Mike O’Hare, garrulous former organiser of the Isle of Man International Cycling Week, describes his fellow Manxmen and women thus: “Eighty-five thousand alcoholics, stuck to a rock!”
It’s a gag delivered in an accent familiar to anyone who has heard Mark Cavendish speak, which to the untuned ear sounds Liverpudlian through and through. But there is a softer edge to the islanders’ words. Generations of Scousers crossing the Irish Sea for a quieter life on this windswept outcrop have influenced the sound of conversation in the street, but not taken it over.
Not so long ago, thousands of cyclists would take over each June, invading the island for a week of racing and leisure riding. What started in 1936, founded by Curwen Clague, as a race covering a single lap of the famous motorcycle TT circuit, mushroomed in the post-War years into a daily programme of events that initially drew the road racing-starved riders of the mainland, then pulled in some of the biggest stars of the sport.
Clague’s genius was in attracting top names to this most unlikely hotbed of racing, including Fausto Coppi in 1959, Ireland’s Shay Elliott getting the better of him that year. The silver plaques on the ornate Manx Trophy read like a Who’s Who of greats in the 1960s: Rudi Altig, Tom Simpson, Barry Hoban, Jacques Anquetil – who beat Eddy Merckx into second spot in ’65. Not bad for an island 15 miles across, affectionately known as ‘The Rock’ by its inhabitants.
The Isle of Man Week finally folded in 2003, the Manx Trophy awarded to Yorkshireman Mark Lovatt that year. The days of riders boarding the Steam Packet ferry in Liverpool with a kit bag slung over their handlebars were long gone. A budget airline flight to the Alps or a week in Mallorca now cost no more than seven days on an often-rainy island in the Irish Sea. The star names became increasingly hard to attract. It’s a wonder it clung on as long as it did.
Yet it is around this time that the second part of the Isle of Man’s remarkable story begins. The National Sports Centre in Douglas opened in 1991, its fully-lit tarmac cycle circuit becoming a magnet for the island’s many young cyclists to the extent that over 300 kids now attend the Tuesday evening training sessions held there.
One of those kids was Mark Cavendish. Another was Peter Kennaugh. Former Saxo Bank pro Jonny Bellis was another. The Rock with “85,000 alcoholics” stuck to it consistently produces world-class cyclists drawing from a population lower than Stevenage.
The Manx International GP made a welcome return in 2016, giving us a good excuse to visit The Rock, mull over the past and look to the future.
STARS AND BARS
When Mike O’Hare took over the organising reins of the International Cycling Week from the founder’s son, Des Clague, he continued his predecessors’ tradition of attracting the best.
“Coppi, Anquetil, Darrigade, Simpson, Kelly, we’ve had them all here,” he states, with justifiable pride. But how? Good old-fashioned cash inducements, perhaps?
“Exactly!” O’Hare confirms. “I brought Sean Kelly over towards the end of his career. It was the British road race championship as well, finishing on Douglas promenade. Sean said I’ll come, but it’ll cost you five grand. I said, Sean, we’re on our uppers here. Do it for two and a half.
“Five grand, Michael, or nothing,” came the reply from the unwavering Irishman.
“I went down to see the tourist board and said we’ve got 2.5 left in our budget, you give us 2.5 and we’ll bring Sean Kelly in. While we are bringing him in, I said we were going to have the Irish road race championship as well, without knowing what the hell I was talking about. Kelly said okay, so they gave us the money. I said we’ll just incorporate it in with the British champs – forget about all the rules and regulations.
“So we held it. Sean said I’ll give you a bloody good race, and he did – he went from the gun. It was fantastic. Brian Smith won it that year.”
The festival had by now grown to 26 events spread over seven days. “We never slept during the week. There was an event morning, afternoon and evening, every day,” O’Hare explains.
Thousands of clubmen and women would arrive on the island each June, most travelling light with a kitbag and no car. There was a decent prize for the club bringing the most members to the island, “a sprat to catch a mackerel”, as O’Hare describes it. The traditional cycling strongholds of Merseyside and the North-West, Yorkshire and the rest descended en masse for a week of hard racing and equally hard socialising.
The partying was usually reserved for post-race celebrations, but not exclusively, as O’Hare’s best-laid plans didn’t always run so smooth.
“I had an idea to lay on a train from Douglas to Port Erin, at the south of the island. There was a bar on it. Vinokourov and the Kazakhs came over one year. We left here at six and by the time they got to Port Erin, they were all pissed! It was great fun. They were singing and laughing all the way back.
“One year, we decided to stop the train halfway and have a barbecue – gave everybody a drink and some food, all having a lovely time. I blew the whistle and shouted ‘all aboard!’ But the drivers were pissed up in the grass. I had to phone Douglas and get three double-decker buses to get everybody back…”
The week had the word ‘International’ in its title with good reason, as racers came from all over Europe and beyond. “We’d had male riders from 27 different countries, and women from 16 countries, by the time I retired in ’95,” O’Hare says.
If the Manx International was the star turn of the week, the main support came in the form of the mountain time-trial, held over a single lap of the world-famous TT circuit. Chris Boardman won it three times, setting a course record in 1993 that stood for 22 years. And Graeme Obree was a regular visitor to the island, taking the title in ’92 and ’95.
“Obree became a great pal,” says O’Hare. “After he won the mountain TT, we couldn’t find him for the presentation. Eventually we located him, sat by the roadside, talking to a bunch of kids. A fantastic man.”
And who should eventually break that longstanding record of Boardman’s, considered such a solid time that a local business put up a £3,000 bounty to lower it? Local lad Pete Kennaugh, shaving six seconds off Boardman’s time to claim the cash. “It was a perfect day,” O’Hare says. “When Chris came here, he had the whole entourage. Kennaugh just went off and did it by himself.”
The week of racing and socialising that sprouted from a single road race organised by Curwen Clague in 1936, continued by his son Des, and then taken over by Mike O’Hare, ended in 2003. It had been a good run, but much like O’Hare’s train to Port Erin, it had reached the end of the line.
“In Curwen Clague’s day, it was a massive thing for the island,” he remembers. “But the economy killed it, and changing holiday patterns.”
The Rock fights on, though, punching well above its weight on the world stage and churning out talented riders by the dozen. “I think Cav has regenerated it,” is O’Hare’s assessment of the island’s current healthy cycling state, and he’s probably correct. “People started taking note of the island again.”
But there has to be somebody behind this conveyor belt of Manx success. Who is taking the raw material and producing this stream of young riders with the skillset and mental toughness required to progress to the highest level?
From issue 65 of Rouleur. Part 2 to follow