24 May 2022

Q&A | Karl Dolan speaks to Joe Carroll about his family's intrinsic link to Dundalk and Louth cycling


Q&A | Karl Dolan speaks to Joe Carroll about his family's intrinsic link to Dundalk and Louth cycling

Not only has Karl Dolan followed the same route as his father, Kevin, he has emulated him by making several appearances in Ireland’s premier cycling race when it was known as Rás Tailteann.

You couldn’t really have avoided getting involved in cycling?
My father has been involved with cycling throughout his life, although I have no memory of him actually racing; but it was something that was always in the background. Whilst I tried a few team sports I never really enjoyed them. In 1987, just after Stephen Roche had won the Tour De France, I decided to give cycling a go and have never looked back since.   

Tell me more about your Dad?
Like myself, he started in his teens. He had heard some of the epic stories of riders competing in the RásTailteann and how they raced around the entire island of Ireland in a little over a week. Whilst recuperating in hospital in Navan following a traffic accident, he heard that there was to be a Stage End finish close by, so he slipped out the back door to watch it and was instantly hooked on the sport. In the years that followed he competed with Cuchulainn, Mount Pleasant and went on the form St. Fursey’s. He enjoyed a lot of success on the bike. He was the winner of 27 Senior Irish Championship medals including Gold in 25 Mile Time Trial (1967 & 1968); Pursuit (1966 & 1967); Three Mile Grass Track (1969); 10km Point to Point Grass Track (1970).

He was also a member of the first Irish team in the Rás Tailteann 1968 and again represented Ireland on the Track in Paris in the 1969 Fête de l’Humanité. Unfortunately, due to the politics in the sport, a full international or professional career was never an option for members of the National Cycling Association, at that time.

In total, he won over 30 senior races, including the Tour of Ulster (1967 & 1968), Tour of the Mournes, Tour of Tyrone, Waller Cup, Irish News Trophy, O’Dowd Cup, Drumm Memorial and Rás na bhFall.

He also competed in the Rás Tailteann six times: 1966-1970, 1974. Whilst he never managed to win a stage in the Rás he went very close on a number of occasions.

Before leaving Kevin, a mention of the excellent book he produced in 2010, Dundalk: A Cycling History – a labour of love for him, no doubt?
Over the years I’d often meet people of an older generation and they would recount great stories about local cyclists from over the years, like Nicky McArdle, Jack Murphy, Tom Kirk, the Lennon brothers and many others. It occurred to me that many of these stories and achievements would be forgotten over time. One day I suggested to Kevin about putting together a few notes and recollections that he might have about some of these great cyclists. One thing led to another and after months spent trolling through old newspapers and interviews a book emerged. It was amazing to see after the book was released just how many local people had a connection to the sport over the years and for many people it’s actually become a family heirloom with people buying multiple copies.

Was Santa Claus still coming to you when you got your first bike?
I think I got my first bike when I was about four years old. I can still remember it, a little red “rainbow” bike with a horn. I didn’t get my first real racing bike until I was 14 and I’ll never forget picking it up for the first time. It was a Peugeot Gold Special and I took it to bed every night for the first month.    

At what age did you have your first race?
I competed in my first races in 1988 when I was 15-years-old, but it was a steep learning curve. I didn’t taste any success in my first year but enjoyed a number of wins the following year, including the local league while competing against senior riders, and I also managed a top six finish in the National Road Race Championship, despite a crash.

What was your record like after that?
I enjoyed a lot of success during my teenage years and competed all around Ireland and as part of regional and national teams in England, Wales and France. I think I had won almost 50 races by the time I had turned 20. I even got to spend part of a season competing in France. This was a memorable experience and taught me a lot about life and what would be required to reach the top level in cycling.

The most memorable of your wins?
Some of my more notable wins would have been rounds of the National Junior League including overall victory in the series, national medals on the track while riding one of my Dad’s old track bikes. Stages of the junior tours of Wales and Ireland. But probably my best memory was winning the Gorey 3-Day, as I first came across the race on family holidays as a youngster and was amazed at the speed and colour, so when I got older I was delighted just to be part of it let alone win it.

The best you’ve competed against?
The best rider I probably recall racing against was Roger Hammond, who had recently been crowned world champion. I’ve also competed against Seán Kelly and Martin Earley during one of the legendary Christmas Hamper races in Carrick-on-Suir. In more recent times I’ve raced alongside Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche. Somebody actually gave me a newspaper clipping from one of the last races I competed in, managing a top 10 finish. Runner-up on the day was Sam Bennett who has gone on to be one of Ireland’s greatest-ever cyclists, currently competing with Belgium team Quick-Step; although he was just an unknown kid at the time. On the local front, I think I would have to say Bryan McCrystal, an absolute powerhouse and, of course, his sister, Eve. It’s just a pity they didn’t discover the sport earlier as I have no doubt they both would have risen to the very top level.

