28 March 2006

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As the inquest continues into Northern Ireland's poorest performance in decades at the Commonwealth Games, the cycling team, while winning no medals, can take heart from the fact that in the two major road events, the time trial and the road race, they outperformed riders from the other Home Nations.

In the 25 mile time trial Northern Ireland's Michael Hutchinson and David McCann came fourth and fifth respectively, both men agonisingly within seconds of a medal. McCann had crashed in a road race just three weeks before the Games and team manager, North Down's Alastair Irvine, was a little concerned that it might affect  his preparation. Given the standard of the opposition, the winner being Nathan O'Neill, one of Australia's leading professional riders who competes on the European professional circuit, Hutchinson and McCann put in top class performances. In the same event  England's leading rider, Stuart Dangerfield, came sixth.
 In the road race , run over 100 miles and with 120 competitors, the Northern Ireland team failed to be overawed by the opposition. The green and white jerseys were prominent at the head of the race throughout and by the finish they were the only country to have five riders complete the race. Not even the mighty Aussies, whose Matthew Hayman won the race, could manage that. Banbridge's Roger Aiken was 8th and David McCann and Stephen Gallagher finished 12th and 13th, all three finishing just 35 seconds behind the winner. Ballymena's Ryan Connor and Tommy Evans of Banbridge came in several minutes later but all five were over the line five minutes before Britain's second placed rider, the British national champion Russell Downing.
 Although disappointed not to have won a medal, David McCann was the outstanding roadman . No other rider finished so high up the rankings for both the time trial and the road race.
 The strong showing by the whole team at the Games validates the decision by the selectors to set stiff selection criteria. Knowing that the days have gone when a team of talented local amateurs could go to the Games and compete,  Alastair Irvine and Davy McCall  decided that if the team were to mix it with the full time pros from countries such as Australia and South Africa, then the riders would have to produce results at international level before they would even be considered.  Fortunately for Northern Ireland, McCann and Gallagher have been producing excellent results in the Asian professional circuit, both men riding for Team Giant Asia.  Roger Aiken has moved to Belgium to be part of the Sean Kelly setup and both Connor and Evans are full time cyclists with a lot of European experience. It was a pity that Philip Deignan, one of  Europe's most talented young riders, had to withdraw, having broken his collar bone in January. Having come 9th in last year's Under 23 world championships, he was a real medal prospect.
There has been much speculation as to why Australia, with a population of about one third of Britain's, are so successful. There is no doubt that a major factor is the provision of world class facilities and a programme of development that identifies young talent and brings them to world standard. As far as cycling is concerned, while our road racers have shown themselves to be very competitive, Northern Ireland's performance on the indoor velodrome has been poor. This is not the first time this point has been made in this column but the facts speak for themselves. British cyclists are the dominant force in track cycling in the world, bringing home fistfuls of medals at every major championship. With the planned construction of another world class velodrome in London to match those in Manchester and Newport, the pundits are predicting that Britain will dominate track cycling by the 2012 London Olympics. The only track in Northern Ireland is an outdoor, tarmac facility at Orangefield in Belfast, now about half a century old and badly in need of upgrading or, better still, replacement. Not only does an indoor track allow riders to prepare for track events such as the pursuit or sprint, it provides an all year round training facility for road racers and it is a safe, traffic free environment to introduce young riders to the sport. There are rumours that a velodrome might be part of the proposed new national sports stadium , the venue for which is now the subject of heated debate.
Last Saturday's mountain bike racing at Bangor, promoted by XMTB, had the Mitchell clan once again in action. Rachel Mitchell maintained her strong form of previous weeks by coming 4th overall and first female in the U14 race which was won by William Boyd of XMTB. This victory clinched the series for William.
In the Senior Fun race it was veteran Robbie Lamont of XMTB who took yet another victory. North Down's father and son combination of Anthony and Mike Mitchell were in action again and it was Mike who managed to get into 7th place, just ahead of his dad.
North Down's road men concentrated last weekend on the tough Wallace Caldwell race over 75 miles of hard terrain in county Antrim. The race was won by talented Ards CC rider Martyn Irvine, a win that will boost his morale as he prepares for the Ras in May as part of a team that will represent Down . North Down's squad finished in the bunch and were happy to get in more racing miles as they look forward to the P&O Tour of the North which begins in three weeks time.
Next week sees the first event in North Down's club programme. On Wednesday 5th April there will be a 5 mile time trial, starting at 7pm at the top of Orlock. The club has tried to tailor the events to encourage all riders to participate. To this end there will be a season long Novices' competition. This is open to club riders who have no experience in competitive racing whatsoever. Trophies will go to the winner and runner up in the season long competition.  Details of how the competition will work will be emailed to club members before next Wednesday.
This weekend's open racing is the Tour of  Ards, a 60 mile race around the Ards peninsula, promoted by Ards CC. Racing starts at 12 noon. On Sunday morning the first round of the NICF's time trial league gets under way with a 10 mile time trial on the Woodgreen course, first rider off at 9am. The road racing on Sunday is the Aghagallon Cup over 50 miles at Bartin's Bay with a 1pm start.

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