Kyle White: Michael Dunlop's absence at Cookstown 100 may be a sign of things to come

William and Michael Dunlop in action at the Cookstown 100 in 2018.
William and Michael Dunlop in action at the Cookstown 100 in 2018.
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For as long as I can remember, Saturday’s KDM Hire Cookstown 100 was the first time there were no Dunlops on the grid at the old Irish national road race in Co. Tyrone.

Sadly, William is no longer with us following his untimely death last summer in a crash during practice at the Skerries 100 near Dublin.

Peter Hickman set a new record 135mph lap as he won the Senior race at the Isle of Man TT last year.

Peter Hickman set a new record 135mph lap as he won the Senior race at the Isle of Man TT last year.

His younger brother, Michael, has been a regular at the Orritor course over the years, but the 18-time Isle of Man TT winner’s absence on Saturday could be a sign of things to come.

The recently-turned-30-year-old had already scaled down his appearances at the smaller road races prior to William’s fatal accident, concentrating instead primarily on the major international events like the North West 200, TT and Ulster Grand Prix.

Perhaps his days of competing at national meetings like Cookstown and Tandragee are over. And who could blame him, should that be the case?

The tragic events of 2018 may have been the final straw: there’s a lot of risk involved at the Irish national races for little reward.

He sat out his home race at Armoy last July for obvious reasons, but if Dunlop gives the ‘Race of Legends’ a miss in the summer it will be the clearest sign yet that he intends to limit his road racing exploits to the bigger stages.

The trophies and financial rewards are far greater at the Isle of Man TT, where Dunlop’s place in the history books is already assured as the third most successful rider ever behind his uncle Joey and Morecambe man John McGuinness.

With age on his side, he could well be the man to overtake Joey’s longstanding record haul of 26 victories around the Mountain Course.

In his early career, the Irish national races served as a stepping stone, with Dunlop learning his trade on the narrow country lanes, just as his father Robert and uncle Joey did before him – and indeed his brother William.

Now, the ‘wee races’ need him more than he needs them.

The Dunlops are synonymous with all facets of Irish road racing, but with Northern Ireland sport’s most famous family surname absent at Cookstown on Saturday, there was a sense that this could be the end of an era.

Michael is set to compete in the British Superbike meeting this weekend at Oulton Park in Cheshire, which clashes with the Tandragee 100 – a race he hasn’t competed at since 2013.

There is a growing trend amongst the current crop of international road racers to sharpen their skills on the short circuits in Britain.

Dean Harrison and Peter Hickman have most notably showcased the benefits of such a strategy after taking last year’s TT by storm, setting record lap speeds that raised the bar a few notches higher.

Dunlop hasn’t quite fully adopted the same approach, but it’s now clear you don’t have to race the smaller road races to be successful at the ‘majors’ like the North West, TT and Ulster GP.

There’s a new breed of road racer, but Ballymoney man Dunlop still won more races than anyone at the TT last June, sealing a Superbike, Supersport and Lightweight treble and setting two new lap records on his 600 MD Racing Honda and the Italian Paton.

With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he classed himself as the underdog for this year’s TT during the official launch event in Douglas.

Few would make the mistake of writing him off, not least Hickman and Harrison, and Dunlop – who is among the last of the old school road racers – will be as determined as ever to rise to the challenge in June.