the day, as he effectively rode into the city, took one look at Patrick’s Hill and decided ‘no thanks’. Later that evening he tweeted: “rough day on the bike. The back was not in a good way and St Patrick’s Hill wasn’t looking too cosy.”

The moment the millionaire Texan stepped off his bike on McCurtain Street signalled the end of Cork’s quarter of a century relationship with top professional cycling. 

The Rás Tailteann was run in Ireland in Ireland up to 2018, with a stage running from Glengarriff to Mitchelstown, and while a great race, it never attracted the top tier teams from the continent, and barely caused a ripple in the national sports media. 

The appetite to see the world’s finest road men might return on the back of the future palmares of Eddie Dunbar from Banteer and Sam Bennett from Carrick-on-Suir, although it is unlikely we will ever again witness days like the ones provided by Kelly and Roche.

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