FEATURE: Staging the Giro is just the boost cycling needs

Slane cycle shop in Belfast
Slane cycle shop in Belfast

Former Olympic cyclist Paul Slane got the bug for the sport when he was 10 years old and saw the Tour de France go by in France.

He did not know at the time there was an Irish guy involved, Sean Kelly as it happened.

The 43-year-old then got an old bike and did charity ride for cancer.

He recalls in 1984 getting an invite to join a club where there were about 40 kids from west Belfast under the guidance of Eddie Rafter, and he is still helping people out to this day.

Paul explained: “He (Eddie) got help from the cycling fraternity across the province and the political divide which was a great thing at that time.

“Boys from Dundonald, and Newtownards, all chipped in to the help these kids who hadn’t got much.

“Something like an old set of wheels, old frame, bits and pieces of brakes and Eddie would put the bikes together in an old shed in Twinbrook.

“Eddie then said to me that I was showing a bit of potential and he put me in for the All Ireland and some of us were winning from an early age.

“So I really got the bug then and that was it, I just loved the bike,” said Paul, who made Ireland’s Barcelona Olympic team in 1992.

“Conor Henry and Mark Kane, Davy Kane’s son, were with me in the team. Back then, Ulster had a real strong presence in Irish cycling.

“The three of us were great friends and competing against each other through the age groups and we helped each other and in the end we were selected for the Olympics.

“I also took part in some of the one-day classics in France among them the amateur Paris-Roubaix event.

“It is just an unbelievable race,” said Paul who believes the Giro coming to Ireland will have a major influence in the sport.

“It is all about the spectacle.

“Kids who don’t ride a bike will be swept off their feet!

We may not see the benefit immediately, but almost certainly we will a few years down the line.

“It will certainly help tourism here, but overall it will be a massive boost for the sport itself.”

Paul added: “The economy in Northern Ireland will definitely benefit. Yes, they shelled out a lot of money, but the benefit will be accrued in the years to come.

“I have seen the buzz growing week-by-week, even those who know nothing about the sport, are talking about it.

“What I have seen of late is that there is a lot more kids getting involved in cycling.

“One example is a group of around maybe 50 kids in Lady Dixon Park and The Dub, where amazingly girls outnumber boys.

“It is a club called VC Glendale (www.vcglendale.com) and the group is called the Imps - they have got their own personal Giro jerseys.

“They are funded and they are taught the skills on a mountain bike before going out on the roads.

“That’s how it all starts.

“I look back and think of the same thing when Eddie Rafter took us out back in the Eighties.

“His free time was taken up looking after at least 40 kids.

“He took us touring, took us to Scotland and then we got into racing. Then former Commonwealth Games and former All Ireland Champion Morris Foster would help and try to improve us as international riders.

“He was a tremendous cyclist, brilliant time trialist, a great man who did a tremendous lot for the sport here, and deservedly awarded the MBE for his efforts.

“When I rode competitively in France I was with the Bic team, then went to Spain to cycle with the Vigo team and lived just around the corner from the Celta Vigo soccer side. You learned a lot.

“Everything you needed to know about cycling, and particularly the work with the manufacturers.

“That, in turn, helped me in my future career as a shop owner in how to set up bikes, what was wrong with this that and the other,” said Paul, who still believes that he people of Northern Ireland do not know what is going to hit them when the Giro arrives.

“I really don’t think ‘Joe Public’ realises how big a spectacle it is going to be right on their doorstep.

“The cycling fraternity will, but for a lot of people they do not realise that they will be watching some of the best riders in the world,” he said.