If ever there was a race tailor made for the King of the hard men, Sean Kelly it was the Ronde van Vlaanderen; but three second places aren’t the same as one win – it remains the only Monument the brilliant Irishman didn’t add to his palmarès.
But a man from the Emerald Isle has finally made amends for Kelly’s disappointments and won over the cobbles and ramps of de Ronde – albeit his win was in the U23 version of the fabled event.
Despite his flyweight 56 kilos Eddie Dunbar has already established himself as one of the worlds’ best U23 riders with top ten finishes in the European and World U23 Time Trial Championships – and riding for the Irish team rather than his usual US Axeon Hagens Berman team he took Ronde victory in that bike riders’ Mecca, historic Oudenaarde.
VeloVeritas caught up with the 20 year-old from County Cork not long after his beautiful win thanks to the good offices of Axeon Hagens Berman’s press guru, Sean Weide.
Congratulations, Eddie – talk us through your win, please.
“The Irish team were over for the week previous to get familiar with the parcours, I did a recon. on Wednesday but decided not to bother with the first part of the course – just the finishing circuit, I knew that’s where the decisions would be made.
“On the circuit everyone was tired and the lead group kept diminishing, I watched and waited, looking for an opportunity – but I kept eating and I think the fact that paid that attention to my fuelling made the difference.
“I decided to ‘go long,’ saw my moment at around 25/30 K to go and went for it – I finished solo in Oudenaarde with 49 seconds in hand.”
Does the parcours mirror the Elite races?
“Oh yes – all the same climbs but over a lesser distance of 168 kilometres, the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg, Muur van Geraardsbergen…”
What was the toughest moment of the day?
“I felt good the whole day but there was a difficult moment on the Paterberg wall where I was forced to unclip and it took a bit of time to get going again.”
Tell us about your bike set up.
“I left that to the team mechanic and to Kurt Bogaerts my manager, he’s Belgian and knows what he’s doing for a race like this – Axeon is a US team and they don’t have many cobbles there !
“Kurt had four bars of pressure in my tyres and that was spot on, I found it easy when riding over the cobbles.”
You rode a nice Triptyque des Monts et Chateaux stage race coming in to the Ronde?
“Yeah, I was second overall and second in the TT; it was a good race for Axeon-Hagens Berman I had a teammate in yellow for two days so yes, it was a good race for us, even though I was disappointed not to win overall.
“I took a few days off after it to recover.”
Is it true that Eddy Merckx recommended you to Axel for the Axeon team?
“Yeah, Eddy saw me riding in a Nations Cup (UCi season long competition for juniors, ed.) when he was in the car behind the break – I was away solo, gained eight minutes but got brought back.
“On the strength of what he saw he mentioned my name to Axel.”
[Axeon-Hagens Berman was founded and is managed by Eddy Merckx’s son, Axel, ed.]
You were with the British NFTO team before Axeon, what’s the difference in mentalities GB to US?
“The training is pretty much the same but Axeon is pretty cosmopolitan with riders from Columbia, Australia, Portugal as well as the US and England whilst NFTO was very much a British squad.
“Axeon is a development team so we’re all pretty young whilst NFTO had riders of all ages – but they’re both good teams to be on.”
How are you settling in to the US lifestyle?
“Everyone asks me that!
“But I don’t actually live in the States, I’m still in Cork, I fly into camps and races as necessary.
“It’s a great atmosphere on the team, we work hard in training but it’s relaxed after and we have good banter.
“The programme is good too, with plenty of recovery time.”
Tinkoff gave you a trial, didn’t they?
“I was invited to one of their camps in 2015 and spent a week there – I learned a lot and it was good to see how a big pro team operates.
“The camp was for guys not doing the Tour de France, prepping for the Eneco Tour and Vuelta.”
We hear tell there’s an Irish bookie already offering odds on you winning the Tour de France?
“Yeah – but I don’t pay too much attention to that stuff!”
Describe yourself as a rider.
“If someone had said to me that I was capable of winning Flanders I’d have said; ‘no!’
“But I can get over the hills, I can handle the cobbles and I ride a decent time trial – even though I don’t particularly like them – so I guess I’m pretty ‘all round.’
“My long term desire is to be a GC rider, I like stage races.”
“I have the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege (where Dunbar would finish 72nd ed.) then a bit of rest, we have a stage race in May leading up to a ride in the Baby Giro from June 9th to 15th I think.
“I’ll take another break at the end of June but really the goal is to do as much as I can for the team.”
And finally, did you get hold of a Guinness to celebrate your Flanders win?
“No, but we had a glass of champagne – I’m not sure about having a Guinness here, it wouldn’t be like having one back home!”
With thanks to Eddie and Sean, we don’t think it’ll be too long before we’re speaking to young Mr. Dunbar again.