29 December 2009

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As 2009 draws to a close the committee of North Down Cycling Club can look back with satisfaction at what, in some respects, was a record year and look ahead to what is being anticipated as a year of further development in 2010.

The final event of the year was the annual, post-Christmas Mince Pie Run, held on a cold and frosty Monday morning. The icy roads caused many members to opt for a day off but there were still 20 or so who decided to do a steady 25 mile run on the main roads of the Ards peninsula. Safely back in the Marquis Hall they were joined by other club members, including the youngest rider of the day, four-year old Ewen Ferguson, in a feast of mince pies and Hazel Allen’s celebrated fudge. As usual, Ruth McNally and helpers did a splendid job in the catering department.


This time last year club membership had topped 80 and the club President declared a target of 100 for 2009. This announcement was considered by some to be optimistic but, in fact, as the current year ends membership has topped 130, making North Down Cycling Club one of the biggest in Ireland.


Several factors have contributed to this success but without doubt the energy and ambition of a strong committee, all of whom are active cyclists, have had a major role in moving the club forward. Like many clubs, North Down has, over the past few years, welcomed an influx of members who see cycling as an ideal activity to build fitness and shed a few unwanted pounds. As well as attracting the purely recreational riders, the prospects of considerable cross training benefits led a number of members of Ballyholme Yacht Club, many of whom are top class competitors in their sport, to get on their bikes and take part in club events such as time trials and racing. One such yachtsman, Richard McCullough, progressed so quickly on two wheels that he took out a full racing licence and had some very creditable results, picking up prize money on two or three occasions.

To accommodate what is now quite a broad range of fitness levels, the club’s regular Saturday morning run is now split into two or three groups, allowing a rider to opt for a distance and speed to suit his or her abilities. Experience has shown that, over a few months, riders who start off apprehensive about their ability to keep up, can, with regular cycling, become quite fit, eventually progressing to a faster, longer run.


As cyclists become fitter they look forward to new challenges such as the many long distance sportive events on offer around the country. Some of these, such as the 125 mile Tour of the Glens, are severe tests but others are suitable for the less adventurous rider. One such ride is the Coastal Challenge, organised each summer by North Down Cycling Club. The relatively flat Ards peninsula provides a picturesque backdrop for the 60 mile route that has become one of the most popular rides in the country, offering cyclists of all abilities an enjoyable cycle ride along with the chance to support the Ulster Hospital. This year, as in previous years, the event filled its allocated 700 places before the day of the ride. Event co-ordinator Terry Nicoletti now has a well drilled squad of club volunteers who, with the support of the PSNI and full medical back-up, ensure a smooth operation that offers a well marshalled route with mechanical and breakdown support from Bikeworks of Bangor. This year’s event, thanks to generous support from North Down and Ards Borough councils, Vittel and Bikeit cycle shop, raised a commendable £8000 for the Diabetes, Stroke and Cardiology departments at the Ulster Hospital.


The Irish countryside offers enough challenges for the vast majority of cyclists but having done most of the major sportives around the country, North Down’s John Hicks decided a few years ago to pit himself against some of the planet’s grander landscapes. Before 2009 his cycling curriculum vitae boasted three trips across North America, an exploration of New Zealand, a casual ride through France to the Alps and a challenging trip from Land’s End to John O’Groat’s. These rides would have been enough to satisfy the wander lust of most cyclists but not John Hicks. After a few months of careful preparation, including the purchase of a purpose-built expedition bike, John headed Down Under for one of the hardest challenges for cyclists, a 3000 mile ride across Australia from Perth to Brisbane. What made this one particularly difficult was that, for the first time, John was riding without support and only a mobile satellite link to keep him in touch with the outside world. Overnight stays in the vast, treeless wilderness of the Nullarbor were spent in a tent at the roadside and on other occasions he enjoyed the hospitality of farmers on some of the region’s vast sheep stations.

With the journey safely completed John returned to Bangor as fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog but since then, a steady loss of fitness and concomitant weight gain has driven him to seek yet another overseas adventure and, believe it or not, he has found one. In 2010, following a one week sojourn with 40 of his North Down clubmates in Majorca in April, John will be heading Stateside again, this time taking part in a ride that will trace the course of the Mississippi from its mouth in New Orleans to its source close to the border with Canada. Everyone at North Down CC wishes him well.


North Down Cycling Club has had a distinguished record in competitive cycling since the club was founded in 1977 but as time has gone by, the increase in membership has meant that a smaller proportion of the club’s riders have been taking part in racing. At the end of 2008 the club decided to move the spotlight back on to road and track racing and time trialling. A budget was allocated to subsidise transport and throughout the season a system was in place that saw the riders being driven to major races and getting the weekly services of a sports masseur. The objective was to create a team spirit and a sense among the riders that the club was actively providing support and recognising the hard work they were putting in to represent the club. The riders’ response to the new set up was evident from the first race of the season where Sam Craig came 5th in the main race and Stuart Henry second in the B race. The following week had two North Down riders on top of the podium with wins by Stuart Henry and Noel Boyce. The prestigious Armagh-Downpatrick race later in March had Sam Craig and Paul Ferguson placing 2nd and 3rd, both men finishing ahead of the Cycling Ulster race team.

