The most powerful man in Irish cycling is optimistic about the future. Declan Byrne, who six weeks ago took over the top spot in Cycling Ireland, believes the sport’s regulating body has turned a corner.
After the glory days of the Roche and Kelly era Irish cycling went into something of a prolonged hangover. It’s governing body was bankrupt for long periods and many of the countries elite cyclists were forced to abandon their sport because it was bereft of prospects.
This year Cycling Ireland expects its membership to break the 4000 barrier for the first time. It has an ambitious infrastructural program planned and is confident that more Irish riders will make it to the professional level than ever before.
Byrnes, while acknowledging the problems of the past, prefers to focus on the positive. A phrase he uses throughout the interview is ‘things are healthy’. And so they certainly appear. The organization has a vigorous policy in place to attract new members. To introduce children to cycling it’s instituted a program of open days in its 130 affiliated clubs. In a pilot scheme in Ulster, which it hopes to roll out countrywide, two posts have been created, that of development officer and talent spotter.
Good working relations with sporting bodies is also something that’s keen he emphasized. Being a 32 county organization it receives funds from both the Irish sports Council and its Northern Ireland counterpart. Byrnes doesn’t hide the fact that members subscriptions merely cover the insurance premium for riders and without government assistance bankruptcy would be inevitable.
The organization has teamed up with Sean Kelly Academy and the Sean Kenny cycling team to offer younger cyclists what Byrnes terms ‘a route to market’ for the first time. Being a lesser cycling nation Irish riders, unless they were exceptional, found it difficult to break into the professional league. The new structure will see younger riders getting the opportunity to train on the Continent and the real possibility of cycling for a professional team.
Byrnes also wants his organization to be more than just a bureaucratic structure. ‘We have always been a competition-based organization, we were not facilities-based. While other organizations had football fields and swimming pools, all we needed was the open road. The Irish road in 2007 is now a perilous place. We need to start looking at getting more facilities.’
In the near future he expects to see a velodrome built in Belfast and funding has been secured for the redevelopment of the outdoor Dublin track. With these facilities in place he believes that Ireland has a realistic chance of winning an Olympic medal in London in 2012.
He also acknowledges that his organization has had nothing to offer leisure cyclists in the past. Plans are already afoot to build two off-road cycling tracks. These are intended for community use and competition. Based on their success Bynre’s hope that a network of such tracks can be established countrywide.
Any discussion about cycling wouldn’t be complete without mentioning drugs. In the Irish context Byrnes sees them as being something of a nonstory. He says that the Irish Sports Council has conducted 100 to 150 tests annually and in the last five years all have come back negative. Internationally he believes the sport will get its house in order. Cycling now has become big business and drugs are frightening off the sponsors. It’s the fear of financial loss, he says, rather than the physical harm that drugs can do that is concentrating the minds of the large professional teams.