“I don’t want to be the next Chris Froome, or the next Alberto Contador. I want to be the next Eddie Dunbar,” he says.
It’s a bold claim but then again this is a young man who was recently congratulated on his racing by the greatest rider of them all after the recent La Côte Picarde.
“Eddy Merckx came up to me on the podium and said that he was impressed,” Dunbar says. “It’s crazy when you see him on telly and then for him to just come up to me and say ‘well done’ is a bit surreal.”
No wonder Merckx was singing his praises. The Irishman had been in the breakaway for 140km of the 180km race, and for a hundred of those he was alone. The race, part of the UCI U23 Nation’s Cup, ended in a bunch sprint with Dunbar down in 42nd place, but he’s pragmatic about his brave bid for glory.
“Even if I stayed with the group and attacked, the bunch would still be fifty-strong at the finish,” he says. “Anyway, with the size of me, I’m not going to win a sprint. So I think there was a method in my madness – it was a way to get my name out there and show how strong I can be.”
In the end his valiant mission earned him the prize for the most aggressive rider, as well as the bonuses on offer for the King of the Mountain sprints he led over.
Four months into his senior career, the eighteen-year-old is already making a name for himself. He has been on the offensive all spring, featuring in breakaways in multiple races on the British scene.
Most significant was his fifth place at Elite Series opener, the Chorley Grand Prix. Having instigated a long-range attack with team-mate Ian Bibby, he shattered the lead group on the final climb of the day before leading out Bibby for the win. Fourth in the GC of the two-day Tour of the Reservoir GC followed thanks to – you guessed it – more attacking riding.
Not that all this combative spirit makes him a breakaway specialist, à la Jacky Durand. “I really like the aggressive style of racing in Britain, but I need to improve on the tactical side,” Dunbar says. “I like… I love the hills, but stage races probably suit me best. Time trialling and climbing seem to be where I shine at the moment and hopefully it stays that way. It’s where the big races are.”
And the big races are where he’s aiming. Pushed on his ambitions, Dunbar is not shy.
“I always said to my mum that I would never quit cycling until I win the Tour de France. I reckon the likes of the Vuelta or Giro will probably suit me better though, they’re that bit hillier,” he says. “Hopefully now with the new sponsor, it’ll increase the chances of getting to that level and give me time to develop because I’m still young.”
Dunbar (third from left) racing at the Tour of the Reservoir in March. pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com
The new sponsor Dunbar talks of is Aberdeen Asset Management, a FTSE-listed investment management group, which oversees £350 billion worth of investments. After the deal was announced last week in a swanky office building in the City of London, the company’s logo will appear on NFTO’s jerseys from the upcoming Tour de Yorkshire onwards.
While Dunbar’s ambitions are big, NFTO’s seem to match them. The team, which started as a club, are already one of the most successful on the domestic circuit, and plan to become Britain’s first ever ProContinental team next year. After that, the aim is progression to the WorldTour in 2018.
Dunbar talks of how he would like to grow with the team, though he was coy on details of his current contract.
“If they do go ProContinental next year and WorldTour a few years after, it’ll be really good for me because I’ll be working with the same people. It’ll be a good pathway,” he says. “But obviously if the likes of Sky came along, it’d be very hard to say no.”
The people he’s working alongside are an interesting mix, with ex-military man John Wood the driving force behind the team. British Olympic coach Courtney Rowe, father of Luke, is on the staff, while ex-UK Youth directeur sportif Dave Povall is a new addition.
Seasoned domestic campaigners Ian Bibby and Rob Partridge offer invaluable experience, while sprinter Steele Von Hoff and ex-NetApp man Johnny McEvoy know their way around European racing.
“Dave and Courtney have looked after me really well, so I’m not finding the step up too hard. There’s a lot of people, probably around my age, who have been in the same situation as me and got a bit carried away with it,” Dunbar says as he mulls over a whirlwind first few months as a senior. “I live with Rob and Steele too, so they keep me level-headed. Racing with guys like that is really good – they’re always telling me what to do, what not to do. It’s priceless.”
The trio call the market town of Hereford home. “It’s only 50 kilometres away from the bottom of the Tumble, so it’s really good for training,” Dunbar says.
And when he’s not out training? “We have a hot tub in the house too, so after a hard day on the bike, we all just head there and relax,” he laughs.
“I played rugby for eight years so I like to catch up on that too,” he adds. To look at the skinny teenager, you wouldn’t think he could take a crunching tackle, but he is only a cyclist thanks to a tough choice made as a schoolboy.
“It was that age when you had to commit to one or the other. I just had a bit more of a passion for cycling, plus the rugby players seemed to be getting bigger and I wasn’t. I just chose cycling because I enjoyed it a bit more, and looking back I’m kind of glad I did.”
18-year-old Dunbar (second from left) has his sights set on big things. pic: NFTO/Larry Hickmott
Growing up in Kanturk, a small town in southern Ireland, he watched the Tour de France on television with his father and counted Lance Armstrong among his heroes, something he admits with some bashfulness. Hooked on the sport, it wasn’t long before he joined the local club, O’Leary Stone Kanturk.
Since then Dunbar has won the Junior Tour of Ireland twice, as well as winning last year’s Junior Tour of Wales. He also finished second in the Trofeo Karlsberg, a top junior stage race. It could have been even more: race winner Kristijan Kumar later tested positive for EPO.
Late last year came another difficult decision for Dunbar as squads battled for his signature. BMC’s Development Team were rumoured to be interested. Predictably, Irish Continental outfit An Post-Chainreaction was also linked with his signature.
“An Post is an Irish team, so it was a no-brainer for some people, and as for BMC, there were talks but we never really got into it,” Dunbar says. “I was really close to Bissell Development Team (now Axeon) in America. It was between them and NFTO, but we weighed up the options and basically NFTO ticked all the boxes. It’s only an hour from home so it was an obvious choice at my age.”
Enough about the past, what about the future? Dunbar is off to the new Tour de Yorkshire at the start of May before racing Ireland’s major tour, the Rás, later in the month.
“I reckon Yorkshire will be my biggest race of the year. We have a strong team with Steele and Bibby, so I’m sure that we will mix it up a bit and hopefully get a result,” he says. “There’s no pressure on us to do anything though, and that’s the best way to be. After that I’m sure we will pull a result out at the Rás.”
He speaks with a confidence and level-headedness that is hard to reconcile with his tender age. It’s early days for both him and the team, but the way things are going, NFTO will have a fight to hold on to him. Perhaps Chris Froome and company will be battling to keep up with Eddie Dunbar in the not-too-distant future too.