FIVE+ DECADES WITH... Noel O'Neill

In interview with Aideen Collard

Our long running series of rider profiles makes a return this week after a lengthy break, starting off this week with an interview with our longest serving member, Noel O'Neill. A former National Champion at Road, Track and Time Trial, and having spent almost 60 years with the club through both the good years and the bad, Noel most definitely fits the description of club legend.

 

Age: 75 (and very proud of it too!)

 

Years with Orwell?

I joined Orwell in 1955 so 55 years give or take a few years with Bray Wheelers. I had three cycling careers as such, firstly before I got married, secondly when I returned to racing at International level and thirdly, after years of working as an official and coaching, I came back to cycling but never raced as a vet preferring training with the Club and touring instead.

 

How did you get into cycling?

As a young lad, I lived in the Iveagh Buildings in Bride St, Dublin 8 and started off hiking, camping and hostelling with the local lads- we then progressed to touring which was very popular at the time.  A local Orwell member, Stephen McGuinness then helped me make the transition into racing.

 

What made you choose Orwell Wheelers?

I used to train with a group of riders from Bride St. who joined Orwell Wheelers at the same time- after the recession in 1958, numbers in the Club were depleted so we joined them and became one of the biggest groups of riders in Ireland.  Orwell Wheelers gets its name from Orwell Road.

 

How has the Club changed over the course of your membership?

Well Orwell Wheelers has had its ups and downs over the years- it was booming when I joined in the 1950’s and peaked again in the 1990’s during Kelly and Roche’s successful racing careers when it declined again before its current and largest ever membership of some 300 plus members.  However, there were times when it had hardly any members and at one point, the Club had only one member, Liam Keenan along with a committee.  I was involved in rejuvenating it when I returned from Bray Wheelers and started coaching with Paddy Doran.  Our coaching training required us to get school boys into the Club, producing some well-known names including Stephen Roche, Paul Kimmage, Martin Earley, Damien Long, Paul Tansey, Bernard & Richard McCormack and Sean O’Grady.  We had to do everything for them, organising all the racing and bringing riders to races and we ran the show for a few years.  More recently the ladies section has boomed but the youth section has sadly declined.  The leisure side has also become another big success in the Club. 

 

You are widely acclaimed as discovering Stephen Roche.  Was there any particular point when you realised how talented he was?

It was when Stephen was a 1st year Junior and won a three day, getting stronger each day despite racing against the seniors, that we noticed him.  He also won the All-Ireland Junior Championships and showed real talent from then on.  It was incredible watching Stephen win the Tour de France.

 

What types of cycling/racing do you do and what do you enjoy about it?

Road racing up to International level, track racing and cycle touring.  I enjoyed the excitement of the racing and the high that goes with it!  It also gave me a great sense of self-achievement.

 

What bikes do you own?

I was never a great one for bikes but started off on a Blue Riband, which was actually too big for me.  I rarely changed bikes and was only ever fussy about having the lightest wheels.  Currently I ride a Stephen Roche limited edition commemoration bike which Stephen Roche presented to me.  I also have a titanium bike but I always ride the Stephen Roche bike.  I’ve never owned a carbon bike but once during a Club training trip to Rimini, I hired a carbon bike.  I was training with the vets group and towards the end of the week, decided to attack them on a steep climb and couldn’t believe it when I went flying up the hill leaving the rest of the group behind!  I also owned a track bike and competed in all track disciplines in Santry and Sundrive Road over the years.  I’ve won Phoenix Park races on a fixed gear bike including the Grand Prix of Ireland.  I also won the Unity Race in the Park- a race where the CRE and NCA (opposing cycling factions*) raced together but only one NCA member, Eddie Dunne raced- unfortunately he fell and never finished but I won!

 

Tell us about your early days racing with the Orwell especially including your memories of Noel Hammond?

I raced against Noel Hammond in the Club League, which was limited to Orwell members at that time.  After he retired from racing he was fabric of the Club and kept it going during difficult times.  As well as being the best organiser in the Club, he was also the best singer in the Club!

 

Your experiences racing abroad and how you feel it might be different for young Irish riders racing on the Continent today?

It was a lot harder to break through into racing abroad in the 1950’s and Shay Elliot was the first to make that break through.  I only managed to race in the Isle of Man, Scotland and the World Championships in San Sebastian in 1965.  Nowadays, it’s much easier for Irish riders to get racing contracts abroad.

 

Who are the best riders you have raced against (or with) in your cycling career?

I knew Shay Elliot but never raced against him as he had departed to race abroad.  I raced against John Lackey, Sonny Cullen, Joe McCormack, Jim McQuaid and in latter years during my second cycling career, Liam Horner, Peter Doyle and Christy Kimmage- they were the top riders here.

 

It is well documented that the NCA riders felt that they missed out on international competition due to the split in Irish cycling at the time.  Did you ever feel that you were missing out on competing against the top NCA riders or say racing in the Rás for example?

No, I had no desire to ride the Rás because it wasn’t an option, but I do feel that riders such as Shay O’Hanlon and Gene Mangan may have missed out.

 

Your greatest cycling highs/achievements?

Winning the National Road Racing Championships in 1965- I won it on the last lap, the break had a good lead, there were a lot of good riders still in the bunch but I decided it was time to go and made up a minute to the break and went on to win the sprint.  I also represented Ireland in the World Championships and internationally.  My greatest victories include winning the Dublin to Birr 3 Day- the forerunner to the Tour of Ireland, winning other classics including the Shay Elliot, the Sean Dillon Memorial, the Tour of the Gaps and the Tour of the Slade.  I was also best all-rounder (BAR) (an award for combined times and placings in time trials and road racing) in 1964 and 1965.  Another cycling highlight was helping to revive the Orwell and schoolboy cycling in Dublin with Paddy Doran.

 

Your biggest cycling lows/disappointments?

Having no legs left to complete the World Championships in 1965 and failing to win a stage at the Tour of Ireland.  To be honest, I just did my best in cycling and never really got too disappointed.

 

Your favourite training route/coffee stop?

We never stopped for coffee but used to ride 100 miles plus and stop for lunch in the early days.  My favourite route is Longhill, Roundwood, Laragh, Wicklow Gap, the Sally Gap and Glencree.  In my younger days, it was Dublin to Arklow and back every Saturday and Sunday during the Winter.

 

And finally, what advice would you have for young riders who are dreaming of going places in cycling?

It is important to instil into young riders a love of cycling first and foremost, rather than a love of racing, and then the racing success will follow.  They are much more likely to stay in the sport for life.

 

*For more on the split in Irish Cycling including the eventual reconciliation see Tom Daly's excellent book "The Rás".

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