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by Shane Stokes
March 11, 2016
Photography by Davey Wilson and Axeon Hagens Berman
As part of a new series entitled ‘Faces of the Future’, we’re taking a look at the personalities, ambitions, and palmares of some of the young and talented cyclists you might not know much about, but you’ll be hearing lots about.
Eddie Dunbar is one of the biggest young talents in Irish cycling and while he has not yet won much internationally as an under 23 rider, has made a big name for himself. His potential is clear to both those who have followed his career and to those who have seen him race; indeed, one of those who recognised that ability is the greatest rider in the history of cycling.
A big future seems to be in store for the national Under 23 champion. Here’s what you need to know about Eddie Dunbar.
1. His penchant for aggressive riding contributed to him getting a slot with the Axeon Hagens Berman Cycling Team
Dunbar’s past successes include victory in the Junior Tours of both Ireland and Wales, as well as the junior Nation’s Cup Trofeo Karlsberg in 2014. He actually finished second behind Krisjan Kumar in the latter, but was later awarded the victory after the final-day urine sample from the Slovenian came back as positive for EPO.
However it was his aggression in last year’s under 23 Nation’s Cup La Côte Picarde which copper-fastened the interest of Axel Merckx’s squad. Dunbar was clear solo for 110 kilometres and then had the strength to go with counterattacks, remaining out front for another 12 kilometres before being hauled back.
“I was only 18, it was my first Nations’ Cup as an under 23,” he tells CyclingTips. “Eddy Merckx was behind me in the car for three hours. I didn’t know he was there, but he came up to me afterwards [when Dunbar was getting the most aggressive rider award]. He didn’t even shake hands with the winner, but he approached me and said well done. He said it was aggressive. I think he just liked it, really, it is what he used to do as a rider.”
Merckx was impressed enough to recommend Dunbar to his son Axel Merckx, who later inked a deal with him for 2016.
2. Axel Merckx also believes in his talent, but also is clear that Dunbar is a diamond that needs polishing
“My dad did tell me about Eddie after that race, but I had been in contact with him already from 2014,” the younger Merckx tells CyclingTips. “It was funny, actually, when he told me his name. I told my dad I knew about him and wanted to take him to the team.”
Merckx describes him as ‘obviously a very talented rider’ and one who needs an opportunity to show his talent on the international scene. But he believes time will make a better rider of him.
“I think that Eddie still needs some guidance and some development on the bike-handling skills part of things. He has the power, he has the engine, but he is still lacking a bit of experience in the group and on the downhills. That is the biggest thing he lacks.
“But with a few years of experience and a bit more racing internationally, I think he can progress very fast.”
Indeed this correlates with what some in Irish racing believe. One experienced official suggested that some of his long-range attacks last year may have been due to a nervousness in the bunch, particularly after a couple of bad crashes.
“I don’t think he has quite the results that he deserves, according to the talent he has,” says Merckx. “Obviously that is the part that has to be worked on. Riding in a group, tactically being more patient, knowing when and where to attack, for example. And as regards descending, that is a confidence thing. The more he does it, the more confident he will feel.”
3. Dunbar actually turned down Axeon’s initial approach
Like compatriot Dan Martin, who was courted by the Slipstream team prior to the 2007 season but turned down the initial offer, Dunbar had the wherewithal to decide he needed another year in the under 23 ranks and to wait.
“I was in contact with Axel since I was out of the junior ranks. I could have gone there in 2015 but I just didn’t. The thoughts of going over to the States as a 17, 18 year old just didn’t appeal to me at the time. I wanted to find my feet a bit and see how I went. It is something I think every rider should do anyway, rather than jump into the deep end.”
Instead of crossing the Atlantic, Dunbar opted to race for the British NFTO team. He quickly became known for his aggression and willingness to take it to older riders. Merckx had missed out, but would eventually get his man.
“Axel stayed in contact with me. There was no bad blood over the fact that I said to him, ‘oh no, look, I don’t want to go to your team now.’ He was happy with that because I was honest with him. He stayed in contact. I did have offers from Pro Continental teams for 2016, but it seems right this year to go to Axeon.”
