18 December 2007

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Cycle Track Under Threat

After the euphoria in swimming circles, regarding the Olympic sized pool being built in Bangor, it was not difficult to understand the joy which local cyclists experienced when it was announced that an indoor velodrome was to be built in Northern Ireland. Given the fact that Northern Irish cyclists have never had such a facility and yet have managed to succeed on the world stage, this is a fitting testament to their undoubted ability. Who will ever forget, for example, the heroics of riders like Morris Foster or our own Alistair Irvine, who picked up a Commonwealth Games medal in New Zealand on the track?

Latterly we have had the likes of Sean Downey demonstrating that he can compete with the best, even if his preparation is greatly handicapped by lack of local facilities. Yet that joy has turned to consternation, latterly, as the decision makers have consistently dragged their feet at the eleventh hour.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Cycling Ulster has expressed grave concern over the future of the proposed new velodrome following news of the Draft Budget Proposals for Northern Ireland. In early March 2006 Sports Minister David Hanson unveiled plans to spend £50 million on Elite Facilities for N.I. Olympic Sports before 2010. To quote the Minister, “Approximately £50 million has been provisionally allocated for high priority sports infrastructure projects identified by the Sports Council for Northern Ireland. The money will be allocated through a series of bid competitions which will be handled by the Strategic Investment Board Ltd (SIB) and the Sports Council. The first competition will be advertised tomorrow. It will seek expressions of interest from project promoters for an Olympic sized swimming pool and the winning project could attract up to 75% of the capital costs."

Cycling Ulster immediately launched a campaign to ensure that a velodrome was included in the plans. After a year’s hard work and effort, not only from Cycling Ulster, Cycling Ireland, SNI (formerly SCNI), and interested bidders it emerged that three bids to build a velodrome (Belfast, Newry and Newcastle) were successful in reaching Phase Two of the Elite Facilities Programme. Cycling was the only sport to have three successful bids and it looked as if the Velodrome was a virtual certainty. Cycling was asked to make a presentation to the three bidders in early December and a lot of hard work and effort went into the preparation of the presentation. Chairman of Cycling Ulster, Tommy Lamb, said he became extremely worried in late November when they were told that the presentations were postponed until after the New Year.’

It now emerges that the draft budget, far from delivering the promised £50 million, has been slashed! Cyclists are delighted that North Down Borough Council has been awarded £15 million for the Olympic sized Swimming Pool, but the remaining £35 million available to other sports has been reduced to £20 million.

Mr Lamb went on to say, ‘It seems as if money from all the regions is being diverted to London for the 2012 Olympics.’ At the time of the initial announcement, Dame Mary Peters who won Olympic gold in the pentathlon during the 1972 Munich Games, had said that she had hoped such a facility would attract athletes to Northern Ireland to train prior to the games beginning. "I come from Belfast and we are going to benefit just as much as the people of England because we are only an hour's flight away," she said. It seems that this may no longer be the case.

The question remains, then, what can we do to realise our long held dream of an indoor velodrome? Mr Lamb states that he has no need ‘…to sell the idea to the cycling fraternity. We already know that we have future potential medal winners coming through our Junior and Youth ranks. We all know that following the building of the Manchester Velodrome, GB has become one of the top ranked Track nations in the world, producing several Olympic and World Champions. With the same facilities we could do the same.
What we are asking every cyclist to do is to lobby anyone with influence. We urge you to write to the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister and also to Minister Edwin Poots of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, not only protest at the current funding levels but to point out the massive impact that a Velodrome would bring to our country.’ It is important, therefore, that everyone takes every opportunity to lobby all the movers and shakers. For example, letters could also be sent to our local MP, MLAs, councillors and: Melanie McGinnis, Economic Policy Unit , OFMDFM , Rm E5.22 Castle Buildings , Stormont Belfast,BT4 3SR. This is a serious matter and it is important that everyone gets on board and argues vociferously.

Festive cycles

There are many recreational cycles over the Christmas period. If the weather continues to be mild these will no doubt prove popular as everyone attempts to shed unwanted pounds. Last Saturday, for instance, there was a huge turnout for the first of our annual ‘hot-port’ cycles. The second of these will take place this Saturday, leaving the clubrooms at 9am and meandering through Ards and Downpatrick before returning via Strangford and the Saltwater Brig.

Next Monday another popular cycle leaves from the Newtownards Road, opposite the Fire Station at 9.45 am. The route taken will include the back roads to Greyabbey, Kirkubbin before returning to Ballywalter for coffee. Everyone will be made very welcome on either of these recreational cycles.

Noel Boyce and Ciaran Andrews are the organisers of this year’s Mince Pie Cycle on the Saturday after Christmas. This is a traditional part of the club’s festive celebrations and always attracts many young, novice and inexperienced cyclists. The cycles, which will be of varying distance, will this year begin at the Marquis Hall, just off Abbey Street. On returning to this venue, between 11am and 12.30 everyone will be welcome to some hot mince pies and warm hospitality. The young ones will even receive certificates. Both Noel and Ciaran would really appreciate the help of club members to assist in the marshalling of this very popular event.

Merry Christmas.

It only remains, therefore, to wish everyone in North Down a blessed, happy and safe Christmas and New Year.

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