Are you still competing?
Our family business suffered a major setback in 1993 when the factory was completely destroyed by fire. This was a very difficult time for our entire family and my cycling took a back seat for a time. Unfortunately, like a lot of young people, I discovered other distractions and hung up the bike for a few years. I returned to the sport in my early 30s and while I enjoyed some success and managed to get back to the top, senior level and compete in another few Rás Tailteanns, I no longer had the time or commitment required to reach the top level. I still continue to compete in local races and cyclo cross, but I still just love getting out on my bike as I did 30 odd years ago.

Your brother, Liam is a competitor also, but at a different discipline?
Liam enjoyed a very successful career as a triathlete. He was the Irish Long Distance Champion and was the first ever Irish athlete to go under nine hours for a full Ironman (3.8km swim, 180km cycle followed by a full 42.2km marathon). He took a top 10 finish in Ironman UK 70.3 and won his age-group in Ironman Wisconsin and qualified on four separate occasions for the World Ironman Championships in Hawaii. After finishing with triathlons he turned to cycling and went on to become an A1 senior rider, taking part in four Rás Tailteanns and even finishing as a top 10 county rider on one occasion.

And the next generation – have they taken to the bikes yet?
Yes, I have two daughters, Rhiannon (13) and Ffion (11), and they are both keen cyclists and compete on occasion. While they have both shown a good aptitude for the sport with a few wins, I think it’s too early to take it too seriously.

You and your family have been synonymous with the Cuchulainn Club – it’s a club with a rich history.
The club has been in existence for 85 years, having been founded in 1935. Over the years the club has enjoyed success at every level. In more recent years the leisure side of the club has enjoyed huge growth and on the competitive front we promote a number of local leagues that regularly attract over 150 entries. The profile of the sport locally has grown significantly and we have a fantastic committee that does a lot of work behind the scenes. I suppose in some ways it’s been a bit like a family business for us as both myself and my Dad have been committee members in one way or another for the past 30 years.

How many members?
The club has over 300 active members broken down approximately as follows: leisure cyclist, 175; competitive, 100; underage, 50. We have also seen a lot of female members in more recent times; over 20 percent of the club is now female.

Coronavirus has made it a difficult year for all sports; but since restrictions were lifted there seems to be more people than ever on the roads. Is your club planning for any competitive events in the months ahead?
There is no doubt that the virus has been responsible for a huge increase in the number of people out on bikes. Lots of bicycles have been rescued from garages and sheds and given a new lease of life. Like most sports, however, it more or less brought club activities to a halt, but we do hope to squeeze a few events in before the end of the year.

Did your club benefit it any way from the Giro d’Italia going through town in 2014?
The past decade, cycling has enjoyed massive growth both locally and nationally, so it’s difficult to pinpoint a single event. It did, however, showcase how our town can get behind an event and I’ll never forget that May when Dundalk turned pink.

Your all-time hero?
I think it would probably be Miguel Induráin. Despite being an exceptionally tall rider and weighing 90kg, he went on to win the Tour De France five times in a row. He was able to limit his losses in the mountains and to make exceptional gains in the Time Trials. As a tall rider it gave me great hope that I might be able to climb, but, alas, I was no Indurain.

Your family business has expanded in recent years with the opening of a bike shop in Bridge-A-Crinn – how is that going?
Just over six years ago myself and a friend, Ray Fedigan, decided to open The Bike Station, beside Trend Trophies. As we are both cycling obsessed, it’s always felt more like a vocation than a job and it’s very rewarding to be able to help people get out on bikes. We’ve had tremendous support from the local community and we have customers coming from far and wide. I think as we have almost 50 years of cycling experience between us, it gives customers a lot of confidence. Like anybody that has grown up in a family business will tell you, the lines between home and work are always very blurred.

What’s the best bit of business advice you’ve been given?
Do something that you enjoy and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

And in sport?
As my Dad used to say: to be successful you must eat, sleep and breathe cycling.

What will you be instilling in your children before sending them out to race?
First and foremost, enjoy it. Cycling is a particularly demanding sport and requires a lot of dedication. On the other hand, you don’t need to compete to enjoy cycling. I’ve seen this in recent years as more and more people have taken up the sport. It can be very sociable whilst also addressing many of the problems society is facing including climate change, traffic congestion, obesity, mental health and road safety.

Are you a reader?
Yes, but not as much as I’d like to be. I generally read biographies or whatever my wife recommends. As an English teacher, Michelle is a voracious reader and is never without a book or six on her bedside locker.
Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us.
I’ve been with the same girl since I was 16-years-old, so I guess we are childhood sweethearts. It’s great that we have effectively grown up together and have so many fantastic memories to share. Michelle is a brilliant person and anything she sets her mind to she does with 100 percent commitment. She is currently the principal in St. Louis secondary school and manages to balance this with being a great mammy and wife.

Would Indurain be among the four you would invite to a celebration dinner?
Wow, that’s a tough one. To be honest it would probably be a few of the friends that I don’t get to spend much time with, and, of course, most of these have a connection with cycling. Although I think an evening with Gerry Adams, Ian Paisley, Margaret Thatcher and Jesus would be interesting, too.  

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