4. He had a trial with the Tinkoff team at 19 years of age
The interest in Dunbar has extended all the way to the top of the sport. “I did a training camp with Tinkoff last July,” he said. “I was invited there and that went well. It doesn’t mean I am going to be on the team or anything, it was just an invite.
“I was the youngest rider there by about three years. Next year hopefully…If I get a chance to go WorldTour with a team that I think is right for me, I’d consider it. But I think I am probably a bit young for that yet.”
5. An Irish bookmaker is already offering odds on him winning the Tour de France
Some people’s faith in their ability has led to them taking up a bookie’s offer of odds for a future Tour de France win. Dunbar isn’t fazed by this.
“It doesn’t bother me at all. Pressure is for tyres,” he laughs. “The way I see it, it is not my money I am wasting. If people want to put money on it, fair enough.”
That said, he does believe he has the ability to chase the sport’s biggest prize.
“I am not intimidated by anything. It would take a lot to faze me. I just go with the flow. I always say, as long as I enjoy riding my bike, I will,” he says.
“I have confidence. I do believe one day I’ll have the ability to win the Tour de France. It is a bold statement, but it is something I believe I can do. I will do everything I can to do that.
“It is something I really want to do and I will give it everything I have to do it. I do believe it is within me to do it, it is up to me to find it within myself.”
6. He was part of the Axeon Hagens Berman group which was photographed with Justin Bieber. His version of the story explains the real story behind the shot
The Axeon Hagens Berman team with singer Justin Bieber
“We were just cycling along the Pacific Coast Highway. He ran out in the middle of the road, roaring ‘hey guys, get off the road.’ I think he was joking,” Dunbar says. “I don’t know what he was at. I suppose he can basically do what he wants because he is probably the most famous person in the world.
“We didn’t know who he was. One of the guys was like, ‘get out of the way, you idiot!’ Then one of the other guys came up and said, ‘that was Justin Bieber.’ We were like, ‘nah, not a hope.’ He said, ‘that was him.’
“I kept cycling, I didn’t care. But then one of the guys said, ‘imagine the media coverage you could get for this.’ It was a no-brainer, we did a quick U turn and went straight back. He was a nice guy, he was sound out about it. He said no bother about the photo, one of his bodyguards took it.
“We were on TMZ that night. It definitely got coverage for the team.”
7. He’s a climber, but has a big engine.
At 54 kilos, Dunbar is built for the uphills. However that didn’t stop him finishing second against far older riders in the Irish road race championships last June. Perhaps even more impressive was his runner-up slot to Ryan Mullen in the Irish time trial championships days earlier.
Mullen was second in the 2014 under 23 worlds TT and is regarded as a huge talent against the clock. Although Dunbar is much lighter and two years younger, he was just 25 seconds slower over the 37 kilometre distance.
8. His late father is a big reason why he has focussed on cycling
Dunbar grew up doing a lot of sport: he won a few cross-country races, played rugby for eight years and also dabbled in the Irish sport of hurling and in football.
His father was a local rugby coach but deliberately avoided coaching his son, preferring him to progress under the guidance of others.
“My father never interfered. Some fathers do, they kind of spoon-feed their children in that regard,” he says now, looking back. “My dad never did, he would back off.
“He died in 2010. That was probably the defining moment. I played rugby for a year after he passed, but it was too hard for me to get up to training in Cork city. It just didn’t work.
“My dad was a big cycling fan. I think he preferred the sport to rugby. I used to watch cycling with him and he loved the Tour de France. That is probably what drives me a bit.”
9. He takes inspiration from Rocky movies
Dunbar says he isn’t into reading, but listens to acoustic music in his spare time and also enjoys some TV shows such as Celebrity Big Brother and the CBS drama Scorpion.
“As regards movies, I’m not a big film person but do go to the cinema every now and again when I get the chance,” he says. “I like Rocky films. The other day I watched Creed. It was quite good, actually. It is very like the first Rocky, but basically with Creed, Apollo’s son.
“I like films like that, I get weird inspiration from it.”