Blazin' Saddles

Irish mafia put the craic into cycling

If Martians came down from space and all of a sudden picked up a passing interest in professional cycling, they'd be forgiven to think that the whole sport was centred around Ireland and the Irish – or, to be more colloquial, squabbled over by a bunch of feckin' eejits.

There may only be two Irish cyclists of noticeable merit in the pro peloton – and cousins Nico Roche and Dan Martin are, after all, more Frog and Beef than Potato – but the Emerald Isle is very much at the forefront of cycling in 2013.

For starters, the man whose chubby finger is on the button in the UCI nuclear bunker is Dubliner Pat McQuaid (pictured above), who finds his sport and organisation policed by maverick Irish freedom scribes David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, two men who would never turn down a good scrap.

Then there's the news out this week that the 2014 Giro d'Italia will start with a three-day jolly in Ireland – something secured by the hard work of Darach McQuaid, the younger brother of Pat, and ambassador Steven Roche, the Irish winner of the Tour-Giro double back in 1987.

If the same Martians had this week tuned into the TV coverage of the 2013 track world championships from Minsk, they would have seen Martyn Irvine winning Ireland's first gold medal in 117 years with victory in the scratch race just over an hour after he had picked up silver in the individual pursuit.

Had Eurosport picked up the rights for the TV coverage, this Irish landmark could well have been commentated on by the inimitable Sean Kelly, whose dulcet tones have enlivened many a drab stage race in years gone by.

All in all, the state of play in cycling seems to suggest that Ireland is much more than "a medium-sized rural island that is slowly but steadily being consumed by sheep" – as the prize-winning American author Dave Barry so memorably said.

Although the famous Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud once opined of the Irish: "This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever."

The actress Anjelica Huston summed it up rather beautifully with her claim that, "Oh, all kinds of lunacy happens in Ireland, all kinds of lunacy." (It could be said that the film 'In Bruges' showed just how "all kinds of lunacy" happens with the Irish abroad, too.)

And just hours after Ireland was celebrating the confirmation of its first appearance in a Grand Tour since the infamous Willy Voet-infused Grand Depart of the 1998 Tour de France, Roche senior was lifting the lid on the personal acrimony running deep between the McQuaid, Kimmage, Walsh and Roche families that are at the centre of both Ireland's historic and current roles in the sport.

"Maybe Paul feels Pat has hurt him while Pat feels Paul and David have hurt him," Roche, keeping it simple, told Cyclingnews about the "personal" Irish-tinged feud that is ripping through the sport.

For his part, Roche declared that he believed there was no one better than McQuaid for the role of UCI President, stressing that while "there were some mistakes made … let's not forget the good Pat has done for cycling in the past number of years since he's been in power."

(Let's not forget the many trophies Arsenal have won over the past seven and a half years, too.)

In the juicy interview – given in Belfast, which will host the 'Grande Partenza' of the 2014 Giro – Roche admitted that he had been wrong to have shunned Walsh and Kimmage for their voicing of negative stories about cycling both during and after his heyday in the saddle.

"Looking back, you could say Paul and David have done a lot of harm to cycling but they harmed it to make it better, if you know what I mean," he said.

Roche said that his own scorn towards Kimmage – following the publication of his 1990 doping lid-opener 'Rough Ride' – was that of "a young kid hot off the block". (When the book hit the shelves, Roche was 31.)

With reference to the Lance Armstrong scandal, a candid Roche added: "If what has come out in the last few months hadn't come out, I’d still have thought Paul had exaggerated a bit in his book. But now I see with what's come out that I definitely had my head in the sand. And I regret that we didn't give Paul more space at the time, that we didn't listen to him and react. But I took it that this was a little guy with a chip on his shoulder who didn't make it and was kind of relieving himself of all this crap."

Reading the interview, Saddles was reminded of that other great Irish gift to the world: Father Ted.

Perhaps its time for a new series of the popular sitcom to be created through the prism of cycling? The premise would be very similar: Father Stephen and his fellow priests Father Paul and Father David would live together in chaos on Craggy Island with their madcap (but highly dexterous) housekeeper Mrs Emma O'Reilly. The three priests would all answer to Bishop McQuaid, who has banished them to this barren place because of past misdemeanours.

The makers wouldn't even have to update some of the lines, with Mrs Doyle's memorable quip – "Pat was just wondering if he could put his massive tool in my box" – staying in the script. Family skirmishes aside, the prospect of Grand Tour cycling returning to Ireland is an appealing one – not least when we remember the words of the famous Irish classicist, Sir John Pentland Mahaffy: "In Ireland the inevitable never happens and the unexpected constantly occurs."

Who knows – Nico Roche may even win a stage. Now that would be unexpected.

Giro race director Michele Acquarone admitted this week that he was not yet sure if the three Irish stages would involve a time trial. Given the Festina affair that stemmed from the arrest of soigneur Voet on his way to Ireland on the eve of the 1998 Tour, it would be fitting for there to be some kind of race against the clock – what with Festina being the official timekeeper of the Giro. Nico Roche was quick to thank those involved in bringing the 2014 Giro to his home nation on Twitter this Thursday – before launching an impassioned attack on the UCI's proposals for a new points system.

"Do these people in offices have an idea about the reality of cycling?" Roche asked. Well, Nico, it's hard when your offices are located on Craggy Island...