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Success after setbacks: Eddie Dunbar delivers on his potential with breakthrough win

Eddie Dunbar finally clocked up his first professional victory at the Coppi e Bartali. The Irishman spoke to VeloNews about the setbacks he has faced and his belief that the best is yet to come.

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When Eddie Dunbar won the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali last week with a focused, assured performance, he was coming good on a statement he had made at the start of the year. Speaking to VeloNews in early January, the Ineos Grenadiers rider talked about the bad luck that had held him back over the years and his certainty that he’d find success once he had a better run of things.

“I know what I am capable of,” he said then. “If I can just stay upright this year, and do what I can to stay illness-free and injury-free, I know what I can do when all that comes together.”

Things have now duly come together. Dunbar reached new heights over five days in Italy, clocking up his first victory since turning professional and translating his considerable potential into confirmed achievement.

He lit the kindling on stage 1 with a searing attack on the second category Montefiore Conca climb, approximately 27 kilometers from the finish, dropping the rest of the field. And while he was joined on the descent by Mauro Schmid (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) and then outsprinted at the line, the Swiss rider cracked the following day and Dunbar took over as race leader.

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From that point on he tightened his grip on the jersey. He played the team card perfectly on stage three’s summit finish, marking rivals when his Ineos Grenadiers’ teammate Ben Tulett attacked and then gapping them closer to home to nab second place.

He and the team then controlled things in the final two stages to ensure that he and Tulett finished first and second overall.

The victory is Dunbar’s first since taking the youth version of the Tour of Flanders in 2017, and his first since turning professional the following season. He’s gone close on many occasions but to finally top the podium really takes a load off his mind.

“I think the biggest emotion is just relief,” he told VeloNews.

“I always felt like I could win bike races, but I haven’t really had had the best run in the last few years. For it to finally click in the last few days was incredible, really. It felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders.

“There was a lot of expectation. And I put pressure on myself a lot sometimes as well. Something kept me going all these years. It’s nice now to just get the monkey off the back and hopefully just kick on from here.”

The value of persistence

Eddie Dunbar (Ineos Grenadiers) in action
Eddie Dunbar competes during the 36th Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali 2022 – Stage 5  (Photo by Dario Belingheri/Getty Images) (Photo: Getty)

Dominant as a junior and under 23 rider in Ireland, the Corkman’s class was obvious. He spent many of those early races up the road, attacking a long way from the finish and either riding solo to the line or else whittling down the opposition from the break. He was smaller than many of those he was up against but had a far bigger engine. He was also utterly driven to succeed.

After time with the NFTO and Axeon Hagens Berman teams, the then 21-year-old turned professional with Aqua Blue Sport in 2018. Impressive performances in the Tour de Yorkshire and the Baloise Belgium Tour were followed by second on a stage plus eighth overall in the Tour de l’Avenir. He moved across to Team Sky when Aqua Blue Sport collapsed and has been with Sky/Ineos ever since, gaining experience and amassing further results.

His potential has been obvious: despite mostly riding for others on the team he has taken a number of important placings during his career. He was third on a stage of his first Grand Tour, the 2019 Giro d’Italia, plus a solid 22nd overall. He was third overall in the Tour de Yorkshire that same year, fifth in La Route d’Occitanie-La Dépêche du Midi, sixth in the Tour de Wallonie, and seventh in the Tour de la Provence. He then returned to Provence the following year to place sixth overall.

Last season he placed fourth on the final stage of the Tour de Suisse plus 12th overall, despite riding to help teammate Richard Carapaz win.

All strong results, all signs of talent

But what’s not clear from studying his palmarès is all the times he was held back by injury or illness. That too tells a story. It also explains why he has been waiting several years to clock up his first pro win.

The complications began in May 2015 when Dunbar fractured his left collarbone on stage 1 of the Tour de Yorkshire. In April 2016 he fractured his right collarbone in a training crash in Ireland. In June 2017 he hit his head on stage 1 of the Baby Giro, suffering a concussion. He experienced headaches, mood changes, and other symptoms and while he limped on to do five further days of competition over the following two months, he ultimately had to spend several months off the bike.

In September 2020 he fractured his collarbone on stage three of Tirreno-Adriatico. He fell on the same shoulder while training one week later and was forced to miss the Giro d’Italia. He crashed out of the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali in March 2021 but fortunately avoided serious injury; he caught COVID after the 2021 Olympic Games, missed the Vuelta a España, and crashed out of the Irish road race championships in October, fortunately, avoided any fractures.

He also caught COVID a second time earlier this year, testing positive for the virus on the final day of the Etoile de Bessèges on February 6th.

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Cycling is a very tough sport and injury and illness are challenges that every rider faces. But it has been hard for Dunbar, who has had more than his share of bad luck.

How has he coped with all the setbacks?

Persistence and experience, essentially. “When it initially happens, it is hard for a day or two,” he explained. “It sounds probably really stupid, but one thing I’ve learned is that I’m so used to having a setback now that I know how to do it. I think that is a great thing to have. When something does go wrong, when there is a mishap somewhere, I actually know the process now because it’s happened to me so much. I know how to come back as best as I can.

“But certainly, at the time, it’s hard. With crashes…it’s not physically it affects me, it’s more so mentally. It’s a very hard sport and it feels like it gets harder every year. The mental effect [of crashes] is what I’d be more worried about. I’m never too concerned about the physical side of it, which does hurt too. But certainly, the mental pain is sometimes a lot worse than the physical pain.”

But what about those crashes? Does Dunbar believe it is down to misfortune, or is there something that he needs to work on, such as bike handling or his positioning in the bunch?

By and large, he feels that it has been mostly bad luck.

