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  • On the cusp: the formative years of Sky’s Eddie Dunbar

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    Writer Tom Daly has witnessed recent Sky signing Dunbar go from an 11-year-old kid in Kanturk without a bike to one of the brightest prospects in the world. But, tackling some mental health challenges along the way, it’s been far from an easy ride

    Words:
    Photographs: Russ Ellis
    Eddie Dunbar

    We go back to the beginning.

     

    Eddie describes a fairly typical induction at 11 when he became enamoured by the Tour de France on television and his father brought him to Danny Curtin at his fruit stall in the Market Square in Kanturk: “All I needed was a birth certificate – Danny gave me a bike to get started.”

     

    Danny started the club in 1991 in the small County Cork town and his unorthodox, singular style has been producing Youth national champions annually ever since. The club, and Danny, shaped Eddie’s early relationship with cycling, particularly after the loss of his father, Eamon, from a progressive kidney disease when Eddie was 14.

     

    “He went into hospital one time and was gone for months and just never came back. I was at the Mayo Youth Tour and got a call to go home. But I half-knew what was going to happen and just couldn’t face it. So I stayed until after a time-trial the next morning and left then. I was met by my sister who told me: he was dead before the stage but they didn’t tell me.”

     

    Cycling was becoming a form of avoidance, a means of blunting the emotional trauma. “You are just numb and it doesn’t feel real,” Eddie says. “I just wanted to get away from it all.”

    His relationship with Danny took on a particular dimension then. “I suppose when a fatherly figure goes out of our life, you are subconsciously looking for that kind of manly person.”

     

    The youngster, with the focus and single-mindedness of potential elites, had intuitively bought into a bond that provided the support, structure and focus he needed.

     

    “Danny took me under his wing. He laid down markers and discipline and made me do the right things: training and eating right, doing my stuff in school and being good to my mom.”

    Eddie Dunbar

    It was a milieu in which innately gritty and ambitious young riders could find challenge, expression and fulfilment, and the main recurring themes in Eddie’s talk of those formative years are fun, comradery and Danny’s “mental training stuff”.

     

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    “We’d be in the Square waiting for Danny and having the craic, and then everybody would go quiet when he drove up, trying to judge his mood – we were terrified of him,” Eddie says. “When he’d say, ‘right, over the hill so,’ we dreaded what was to come: a drag with about 20 telephone poles. Depending on his mood, we might start at the middle one or the bottom one. Then you’d be doing 15 sprints up this drag and could barely cycle home afterwards. We thought it was mad, that we shouldn’t be doing this.” Eddie Dunbar

    “Why did you keep coming back if it was so hard?”

     

    “Looking back at it now, it was the fun and the madness and the thrill of it. And also the sheer fear that if you missed training, Danny would make you work harder the next day.”

     

    Eddie was a poor sprinter and some of us thought him tactically naïve ­– a workhorse, taken out in sprints, who could only win on his own on hard circuits. He might never have won a national Youth title had Danny not switched his focus to the time-trial for his final under-16 championship. One title was pretty ordinary in Kanturk: he wasn’t destined to ride a Grand Tour, let alone win one, it seemed.

    Eddie Dunbar

    I move on to his transition to Junior. We had missed him from the Sunday club spins that winter and Danny was sidestepping queries with vague talk about medical tests. I hadn’t realised that Eddie, at 15, was already vulnerable and having an early brush with mental wellness issues not uncommon in cycling.

     

    “I got into a kind of panic facing Junior [level] and only took a week off after the Youth Championships. I was constantly exercising and I came back from a spin one day, turned into the estate and ended up riding into trees I was so tired. It was like I almost blacked out. There was a lot of talk of Sudden Death Syndrome at the time and I started getting anxiety attacks and convinced myself that I had some heart problem.”

     

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    It was the end of January before various cardiology tests were concluded and he had just two months to prepare for the season. He was physically fresh, however, put his faith in Danny’s training and the miracle of Minnane Bridge was an early indication of something special.

     

    But why, out of all the youngsters that passed through the Kanturk club, and perhaps out of a generation or more of Irish cyclists, did Eddie become the special one?Eddie Dunbar

    Edited extract from issue 18.7, on sale now