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'I'm grateful to everyone in Ireland for supporting me - I wouldn't have gotten this far without them'

Aqua Blue cyclist Conor Dunne reflects on his experiences finishing as the Lanterne Rouge at the 2017 Vuelta a Espana.

Vuelta_14_52 (1) Conor Dunne at last summer's Vuelta Espanna. Source: Karen M. Edwards

HE WEARS THE title of Lanterne Rouge with sincere pride and, when recalling the moment he crossed the finishing line in Madrid following three weeks, 3,324km and 87 hours of peddling, Conor Dunne laughs and laughs.

In fact, he doesn’t stop laughing as he relives the euphoric moment of glee tinged with more than a share of relief.

The Lanterne Rouge is the title given to the last competitor to finish a cycling race and, following the conclusion of his first ever Grand Tour at the 2017 Vuelta a Espana, the tagline belonged to the 25-year-old. He wasn’t letting go.

It was the prize borne of an unforgiving, relentless and, at times, torturous journey throughout Spain from 19 August until 10 September for the Aqua Blue rider, nicknamed El Alto, ‘The Tall One’, standing at 6’8.

With a London accent and Irish blood seeping from his veins dating back through generations in Sligo and Offaly, Dunne said it would have been easier to give up.

“I think for anyone doing their first Grand Tour it was always going to be like being thrown in at the deep end,” he said speaking to The42.

“You know it’s going to be tough, you know it’s going to be hard — nothing will prepare you for how hard it is. It really, really is just a whole new level.

Vuelta_9_36 Source: Karen M. Edwards.

“I found the first few stages pretty tough and at the time was just thinking ‘holy shit.’ It was brutal and you’re doing everything in your power just to keep the fight up.

“There were nine stages until the first rest day, which is a quite a big, solid block of races. We had some tough days in Andorra la Vella and though the mountains in Antona into Valencia — they were really, really brutal because it is the first week and it’s all new.

“But then you’re talking to some of the journalists who are telling you the hardest stages are to come and that you haven’t gotten started yet. So in your mind you start questioning whether or not you can handle it and make it to the end.”

158 cyclists took to the track in Nîmes for the beginning of the Vuelta– it was the first time it had ever kicked off in France — with Dunne the last to cross the final line 29 days later as the afternoon sun bled down onto the concrete of the Spanish capital.

There was water, hugs and Haribo jellies to get blood sugar levels back up. There were also Irish tricolours with ‘CONOR DUNNE’ etched across in black print, with a familiar face peeking around the corner to greet him, his Tipperary girlfriend Stacey.

Dunne’s Irish roots are wide and far-reaching. Born in London, he reaffirms that declaring for the country of his ancestors was an easy choice.

Vuelta_9_8 Source: Karen M. Edwards.

“I’ve always considered myself Irish even though I was brought up in the UK. I come from a very strong Irish family — my dad has six brothers and sisters and we are a very close family,” he says.

“They grew up in Wembley in a London-Irish community after my granny and grandad moved over… so I was sort of brought up to be more proud of being Irish than British.

“I always go back home to where my granny was born in County Mayo and my granddad was from Offaly.

“So I was brought up always to be proud of my Irish roots and then the opportunity came to represent Ireland on the bike when I was about 18.

“I was very proud to take those first steps in the U23 Nations Cup and ever since then I’ve had so much support, not just from the Irish federation but from the public as well. I’m grateful to everyone in Ireland for supporting me – I wouldn’t have gotten this far without them.”

Dunne’s paternal grandfather was born in Edenderry and his grandmother from Charlestown, with both moving to Wembley where they raised a family.

His family is steeped in cycling tradition — his uncle Roger raced on the continent with the father of Dan Martin many decades ago — and it is that feeling of representation which he carries on his shoulders wearing the Irish shirt on his back.

small_roger1 Roger Dunne won the Grand Prix, Bestion in 1982. Source: velovercors.com

A sense of carrying on the family legacy, that is the fuel of motivation which ran through his head as the mountains became steeper in Spain and the muscles at the back of his legs started to tense, he says.

“To be honest it didn’t take me long to decide to race for Ireland because my dad would be really patriotic — he would actually get a bit emotional thinking about me representing Ireland. My grandad passed away when I was about 11 and I just wish he had been around to see this. He would have absolutely loved it.

“I’m really close to my family and I feel like representing Ireland is representing them as well. I don’t know if many other athletes feel the same way.

“I grew up hearing stories of my uncle racing and of my grandad supporting him, following him around at races in a beat-up car. All of that is going through my head when I’m on the bike because I know that I’ve got a lot more support behind me now than he ever did back in the day.

“I feel like if he managed to achieve with the little support he had, then I can definitely do it now.”

The 2017 Vuelta was an eventful one on and off the course for Aqua Blue. There were the highs of a stage win in their first ever year as a professional cycling team, but also the bizarre and shocking experience of having their team bus burned down — a mattress placed underneath and set alight as the team slept in the nearby Tryp Indalo hotel.

“It was really strange,” says Dunne.

