Ireland’s ‘Rás,’ a cult bike race; Marcin Bialoblocki, Tony Martin, Stephen Roche and Scotland’s own Jamie McGahan number among the GC winners. So who’s the ‘recordman’ as the French say, the man with most GC wins? That would be Dubliner Shay O’Hanlon on four overall victories; 1962, ’65, ’66 and ’67.

But who’s had the most days in yellow, an impressive 37 days – the same Mr. O’Hanlon.

And the stage wins record of 24?

Yes, that O’Hanlon fella again.

Shay O'Hanlon
Shay O’Hanlon has a bike and memorabilia in Austin Walsh’s shop in Drogheda. Photo©Austin

About time VeloVeritas caught up with Shay, one of the legends of Irish Cycling.

How many times did you ride the Rás, Shay?

“My first win appearance was in 1959 and my last in 1984.

“I missed a very few editions in between.”

Shay O'Hanlon
Shay O’Hanlon’s (l) first appearance in the Rás in 1959 with the Dublin team at (almost) 18 years of age, with the late Mick Murphy. Murphy, from Kerry, was an interesting character; he was a world class wrestler in the ‘States and in a circus, he won the Rás and followed different training techniques of the time, such as drinking bull’s blood. Photo©supplied

Which of your four wins gives you most satisfaction?

“The first one in 1962, in 1960 I thought I could win, I won a stage but Paddy Flanagan took the overall win.

“In 1961 again I believed I would win but Tom Finn, who was in my team, took the jersey and I had to ride for him, albeit I won three stages.

“So in ’62 I was really hungry for it, winning four stages along the way.”

And is there any particular stage win gives you most satisfaction?

“The last stage into Phoenix Park, Dublin in ’62.

“Because I hadn’t won the two previous editions I had this ambition to finish the race in style with a solo win whilst in yellow and I achieved that.

“The crowd at the finish was huge; TV hadn’t really taken hold yet and local events were really well supported whether that was sporting events or bands.”

Shay O'Hanlon
Shay O’Hanlon shakes hands with An Taoiseach Seán Lemass in 1961. Photo©supplied

The Russians rode the race one year, I believe?

“That was 1970, I didn’t ride that year.

“In 1968 a Czech team came over and despite the fact that there was an ‘Ireland’ team in the race the guys all rode for their county teams instead of for the Ireland team.

“The Czechs won every stage bar one, which I won, and the GC.

“The organisers only announced the 1970 Russian presence a couple of weeks prior to the race, I felt that the same would happen as when the Czechs rode and that we should have been given time to select and prepare a proper, committed Irish team so I didn’t ride.

“I didn’t make any fuss, I just didn’t ride.”

[The Russians won nine out of 10 stages in 1970, ed.]

Shay O'Hanlon
Shay O’Hanlon won the only non-Czech stage in the Rás in 1968. Photo©supplied

It strikes me that the Rás was more to you than ‘just another race.’

“It wasn’t the only thing to me but it was the apex of my season, yes.”

You broke the Irish ‘50’ record then went off to ride a grass track meeting on one occasion?

“I’d broken Shay Elliott’s Irish ‘50’ record previously by a small margin but no one had ever gone under two hours, it wasn’t the best morning but I did a 1:59:28 then went up to Drogheda to ride a grass track meeting in the afternoon.

“Unfortunately, I hadn’t prepared my bike properly and my handlebars twisted more and more to the side as the race went on – but I managed second place.

“I liked riding the grass tracks, which I did up until 1967 when there was a change in the athletic meetings organisation.

“I’d ride the grass in June, after the Rás then there would be criteriums later in the year, it broke the season up and gave you variety.

“You were on a 75” gear and some of those tracks were far from smooth.”

Shay O'Hanlon
Shay O’Hanlon in Phoenix Park in 1960 as Rás winner in front of 40,000 people, with Jim Killeen (on Shay’s left, former chief of army council of the IRA) and Joe Crystal (who ran the Irish Embassy in Rome). Photo©supplied

I believe you were a disciple of Louison Bobet’s?

“It was actually a book written by his brother, Jean Bobet called ‘La Course en Tête’ – but a greater influence upon me was a series of articles written for a column that Reg Harris used to write for ‘Bicycling’ magazine.”

[Harris was once amateur and four times professional World Sprint Champion and a double Olympic silver medallist, ed.]

“I always remember the title of one of his pieces; ‘Emotion, the hand-maiden of failure,’ semi-final wins don’t count, don’t think that you’re ‘going to win,’ keep your eye on the ball.

“If I won I never took my hands off the ‘bars – that was emotion and counting against you for your next race.

“Those pieces had a huge influence upon me.

“But the Jean Bobet book co-written with A.F. Creff became my bible – what I ate, how I sat on my bike…”

Shay O'Hanlon
Shay O’Hanlon advertising milk and the Farmer’s Journal, after his 1962 Rás win. Photo©supplied

And on the subject of things French, you race in La Republique for a season?

“I got there on a forged licence but knew if I wanted to stay I would have to go to ‘the other side’ (the rival Irish federation) and that was against my principles.

“There was also the matter of having met the woman who I knew was right for me and she was back in Ireland.

