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The lasting impact of the U.S. Raleigh Team’s participation in the Tour of Ireland

By contesting the Tour of Ireland in 1973, the Raleigh Team became the first American cycling squad to compete in a European stage race.

Contributor Lennard Zinn recently attended a reunion for the Tour of Ireland, which in 1973 welcomed the first American team to ever compete in a European stage race. The above image shows Zinn (far left) participating in the 1981 edition of the race with the Colt 45 team.

By contesting the 10-stage Tour of Ireland in 1973, the Raleigh Team of John Howard, Bill Humphreys, John Allis, and Stan Swaim became the first American cycling team to compete in a European stage race. Howard won a stage and placed third overall, while Allis placed fifth overall. Humphreys was third on a stage from a day-long three-man breakaway, and Swaim took fifth on a stage. The race is memorialized in an excellent 20-minute movie.

Arguably, American firsts including Jonathan Boyer’s 1981 Tour de France participation, the 7-Eleven team’s 1985 Giro d’Italia, and 1986 Tour invitations and stage wins, and Greg LeMond’s Tour victories depended on the Raleigh Team having broken ground in Europe, as well as having increased the speed and team tactics of U.S. domestic racing.

The “Raleigh Boys” grew out of the New York City-based Century Road Club of America. Founded in 1891, and claiming to be “the oldest and most successful cycling club in America,” the CRCA obtained sponsorship from Raleigh in 1972 and set about building the strongest U.S.-based team . Humphreys worked year in and year out as a domestique for Howard, which was unheard of in the U.S. in the 1970s. He says that Raleigh’s stated intention in recruiting them and taking them to Europe was to bring the style and speed of European racing to the U.S.

For his 75th birthday, Humphreys organized a reunion bike tour in Ireland for the first week in August for Americans and Canadians who had raced in the Tour of Ireland back in the day. American teams participated in the race in 1973, 1974, 1975 (all Raleigh teams), and 1981 (Colt 45 team, which I was on, hence my participation in the reunion). A Canadian team funded by the provincial Ontario Cycling Association took part in 1975. The reunion group included three past winners of the Tour of Ireland: Tony Lally (1974), Pat McQuaid (1975 and 1976), and John Shortt (1978), as well as other top Irish riders of the day, including Paddy Doran, who had out-sprinted Humphreys on that stage in 1973.

Riding the Irish backroads

No place quite like the Emerald Isle for riding bikes.

We started in County Clare on the southwest coast, riding the Wild Atlantic Way to the Cliffs of Moher and north through the Burren, climbing serpentine Corkscrew Hill two days in a row, whose challenge increases in lashing rain (which we encountered both days as well as the day we raced over it in 1981). We then went by bus to County Donegal, in Ireland’s far north. The third ride took us over the infamous Gap of Mamore (24% grade) of the 1973 race, whose stage also included our fourth ride, to Malin Head, the northernmost tip of Ireland and where the weather call was made to proceed with the D-Day invasion. We had mostly clear conditions both days, so we could take in the gorgeous views north toward Iceland from the Gap as well as from the headland. After a bus transfer through Northern Ireland to Balbriggan, near Dublin, the fifth and final, rainy ride was to the Howth Peninsula.

We rode in lots of rain on narrow, shoulder-less roads, while receiving great courtesy from Irish drivers. And while still narrow, the roads are in better shape than they were three and four decades ago. The Mamore Gap road, while still just as steep, is clearly smoother now than it was in the movie of the 1973 race. Then, it looked like a goat path—though not a “dual cabbage way” (a play on superhighways called “dual carriageways”), a narrow road with a crack up the middle with vegetation growing up out of it, which we encountered frequently in the 1981 race. The lead up to Mamore was the only road this trip with moss growing on it. We dealt with big crashes on slick, moss-covered roads in 1981.

Pat McQuaid (left) won the race in 1975 and 1976, and later went on to become president of the UCI.

In his speech at the reunion’s penultimate dinner, former UCI president Pat McQuaid remarked that the Raleigh and Colt 45 teams coming from the U.S. opened Irish riders’ eyes to the world beyond Ireland and the UK, where heretofore almost all Tour of Ireland participants had hailed from; it was not just we Americans who benefitted.

Economic malaise and political strife were both deep in Ireland at the time, and I clearly remember the posters in the town centers during the 1981 race of the 10 republican political prisoners in Northern Ireland who had recently died in a hunger strike. Cycling offered a respite, as well as an economic opportunity of pro racing on the Continent for some Irish riders.

