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Sean Kelly on Eddie Dunbar and Ineos Grenadiers: Moving teams ‘is the better option’

Emerging Irish rider speaks of greater confidence after taking his first two pro wins.

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Should I stay or should I go?

Given his age, Eddie Dunbar might not be a Clash fan, but if the song is not on his mind the sentiment certainly will be.

Now 25 years of age, the Irishman has been part of Team Sky/Ineos Grenadiers for the past four seasons. In that time he’s developed into a strong competitor, and notched up two important stage race victories in the space of less than two months.

Overall success in the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali on March 26th was the breakthrough result, with Dunbar netting the first win of his pro career. He then followed that up on May 15th with overall victory in the Tour de Hongrie .

The successes marked the first time since the days of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche that an Irish professional has taken two European stage race wins in the same season.

Notwithstanding his good form, though, Dunbar was passed over for selection for the Giro d’Italia. The race was a major target for him this season, most likely his biggest individual goal. Being left on the sidelines reinforced questions about whether or not he is best served by remaining part of the British team.

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With other WorldTour teams reportedly keen to sign him, Kelly feels it is time to go.

“When you are selected by Ineos, there is always a big possibility of riding for others, especially in the bigger races,” the former world number one told VeloNews recently. “In the three-weekers, there are so many guys in the team who are high up the ranking.

“So Eddie is going to be riding for them. Even getting selected for the three-weekers is a problem, and so I think a move is the best thing for him.

“If it is the case we are hearing things about teams being interested, I think that is the better option.”

Dunbar’s agent Gary McQuaid isn’t giving anything away at this point in time. He wouldn’t confirm a move away from Ineos Grenadiers; equally, he wasn’t ruling that out. But reading between the lines, it seems he and Dunbar are open to offers.

“Right now Eddie is up for contract. I can’t really comment on proceedings but nothing is signed for 2023,” he told VeloNews recently. “As his agent it’s my job to assess what is the best route forward for Eddie’s career, which we will do.”

What about Dunbar himself? He has a diplomatic character and doesn’t make off-the-cuff statements or speak out of turn. He does however admit that missing out on the Giro was very hard.

“I am not going to lie. I was very disappointed,” he told VeloNews recently. “To miss out on the Giro was probably one of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever had to receive, really. I was very down for a few days. But it gets to a point where you can keep being down or you can start to bring yourself up.

“That’s one thing I’ve learned, you can get stuck in a rut very easy. And that’s not a nice place to be after a while. I’ve been there, and I think that’s just something I’ve learned over the years, to not get into that. To just get on with it. I’m a professional, I’m very professional. I’m an honest guy, and I get paid to do a job. So I will always do it to the best of my ability.”

He underlined that by rebounding from the Giro disappointment and winning the Tour de Hongrie. “I think that’s what I showed there,” he agrees. “No matter that I was disappointed, I was still able to come back and do what I was asked. And I think that was that was very good for me, personally.”

Pressed on whether or not he will change teams, he was, as expected, as discrete as ever. However he did confirm that talks had been happening. “I think that’s only natural that that’s happening in any rider’s contract year,” he said in the wake of his Tour de Hongrie success. “So we’ll see what happens.”

A major deliberation will be weighing up the collective strength of the team he is with now versus the increased opportunities he may be given elsewhere. As regards the former, he pointed out several times in the past that Ineos Grenadiers gives very strong support to whichever rider is the designated leader.

On the other hand, though, the Giro non-selection showed that even if he is winning there is no guarantee he will get the chances he wants.

He gives nothing away, yet recognizes this moment as a potential turning point.

“I am 25 now, going on 26,” he said. “I think it is an important time in my career as well. There is a lot to think about and a lot to weigh up.”

Moving to the next level

Dunbar confirmed his talents with Hungary GC win.

It varies from person to person, but it has traditionally been said that most riders come into their prime around 27 or 28 years of age. Depending on how long Dunbar’s next contract is, it is likely that he will reach that peak with whichever team he competes for next.

He’ll turn 26 in September, meaning that the next two or three years could determine how successful his career will be. That makes his choice of future path all the more vital.

Two things are evident at this point in time. Firstly, he has stepped up a level this season. Secondly, he has plenty of scope for improvement. He has only done one grand tour thus far, less than many of his peers. Given that young riders believe each grand tour makes you stronger, he’s missed out on quite a lot.