“I always find myself in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he replied. “And I think anyone that knows me well knows I’ll always put up my hand if it’s my fault. I’m a very honest person that way. If I do something wrong, or if I feel something was my fault, I will put up my hand and I’ll admit that. But the majority of the crashes have been bad luck…

“Okay, the Nationals [the 2021 Irish national championships], that was completely my fault. That was a bit stupid on my part, being honest. It had rained on one part of the circuit and I went into a corner there at the same speed as on the other laps, slipping on the wet road. I’m not afraid to admit that but certainly the other crashes that have happened prior to that were just bad luck.

“When you’re doing 50, 60k an hour downhill or on the flat and ten guys crash in front of you, you can’t go anywhere. You don’t have the reaction time to do it. That way I look at it because I never had an issue with bike handling growing up. Descending was never an issue when I was a junior.”

Dunbar gave a specific example of how unavoidable accidents can happen in the sport. He refers back to the Tour de Yorkshire in 2015, something he describes as his first big crash in cycling. “That was the real one that scared me, just how quick it happened. Swifty [Ben Swift] ended up in the ambulance with me after I broke my collarbone. I always joke with him, messing, saying that ‘it was your guys who called that crash,’ because the Team Sky train was on the front.

“It was a 20 percent downhill in a corner that had oil on it, and it had been raining. I think Philip Deignan was the only one that made it around the bend that day, the other five on the team crashed. I went into them. That was one that certainly wasn’t my fault, but it certainly had a big effect on me mentally.”

Cycling as a sport is chaotic, with 200-odd riders riding through terrain that twists, turns, and is littered with road furniture. Factor in oil on the roads, unpredictable weather, and other random elements and it is not surprising that riders hit the deck. There is a certain inevitability to it.

Still, even if it is just part of the sport, he said that it takes time to get your nerve again after a big fall.

“It is difficult to get that back, but it was something I built up slowly last year with a good run of racing,” he said. “In [Tour de] Suisse, I was descending fine, I was riding the bunch fine, there were no issues. It’s just a matter of getting through the first few races and building that confidence. After that, you don’t even think about it anymore.”

I know how good I can get

Dunbar’s Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali victory comes with perfect timing. Last October Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche both retired, riders who between them had taken a very considerable share of the country’s results over the past two decades. Sam Bennett has had big success in recent years in the sprints, but Martin and Roche were the standout Irish riders on hillier terrain.

Their departure left a gulf, but there was always a sense that Dunbar could be the rider to fill that gap.

Still, even though he’s stepped up a level, he believed he could have gotten to this point in his career sooner with a little more luck along the way. There is, he believed, no question but that his momentum has been affected by setbacks.

In the first half of riders’ careers, they tend to get stronger year on year. That’s partly due to the physiology of aging, but also due to the amassed racing load effectively bringing them on further. In contrast, the 25-year-old Dunbar has only done one three-week race thus far, the 2019 Giro. That’s been a source of frustration for him.

“It is two years now that I missed out on a grand tour due to injury or something else. It was really frustrating because I think doing a race like that gives you an extra gear. For sure it would have brought me on a level. And there certainly would have been opportunity there too, which is the most frustrating thing.”

“Compared to guys that are a similar age to me or even younger than me, I have nowhere near the amount of racing that they have done. But I know when I do get to race my bike how good I can get. So I think that’s positive. It all just comes back to staying upright and staying injury-free or whatever.”

As the start of the 2022 season neared, he was able to look at last year’s strong Tour de Suisse performance as proof of what he can do when he does get a good run of things.

“When I have consistency over a number of months and everything goes smoothly, I know that’s the level I can get to,” he said in January. “And I think when even more racing, who knows what level I can get to after that?”

Two-and-a-half months on from that interview, he’s now got an important win to his credit. The feeling now is that with that weight off his shoulders, Dunbar could and should go on to new heights.

So what’s coming up on his program?

He is next scheduled to ride the Itzulia Basque Country in Spain, starting on April 4th. He’ll be motivated after his recent success, but also knows that he may be asked to ride for another Ineos Grenadiers rider such as Adam Yates or Geraint Thomas. Either way, he says that he will give 110 percent.

Slightly further ahead, he’s aiming for the Giro d’Italia. Three years ago he rode well there and he’d relish the chance to return to the race again.

“Every single team has a long list for Grand Tours, so I’m on the long list for the Giro,” he says. “And I think I do the Tour of the Alps before that. So yeah, all going well in the next few weeks….”

Dunbar’s goal this year is a simple one: to ride as well as he can in whatever races he lines out in. His own athletic ambitions aside, he’s in the final year of his current contract with Ineos Grenadiers and he knows that underlining his worth is be important.

There is of course some debate about whether he’d get better opportunities elsewhere. Ineos Grenadiers has many well-established riders, including Bernal, Carapaz, and Yates. Tom Pidcock is one of the younger wave coming through who also seems assured of leadership status in stage races.

Given that Dunbar said in the past that he wants to aim for success in the Tour de France, does he see the argument in him going to another squad and enjoying a more clear-cut leader status there?

“For the last 10 years, this team has been the best Grand Tour performing team ever,” he answered. “So in terms of doing that, or being a leader in Grand Tours, I think I’m certainly in the right place. But I think that comes from me as well. If that is something I want to do, I really need to step up and start getting results, really.

“I think I’m in a good place to get supported for that.”

What will help is having his Italian win to his credit. Ineos Grenadiers will see him in a new light; perhaps, more importantly, he will see himself in a new light too.

He’s long felt he can top the podium in races, and now he’s got proof.

“It definitely gave me…not so much confidence, but reassurance,” he said. “I’d always been confident in my ability. That was one thing I never doubted. But as I’ve always said in interviews to people, if I get a good run, and if I stay injury-free and illness free, I’m confident I’m a good bike rider and the results will come.

“It’s just nice that I have something to show for that now.”