Now, Ireland’s economy is booming, and the attending riders from those races 38-46 years ago are still going strong. At 70, McQuaid is very fast again after leaving the UCI for retirement in France’s Provence region. Howard, now 72, was the first over the super-steep Mamore climb, while, at 78, Sean Lally (also featured in the 1973 movie) was the third one over, easily distancing those in their early 60s. The next day, Sean and Tony Lally broke the wind at the front of the double line the entire way to the northernmost tip of Ireland, and 76-year-old Paddy Davis led the pack most of the way back. Davis and the elder Lally, along with many of the other septuagenarian riders joining us, still race weekly in Irish handicap road races. Eighty-year-old cross-country-ski Olympian (1968 and 1972) Bob Gray gracefully pedaled Mamore, despite being too busy running his Vermont farm in the summer to ride his bike.

My e-bike to the rescue

Lennard Zinn
Photo: Brad Kaminski

Happily, I rode all of these stages despite a heart condition requiring me to keep my heart rate below 120bpm; this is thanks to my e-bike. Though, at 61, being one of the youngest participants, I was the only one with motor assist, although if we ever have another reunion, I doubt I’ll be alone. My bike, without which I could no longer do such an event and with which I thoroughly enjoyed myself, was welcomed by the other riders. Perhaps running retro silk tubular tires on it helped, which I do not only for performance, weight, and nostalgia reasons, but also for comfort thanks to their large size (30mm Challenge Strada Bianca Seta Extra tubulars) that I pump to 60psi, rather than the 23mm silks at 120psi many of us used to race on back in the day.

The bike was ideal for this application. Not only could I easily keep up while preventing my heart’s effort level from exceeding that of a brisk walk, but on the super-steep climb of the Gap of Mamore, I also could get photos nobody else could get. I was able to zoom up ahead, ditch my bike and take photos of every participant, hop back on and pass everyone again, stop and get more photos and still get back on and to the top in time to snap the money shot of Humphreys celebrating his 75th birthday by coming over the top of the climb that had daunted him 46 years prior. Best of all, I could do that while having an enormous amount of fun and enjoying the social aspect of cycling that riding alone to avoid over-stressing my heart cannot.

The ageless Sean Lally said that riding with me had opened his eyes about e-bikes and how he will be riding in the future. He is well aware that, even though his dad kept racing until age 87, he is only nine years away from that and can’t expect to indefinitely ride as strongly as he does. John Howard works as a professional cycling coach and remarked that, “over half of my known fellow age-group riders, irrespective of where they are from, have confessed to having heart issues.” When riders like that want to keep doing the sport they love, I fully expect high-performance e-bikes to be the wave of the future. Unfortunately, former Raleigh Team rider Bobby Phillips, winner of more races from intermediates through the junior and senior ranks than any other American, was not on an e-bike at this event; he has had six cardiac ablation operations and had to turn back early on our rides due to his heart acting up.

For his 75th birthday, Bill Humphreys organized a reunion bike tour in Ireland for the first week in August for Americans and Canadians who raced in the Tour of Ireland back in the day.

Since it’s not permitted to fly with big lithium-ion batteries (or to ship them without hazmat certification), the major challenge of traveling overseas with an e-bike is finding a battery to use at the destination. Thanks to Trek Ireland, I had a battery for this event. My hope is that battery rental becomes readily available for intercontinental trips of e-bike riders who don’t fit on rental e-bikes, or who want performance, fit, and comfort for extended riding beyond the utilitarian e-bikes currently in rental fleets.

The Tour of Ireland left an indelible impact on all of us who were at this reunion. It was a great event, and I could talk at length about how occurrences at it have impacted me for my entire life. It was evocative to revisit that time and renew those recollections. Celebrating the CRC of A Raleigh Team by returning to the site of its successful first European adventure was particularly appropriate, as that team paved the way for future Americans to enjoy excellence in professional road racing.

Its first foray across the Atlantic, and the first for an American team, was to race the 1973 Tour of Ireland. The confidence and experience its riders gained there led to success after success in subsequent years. Memorializing that with great bike riding on those same roads rekindled old memories, deepened longtime friendships and created new ones, and generally warmed the hearts of all at this reunion. I’m thankful that e-bike technology allowed me to join in this joyful circumnavigation around Ireland. My deepest appreciation goes out to Bill Humphreys for his persistence in making this event a reality.

Happy 75th, Bill!