Things started well in the 2019 Giro, the-then 22-year-old rider netting third on a stage and finishing 22nd overall. He then missed the following year’s Giro due to injury. He was scheduled to ride the 2021 Vuelta a España but caught COVID after the Olympic Games, losing out as a result.

He’ll hope to finally contest the Spanish grand tour this autumn but, either way, he’s moved to a new level this season.

Kelly has a keen interest in how Irish riders fare in the peloton, and has been keeping an eye on Dunbar. He likely sees at least one parallel with his own career.

Early on, he was mainly tasked with riding for others, including being a leadout man for Freddy Maertens, the former world champion and sprint specialist. Kelly subsequently had a career breakthrough when he won the 1982 Paris-Nice. From there he went on to be one of the most successful riders in cycling’s history.

Eddie Dunbar (Ineos Grenadiers)
Should he stay or go? Dunbar missed Giro selection in a surprise decision by Ineos. (Photo: Getty)

He was 25 at the time, the same age Dunbar is now.

Speaking about the latter’s options, he notes that he has been linked to two WorldTour teams. Out of those, he has a clear preference as to which would be the best fit.

“Jumbo-Visma and BikeExchange have been rumored. Both of them would be good,” he told VeloNews. “Of those, BikeExchange would be the one I’d be more leaning towards because there are a lot of English speakers there.

“And when you look at the roster of riders they have, I think Eddie is going to get more opportunities there that he would get in Jumbo-Visma.”

He feels the risk with the Dutch squad is that Dunbar could end up in a similar role as to now.

“In Jumbo-Visma, when you talk about the bigger tours, when you talk about Paris-Nice or the Pays Basques and then you go to the three weekers, there is always somebody there that is maybe a bit higher ranking. And then it becomes a situation again where he is going to be a domestique. Whereas with BikeExchange, I think there are much more opportunities.”

There is another factor too which could play a part. Bike Exchange is advised by Irishman Darach McQuaid, who doubtlessly would be keen to see Dunbar in its colours. His nephew Gary McQuaid is Dunbar’s agent; that family tie could in theory make negotiations a little more straightforward.

Kelly clearly remembers Darach McQuaid’s brother Pat’s own influence on the sport during and after the Kelly/Roche era. “The McQuaid clan are involved again,” he laughs.

It is of course possible that Dunbar signs with another team again. VeloNews knows of a third WorldTour squad which was interested in bringing him on board; there may well be others.

Whatever the destination, Kelly sees that Dunbar is starting to come into his own. Five years after he won the U23 Tour of Flanders, he believes now is the time for Dunbar to start getting—and making the most of—more opportunity.

“Eddie is performing really well now,” Kelly says. “That’s a great thing, because he’s in contract negotiations. And when you’re winning, it’s always a good place to be.

“He’s had this potential for a long time, I think. He’s been so unlucky, with crashes at the wrong time. His bike handling has probably let him down in some of that, but some of that is bad luck as well.

“As I said to him last year, ‘we all had that. You get a run where you might crash two or three times, even four times in one season. And then you might get a run where you mightn’t have anything really at all. You could get a run of two or three years [without problems].’”

“Eddie’s confidence was a little bit dinted because he was after having a few crashes. So these results will give him strong morale now, because of taking those wins, and also because the possibility of moving looks on the cards.”

Dunbar does indeed say that his morale has been boosted. He said that the two victories have done a lot for his confidence.

“It’s good. It’s reassuring that what I’m doing is right, in terms of my training and working closely with Rok, my coach [the Australian Leigh Bryan – ed.]. We obviously have a good balance and the way we’re training is right.

“It’s just another step in the right direction. Learning how to win these bike races. I learned a lot from Hungary, which is good. And the more I can put myself in that position, the more I’m going to learn. And the more often I can win too, you know?”

This week Dunbar rode well at times in the Critérium du Dauphiné.

He was up to 14th overall after the third stage and even if he slipped back from there, losing time in the time trial and having an unexpected off day on Saturday’s mountain stage, he will bounce back again.

What’s key is that he has a sense of momentum as a result of his stage race victories.

“I’m in a contract year,” he said in the wake of the Tour de Hongrie. “So picking up a couple of wins is important. I think most riders would be happy with one win in the year, so to have two now is, I think, great timing.

“I’m just relieved that the work I’ve put in is starting to pay off. Hopefully it’ll continue. I will just keep doing what I’m doing. I’m not going to change anything. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing and whatever races I get put into, I know I’ll be good there.”

Dauphiné off day aside, he will be back and riding strongly again soon.

He knows that, Ineos Grenadiers knows that, and other teams know that too.