Further wins and top five places were recorded by Sam Craig, Stuart Henry, Paul Ferguson and Noel Boyce. North Down’s Neil McKenna was dogged by punctures in the early Ulster Classics but he came back with two top five places and a hard earned bronze medal in the Ulster Hill Climb championships. Along with Paul Ferguson he tackled the Irish Senior road race championship, competing against full time professionals as well as the cream of Irish domestic road men. Both riders finished in the top half of the field, having averaged 27mph for the 110 mile race. However, by the middle of the season both Sam Craig and Neil McKenna had picked up injuries that shortened their racing schedules yet the North Down contingent continued to produce good performances. Ferguson maintained form and got his reward by picking up enough points to attain 1st category status.

Junior rider Stuart Henry got recognition for his form by being chosen to represent Ireland at several races at home and abroad, putting in impressive rides at the Tour of Malta and the Junior Tour of Wales. Henry returned to Belgium during the summer to continue riding with the Lotto Bodysol team, the junior branch of the professi
onal Lotto squad that competes each year in the Tour de France. In recent months he has moved to university in Chester but he has found a second home in the Manchester velodrome where he has impressed race organisers by winning several races on the track. In the new year he will be promoted to the Premier League where he will race against the best of British Cycling’s young stars. Restrictions on the number of riders who are allowed to take part in races meant that on several weekends some riders went without a race but there were other times when North Down was well represented and in addition to the riders already mentioned there were strong performances put in by newcomer Richard McCullough as well as William Barclay, Duane McCreadie, Matty Blayney and Philip Marshall


Track facilities in Ireland are second rate but there is an active track programme throughout the season at Orangefield in Belfast, where one of the organisers is North Down’s Anthony Mitchell, and Sun Drive in Dublin. A regular competitor has been Rachel Mitchell who clearly benefited from national squad training sessions at the Meadowbank velodrome in Edinburgh by setting new national records for the flying 200 metre time trial and the standing start 500 metre time trial.

Sun Drive has also been the scene of success for North Down’s veteran Paul Swenarton who followed a season of strong time trialling performances in Ulster’s Dave Kane league by coming 5th in the national Omnium championhips held on the Dublin track. This competition is run over 5 different events on the track so it is a measure of Swenarton’s all round strengths that he came so close to a medal.

The club’s other stalwart on the veterans’ time trialling circuit is John Hunter. Last season was a breakthrough year for John with him setting new personal bests for 10 and 25 miles. He maintained that form throughout 2009 and in events where weather conditions can be crucial to achieving good times John narrowly missed setting new PBs by a handful of seconds.

The key to continuing success is being able to identify and bring on younger riders and this year North Down’s Nathan McLeer competed in the Under 16 age group and soon established himself as a promising rider with a series of good performances on the road and the track. Nathan enters 2010 as a first year junior and he has already been putting in long training rides to build up endurance before the start of the new season next March.


North Down produces a programme of weekly competitive races, a mixture of time trials, road races and hill climbs. In an attempt to create a safe, traffic free course for racing the club broke with tradition and negotiated with the 500 Club for the use of Kirkistown motor racing circuit. An agreement was made for four nights, beginning in May, with the circuit being made available until 9pm. The weather was kind this year and by the time of the final race in August a season’s best turn out of 60 riders made it clear that the experiment had been an unqualified success with riders coming in from as far as Dromara and Carrickfergus. Club race secretary Eric Blayney is already planning the calendar for next season and it’s likely to include an extended programme of races at Kirkistown, subject to the agreement of the 500 Club.


With the season over, attention moved to other activities to keep riders motivated through the winter. The weekly runs on Saturdays still pull in large numbers and since October these have been supplemented each week by three nights of training in the club rooms on the recently acquired power trainers. For the past two months a large group has been attending Pilates sessions on Monday evenings in an attempt to build up some core stability in those muscles that tend to get neglected by most cyclists.


Club chairman Ian Blayney is positive about next year and is cautiously optimistic about achieving even more members. Already the reputation of the club’s annual trip to Majorca each April has spread and organiser Philip Downie reports that there are 40 riders heading for Club Pollentia next spring.

The success of the Kirkistown races has prompted the club to put together some proposals to encourage younger cyclists to compete in racing. Traffic on open roads is a concern for parents of young riders interested in cycle sport. North Down is considering some options that will encourage younger riders to try their hand at road racing, using Kirkistown as a safer alternative to the roads. The options include the possibility of acquiring some road bikes to make it easier to compete, recognising that almost all young cyclists have mountain bikes which, although fashionable and sturdy, are harder to push on tarmac.

Finally the club would like to wish all its members and friends a happy, peaceful and prosperous new year. Club news and details of how to join are available at the club website at www.northdowncc.com.

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