BY SHANE STOKES (Article first appeared in 'SportsWrite', May 1999)
HE SITS, grey hair neatly trimmed and as slim as in his racing prime, talking about the past. Chatty, down - to earth, entertaining; speaking about better times and holding you riveted throughout. Old monotone photographs, :the sepia brown hues adding a timeless dimension to the images, feed the imagination.
"The 1930 Tour de France," he indicates as you stare at one in particular, for a second agreeing with the description 'before embarrassed recognition dawns. ; at a glance, the rough gravelled road, , wool clothing and dated machines could match the words, but the short-haired athletic rider driving the group of 30-odd riders along is unmistakably a younger version of he who is in the very act of pulling your leg.
Interesting, intriguing, open and : revealing; time slips by easily as you listen to the old stories. Anecdotes of characters, some legendary and others . not, referred to by surnames in a manner which suggests affection rather than distance. Flanagan and Mangan, ,Donnelly and Kennedy all feature; tales :,of grass tracks and hard tracks and heroes past make the listening enthralling.
But so much more than a good storyteller; back in the decade when four lads from Liverpool were monopolising the music charts, Sé O'Hanlon was achieving a similar distinction with the country's most arduous sporting event. Of all the champions produced by the Rás Tailteann, that multi-stage rolling battleground which circles the country, O'Hanlon is unquestionably the one at the head of the pack.
Consider the spoils of his reign: An unprecedented four race wins, three of them consecutive. Thirty six days in the yellow jersey. Twenty-four stage victories. On three occasions, leading the race from start to finish. Campionissimo is an Italian accolade, but if it had an Irish translation it would undoubtedly fit just fine.
The cycling career of Sé O'Hanlon lacks a clearly defined beginning. "I always cycled," he says. But along the way the childhood excursions, the school outings and the weekend rambling developed into something more serious. The bike became more than just a form of transport, representing instead a channel for the competitive instinct which boiled inside.
One of O'Hanlon's old racing rivals, Gene Mangan remembers the first time he encountered that yearning which was to eventually frustrate many of his own ambitions. Training on the two mile circuit in the Phoenix Park one spring evening, Mangan and his training companion were joined by a young rider who said little, but soon made an impression with his irreverent manner and unusual strength.
"This young fellow came along with a schoolbag, put the schoolbag down at his feet and joined with us. He was on this very primitive Raleigh racing bike, but within the space of a few laps he was going around behind and then started doing bit and bit with us. I was looking at this fellow," says Mangan, a note of incredulity in his voice, "and he certainly was the cheekiest thing who ever came into the game. In the space of a few laps, he was working with us and then he even tried to attack us. I said to Derek 'who is that', and he said 'that's that young fellow O'Hanlon'. The following Sunday, just the time he'd be doing his leaving, he did a 1 hour 2 minutes ride (for a 25 mile time trial) on this very ordinary bike. A one-two back then would be a very good time, but on that bike it was immediately clear that this was an exceptional fellow."
A judgement which proved correct. Steadily improving as the years passed, O'Hanlon went from being a strong rider to a winning one, developing his mental strength to complement his evident physical talent. Taking his first Rás stage victory in 1960 was a boost to the confidence which bred greater success the following season, but he has a somewhat unusual assessment as to why he tried so hard. Not ambition, not greed, but fear.
"In 1961, I think, I had about eight wins in a row. It got to the stage that I was almost paranoid about the thing. I remember once going up to the Phoenix Park on a Tuesday night to race, and thinking 'how do I secure this victory? I have won eight races, but if I go up there tonight and somebody else wins it will be like playing snap, in that I will have lost those eight and he will have them now.' You get so neurotic that you keep on winning because you are afraid not to," he says frankly, in that characteristic drawl of his.
Winning the last three stages of the 1961 Rás provided a hint of what was to come, and sure enough 1962 marked the start of his domination of the race. On the 120 mile second stage, from Longford to Donegal O'Hanlon raced clear of previous yellow jersey Dermot McGrath, and took both the stage and the golden fleece he was to hold until the end.
To complete his haul, the Dublin county team rider captured three more stages, including a formidable display on the last stage through the Wicklow mountains where he dropped the field and finished alone, in style, at the finish in the Phoenix Park. Even more impressive was his winning margin of about twenty minutes over the second placed rider.
O'Hanlon missed the race in 1963, and in 1964 lacked the necessary fitness to do more than win two stages. But the following year he was back to his best, taking the opening stage from Dublin to Monaghan at the urging of his team mate Mick Glancy, although he was reluctant to take the race lead so early - along with three more stages and leading from start to finish. In 1966 he repeated the feat, beating Tour de France rider Jean Bellay into second place. And 1967~ Once again monopolising the yellow jersey, holding it for thirteen stages and taking three. A formidable, intimidating display which killed that year's race, but ensured his legend.
GO ABROAD, they urged after his first Rás win in 1962. See how you can do on the continent. Widely regarded as a rider of huge promise, his friends and racing colleagues put hand in pocket and sent him on his way, But being a member of the "rebel" 32 county nationalist association, the NCA, rather than the 26 county CRE (later to become the ICF) which was affiliated to the international cycling body meant that what he was trying to do was forbidden.
But coming from a nationalist background, and being loyal to his companions in the NCA meant that joining the 26-county association was out of the question for O'Hanlon. Time for some subterfuge. "Gene Mangan had been over there in '59, but then they tightened things up. He just went over and that was it, but when I went over they looked for my Irish license. So I wrote to Joe Christle and told him what was happening.