“And I looked at the professional scene at the time; there were around 500 active pros but maybe only 5% came out of it with enough money to be set up when they finished their careers.

“Then there were maybe 15% who didn’t have to work in the winter but the rest had to get a job over the winter – a hard life.

“I’d been speaking to a club in Paris and was to join them for the next season but instead went home to Ireland to the same job.”

What was your job, Shay?

“When I started I was a poorly paid clerk in the marine underwriting department of an Irish insurance company. 

“In 1965 I became a salesman for Green Shield Stamps. 

“In 1980 I went selling for a wholesale company in Dublin and from 1982 I was a partner and later the proprietor of a company selling bicycles wholesale here. 

“Very ordinary bikes – but not Ordinaries.”

Shay O'Hanlon
Former winner of the Rás, Ben McKenna leads Shay O’Hanlon. McKenna was a police motorcycle rider and a cycling commissaire, a true gent and as a fiddle but had a heart attack at the age of 51 and was found with a Cycling Weekly in his hands at the Garda Headquarters. Photo©supplied

It must have rankled not been able to ride the Worlds or Olympics because of the problems with rival federations and UCI recognition?

“I’d watch the Olympic closing ceremonies on TV and think; “well, that’s another one I’ve missed.’

“But whilst lads in the other federation could ride in England in races like the Archer GP and Milk Race they didn’t actually compete that much in Europe so I don’t feel we missed that much – our federation had a good race calendar.” 

You were very much involved in the unification of the Irish federations were you not?

“I was just thinking, the other day, when I started racing in 1958 it was 55 years since the first Tour de France but it’s now 62 years since my first race!

“I took over my role in the federation in 1973 and it took until 1979 – seven years – but credit to all involved, we all stuck at it!” 

Shay O'Hanlon
Shay O’Hanlon on the attack in the Irish Champion’s colours. Photo©Austin Walsh

The folklore is that you used to take rivals out training with you then head into the Wicklow Mountains and destroy their spirit?

“It was Mick Christle started that one and I used to think it was the biggest load of old rubbish.

“But there was one year we were out for the first spin of the year, there was a lad with us I used to train regularly with, he was about 15 years younger than me, Liam Keenan.

“It was a savage day and on the way back in through Dublin one of the lads said to me; ‘what was that all about?’ referring to the speed we’d been riding at earlier.

“I replied; ‘well, it was Liam, he was putting a wheel into me and I had to sort him out!

“Then it occurred to me, maybe Mick was right; back then the quality of runs was judged by how few came back…”

You were there when Stephen Roche won the Worlds in ’87, I believe?

“I was there in my capacity as chair of the Irish Cycling Tripartite Committee.

“I got to shake hands with all the medallists.

“There were only two times I’ve broken down and cried at races, that was one of them.

“The other was the Tour that year which Stephen also won, I’d been doing the last stage commentary with Jimmy Magee and when we came off air I collapsed in tears. 

“There was a man who I knew, who I had raced against in Ireland winning the biggest races in the world.” 

Shay O'Hanlon
Shay O’Hanlon has an amazing Rás palmarès. Photo©supplied

You became a mountain climber in later years?

“When I began cycling in 1957 I had a club mate, Shay Murphy who was into hill walking and I’d do that in the off season with him, it was good training.

“I raced until I was 47 year-old, past my ‘sell by’ but still enjoying it, then in April 1988 I crashed in a race and broke my hip.

“It was a blessing in disguise, it meant I wasn’t faced with the trauma of making the decision to stop racing, I just chose not to resume racing.

“That’s when I got into the climbing seriously.

“I was in the Himalayas twice and the Andes twice, we were attempting to climb Aconcagua in Argentina which is the highest mountain in the western hemisphere and the highest mountain outside of Asia.

“We got to 6,500 metres but were ‘stormed off,’ it was minus 25 degrees inside our tent. 

“I thought I was going to die.

“When the storm eased I said to my two companions who were 20 years younger than me; ‘you go on to the summit lads, I’ll stay I’m staying here, I’m knackered.

“They replied; ‘we’re knackered too, let’s head back down!’”

Shay O'Hanlon
Shay O’Hanlon in the Wicklow Sportiv recently. He hasn’t changed much!

What about your recent brush with the law?

“I would be climbing the walls if I didn’t get out on my bike for an hour and I don’t want to let slip this wee bit of fitness I have; I remember once in my racing days being off the bike for two weeks and was shocked by how much my fitness had deteriorated.

“I have a circuit of two kilometres near my house and I wasn’t near anyone. I’d rang a friend of mine in the press to see what was allowed and what wasn’t and he wrote a story about me going out on my bike.

“I’m not on Twitter but apparently I was ‘Public Enemy Number One’ for a day or two!”

Regrets?

“No, I’ve had a great life, I have a great family and the racing was great.”

Shay O'Hanlon
Shay O’Hanlon, top man. Cheers!

It’s an over-used word but it’s appropriate here: a Legend. 

With thanks to Shay and our friend Austin Walsh at the wonderful Quay Cycles in Drogheda for suggesting we speak with Shay and supplying contact details.