“Up to that point we had been joking that something different had happened every day which would challenge you and wasn’t supposed to happen.

“Then finally we were enjoying a normal enough day after we woke up on the Friday. We read the team Whatsapp group and people were joking saying ‘check you have your shoes with you because the bus is burned down’ — I honestly thought they were taking the piss or that I’d misread the message.

“I didn’t believe it, but then we went down for breakfast and we were told straight that the team bus was gone — someone had actually burned it down.

“You just don’t believe something like that when it happens really — after everything that had happened for the actual bus to burn down.

“You realise then how much you rely on the bus — your toilet, your food, spare shoes, helmets, spare clothes — and we just had to adapt instead of worrying and getting down about it because you can’t change what’s happened.”

It was an unprecedented act and one which threatened to throw the team’s mental resolve and rhythm out of focus just before the start of stage 12, with Aqua Blue owner Rick Delaney tweeting: “So some prick burns our bus… WTF do we need to do to catch a break!!! Wall after wall.”

Vuelta_12_9 Standing at 6ft 8, Dunne is the tallest pro-cyclist in the world.

“You’ve got to quickly move on — it’s the Vuelta, you can’t just come to a halt,” says Dunne.

“We had to ride around in just an ordinary school bus. I actually realised then that in these circumstances at Grand Tours they have a bus prepared in case one breaks down.

“After that we were lent a bus by a Portuguese team but it actually kept following the race, kind of like that banger of a car in Top Gear which follows all the challenges around that you don’t want to be stuck with,” he laughs. “The old banger bus!”

Despite the setback, Aqua Blue rallied to claim a stage win in their debut Grand Tour — Austrian Stefan Denifl beating both Alberto Contador and eventual Tour winner Chris Froome to the post.

“It was a surreal feeling of euphoria and almost relief, really,” says Dunne of his teammate’s stage 17 win.

“It had been a grim day when we got Stefan into the break. The weather had turned during a 10km climb and at one stage everything had just turned into a big thick fog. I managed to hold on at the front of the bunch but just couldn’t see anything ahead of me.

“The pack had just broken up on the descent and there were little groups all veering off everywhere trying to get home and make it to the end.

“I was knackered towards the end of it because it had been such a long day and you forgot that Stefan was still out in front. We were all just so focused on getting off this mountain in one piece.

Imago 20170906 Aqua Blue team-mate Stefan Denifl beat Froome and Contador to win stage 17. Source: Imago/PA Images

“We came back into radio contact with him on the last climb. We heard Nicki talking to Stefan on the radio and we were just hearing him encouraging Stefan. In my head I had no idea where he was or what position he was in.

“Then you hear that Contador is coming across, so we knew he was in contention and then all of a sudden we hear ‘Stefan, you’ve got 1km to go, you can do this!’. So we’re thinking shit — he’s riding this all the way for the win.

“I don’t remember the rest of our climb because we were all just completely zoned into listening to the radio channel trying to figure out what was going on.

“We hear Contador coming, but that Stefan had it in the bag– and everyone was just going absolutely mad shouting and celebrating. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore. It was just a magical day.”

There were still four more stages and 550km to go before the sweet release of the finish line.

The 25-year-old speaks about the nerves he felt when receiving the call-up to take part at the Vuelta, but ascertains that fear plays a big element not only in setting you back seeing out the job at hand, but also in pushing you over the line.

You’ve come this far, covered so much ground, you could never, ever live with the sapping regret of stopping.

Source: Aqua Blue Sport/YouTube

But the rider had gotten over the worst of it, having climbed more metres in the first week than in the second and third and was focussed on achieving one more high — crossing the finishing line in Madrid.

“I don’t really know how to describe it. You spend the final day reflecting on it and you just can’t believe it yourself and I think a lot of other people couldn’t believe I’d made it over the finishing line as well,” he laughs.

“It took a while actually for it all to set in. When I went on holiday it finally all sunk in because you’re so tired mentally at the end of the Tour. You don’t realise how tired you really are because your body has gotten used to being under that stress, and as a result it takes a while to come back down to earth.”

It is unique to cycling that the last place finisher is celebrated. In Grand Tours the Lanterne Rouge is symbolised as a mark of success, and not failure, making it all the more special in a sporting world where nothing but first is cast aside and viewed as insignificant.

“Many riders try to finish the Tour and not all are successful,” wrote former pro cyclist Frankie Andreu.

DSC_0487 Dunne crosses the finish line in Madrid. Source: Karen M. Edwards.

“To be able to be listed in the results each day is an accomplishment. This is why the Lanterne Rouge is seen as an honor, it symbolizes not the strongest rider, but the toughest, always fighting to finish.”

Although he finished 158th with his bicycle crossing the finish line in Madrid in last place, for Conor Dunne the 2017 Vuelta will be remembered more for a litany of achievements and personal firsts.

For a young rider coming to the close of his first year as a professional the only way is up the classification table, with more success closing in on the immediate horizon.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

‘I took all the money out of the house, all our wages, and gambled it all in 28 minutes’

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Aaron Gallagher

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