"The Cumann Rothaíochta na hÉireann was the so-called 'official' association, and we were the National Cycling Association. But the Irish for the National Cycling Association was the Gaelcumann Rothaiochta na hEireann, so Joe printed a license for Gaelcumann Rothaíochta na hÉireann which, strictly speaking, was correct, because that was the translation. But," he adds, with a mischievous smile, "it also was easily confused with Cumann Rothaíochta na hÉireann..."
O'Hanlon enthuses about the trip, describing it as "one of the best things I ever did. I learned a language, saw the world, and enjoyed the racing." At the end of the year he impressed enough to be offered a ride with a Parisian club, itself with connections to a professional outfit. "Somebody said to me when I was over there that 'you are good enough that if you turn pro and have the luck, you'll do well'."
But looking around at those who were professional, he noticed that few earned enough to avoid the need to work during the winter months. Fewer still made enough money to render life secure after retirement. So was it worth the risk, worth having to abandon the NCA in order to get a professional license?
He decided not. Indeed his loyalty to the association cost him dearly during his racing career, preventing his participation in world championships and the Olympic games, as well as a potential professional contract. But, if anything, the results achieved when he returned to race in Ireland served to further underline his class. Those dominant Rás performances marked him out as the finest competitor in the history of the race, while numerous other race victories and about 20 or 30 national championships together with several Irish records led many to believe that he was one of Ireland's finest ever cyclists.
Not only that, as one of the most influential figures in bringing about the end to the division between the NCA, the ICF and the MCF, O'Hanlon opened doors for others to try their luck abroad. Time for an apology. "Don't make this one of those tombstone pieces,"' O'Hanlon said, only half jesting, when approached by SportsWrite. Problem is, combine his athletic achievements, his unusual, single-minded (but affable) nature with the details of what he has got up to on and off two wheels, and it makes a cold, objective account pretty much impossible. Although he abandoned plans for a return to racing in the veterans category a few years ago "I'd just end up going back into training in order to be competitive," he says the 57 year old retains the urge to extend himself.
Together with former racing colleagues, O'Hanlon has climbed number of peaks around the world, citing the ascent of the Matterhorn as "the one I got the most kick out of."
He's walked for 10 days in Iceland, survived being caught in an avalanche in the Scottish highlands, and 4 years ago, got to within 1000 feet of the summit of the Aconcagua (at almost 23,000 feet, the South American peak is the highest outside Asia) before altitude sickness, stormy weather and frostbite meant that the group retreated.
How time softens one's perspective. For once, he didn't mind being beaten.
A RIVALS' CRITIQUE
"I would have found my cycling so very much easier if he wasn't in my time." Thus Gene Mangan sums up the career of his former rival Sé O'Hanlon, who prevented him from improving on his tally of one Rás victory (1955) and 12 stage wins. He is, nevertheless, generous in his estimation:
"From the minute he got onto the bike, he was an exceptional character. He did fantastic training, he was very disciplined and very orderly. He would do long, hard winter miles, going into the mountains, and he had a pattern of trying to coax other good riders that he'd be trying to suss out in with him. I remember a very prominent man at the time always said to me 'stay away from O'Hanlon in the winter, because he will bring you into the mountains and you will see how strong he is. He will take your mind away, and you will never be able to attack him in the races.' Any fellow who ever trained with him would never beat him. I certainly saw that, so many times.
"If you were going to beat him, you would only beat him tactically. You could never go up hilly, rough roads, do an equal amount of work as him and ride him into the ground. There was almost a depression set in behind, because he didn't win using clever tactics; instead, he would take off thirty or forty miles to go, throw the gauntlet down for all to follow him, and more often than not, fellows weren't able to follow."
Domestically, he may have had a stranglehold on the sport, but how far could he have gone had he stuck it out on the continent? "I would consider O'Hanlon as the best resident Irish cyclist there ever was," he says, explaining that in terms of racing in Ireland, he impressed more than Kelly and Roche. "I thought he would have made a great professional. He was a very big man, six feet, but he weighed only ten stone two. He was physically very strong, even though he was tall and light; with his great powers of recovery, that would have made him a good Tour de France type rider."
Indeed, says Mangan, there exists a good yardstick as to what he could have achieved. "He attacked the fifty mile record during the time when there was still two sets of records in the two associations. Tommy Quinn, with a very fine old time ride had the record of 2 hours 3 minutes, and O'Hanlon attacked that on a wet, windy morning.
"You'd have to give a weeks notice if you were going to attack the record, and the people from both associations went up there to see him. It was an atrociously bad day, many appealed to him not to attempt it on such a wet, windy morning as it wasn't suitable for a record.
"But not alone did he break Tommy Quinn's record and go well under two hours, but in the process he took Shay Elliott's record which he had put up a few years before, and which represented the best of the other association (Elliott later went on to win a stage and wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, and to finish second in the world championships).
"Elliott set that record after his first year in France, at a time when he had b een all-round French amateur champion, and had the 1000 metre world record. He was a good, young man facing his first year as a professional when he set that record, but O'Hanlon took four minutes off him.
"Then, on that wet, windy morning, O'Hanlon came back in that road, he changed his clothes and got a lift up to Dundalk, to the five mile grass championship of Ireland and he lapped the field. All on one Sunday.'
"I would consider," he concludes, "that only great riders could do that."
Sé at the start of the 1975 Ras, with Michale Woods, Minister for Sport
and Dermot Dignam, race organiser. (Who was the little girl?)
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