The latest in our increasingly inaccurately titled series of 5 minute profiles is Brian Ahern, for whom brevity isn't a strongpoint! For answers to every question that we thought to ask him, and a handful more that we didn't, read on...
Years with Orwell: I was a member from 1993 – 2000; then returned in 2004 so about 13 years altogether.
How did you get into cycling?
It’s my brother Colm’s fault. As a kid I played every sport going but my main sports were tennis and Gaelic football. I used to play the underage tennis tournaments where I was a quarter finalist at best and I was playing GAA with my school and St. Brigid’s club. My brother is 4 years older than I am and started racing U/16. He used to give me abuse saying that I should play a proper hard man sport like cycling. I did my first race in Kildare as an U/12 on my Dad’s 26” Tony Doyle Ammacco racer. After towing the bunch around the 10kms I free-wheeled to 3rd place in the gallop.
I raced U/14 the following year and won the first race of the season by about 2 minutes on my own and thought this sport is easy. I continued to race through the underage ranks but never won a national title. Not because I wasn’t good enough but partially because I never trained, and partially because I wasn’t cute enough. I continued to play all sports through my teenage years but only trained about once a week at most. I was too self conscious about going out on a bike wearing lycra afraid that somebody would see me. Kids can be so cruel.
When did you choose cycling as your primary sport?
I ended up taking cycling seriously by accident (sort of). I was playing in the U/16 Dublin semi-final with my school, St. Declan’s (alongside current Dublin players Alan Brogan, Barry Cahill and Declan Lally) and I dislocated my shoulder. I really mangled it and dislocated it twice more in ‘97 and ‘98. As a result I hardly raced as a first year junior. I had an operation on the shoulder in October ’98 on the same day that Mark Scanlon returned to Ireland after winning the Junior World Championships. I remember watching him on TV from the hospital bed and thinking that I’d love to ride the worlds next year. I started on the bike with zero fitness in January 1999, found myself a coach - Mark Kiely, and we sat down and devised a master plan. I won the Junior Tour in August later that year and rode the Junior World Champs in Verona in October so I guess it was mission accomplished.
What made you choose Orwell Wheelers?
I just did what the older brother did so by default ended up in the best club in the country.
What types of cycling/racing do you do and what do you enjoy about it?
I’m a racing cyclist first and foremost. I have grown to love going out on my bike and I now find the best way to relax and de-stress is to go out on the bike for a few hours. I think that I only really started to appreciate it once I started working and my free time became more precious. To be able to just head off up the Wicklow mountains when the sun is shining on a nice day must be one of the most relaxing and therapeutic things in the world.
However, I have to admit that as much as I love just riding around the place for the sake of it, there’s nothing better than the buzz of racing. When you get to that top level of fitness you just feel so good and find yourself walking around with a spring in your step. You sleep better, wake up fresher and just have loads of energy!
What bikes do you own, and why are you still riding around on those old 36 spoke box-sections?
I have actually ordered myself a new bike and will be riding a Stevens Ventoux in a few weeks time.
I currently race on a Trek Madonne 5.5 that I have had for about 6 years and as you mention I use “old” 36 spoke wheels. OK they may not make you go “faster” as such but I don’t think they slow you down too much either. I find nothing wrong with those standard wheels and I think a lot of people are guilty of some Celtic tiger purchases over the last few years when it came to wheels. I finished 6th on a ras stage in ’07 with the same set of wheels so I wouldn’t knock them! If on the other hand the club is offering me a free set of carbon wheels for the season then I gratefully accept!
I ride to work and do my winter training on a Ridley Cyclocross bike that I bought with the intention of riding cross races but I only did 1 cross race and said “Good God I don’t think that’s for me”. Savage races those...The cross bike is handy during the winter on the slippy roads when I can use the thicker tyres.
I also have a time-trial bike that I got built up with my old LOOK 386 road frame. My intention was to use it for triathlons but I only raced on it once and used it about 3 times in total.
I got a blue and yellow “RMX” off Santa when I was 3 and I still have that. It’s a little beauty.
I’m by no means a bike enthusiast. As a mechanic I can put on and take off wheels, use allen keys, oil my chain and just about fix punctures and that’s about as much as I can do. When people are having conversations about performance of Campagnolo V’s Shimano or stiffness V’s flex of frames I just nod along like Joey from friends cracking on to know what they’re talking about. I have never used a power-meter and I have never mapped a route online. I haven’t even used a heart rate monitor or speedometer for years. I’m a fairly simple man really.
Tell us about placing 2nd to Malcolm Elliot in the Rás, and then getting wiped out the next day.
The coming 2nd was the best result of my career. I hate saying it because coming 2nd basically means that I was a loser and I think Malcolm Elliot was 42 years of age at the time. It’s disgraceful really. It was a bizarre day. It was stage 5 of the 2004 ras from Caherciveen to Millstreet which was about 160kms. Being stage 5 I was wrecked to begin with but I remember settling into the stage quite nicely and riding over the top of Inchee mountain 1st cat climb quite comfortably with the leading peloton. Inchee mountain has a really narrow descent and I punctured in the worst possible spot just on a little dangerous turn on a bridge. Because the road was so narrow the team cars couldn’t overtake the riders who were dropped so I ended up waiting what must have been about 8 minutes for a wheel change finally done by Liam Walker of the Kilcullen club who was doing neutral service. I got back on the bike really thinking that’s my stage over with. I was thinking I‘d be happy to just find a happy group and doddle on to the finish and save myself for the next stage.
Then David Lane who was driving the team car pulls up next to me and Eamon Finn sticks his head out the window telling me to get in behind the car, but I was thinking it was a lost cause! I just wanted to make them feel like they were doing a good job as managers and I didn’t want to seem ungrateful to them for giving up their time to look after us for the week by not trying!
The next 20 kms was some of the craziest stuff I have ever done on a bike. I was in behind the car doing 65+kph not panicking just keeping the lads entertained, still thinking I wouldn’t be seeing the peloton again anytime soon. Then the back of the cavalcade came into sight and I thought – nice one! Maybe I will catch them. I remember Dave skilfully driving up the outside of the cavalcade with me still stuck to his bumper going around bends on narrow twisting pot-holed roads. It was complete madness but we all do stupid things when the adrenaline is pumping. The hammer was down in the bunch but I finally made contact just as we hit an exposed windy main road. The problem was that I was sitting last man in a lineout of about 150 riders. Not the place to be. I was riding around guys who were getting dropped and eventually couldn’t close a gap myself and got dropped. I really dug deep and kept chasing and after spending a long time in the cavalcade I eventually made it back up to the peloton that was down to about 100 riders at that stage, and I was happy to be there.
I was never so happy to see the 10kms to go sign and just told myself to battle on and try to finish in the bunch. BUT there were still guys being dropped and when that’s happening it’s so much easier to be at the front of the bunch, so I started to manoeuvre my way towards the front half of the peloton, which isn’t so easy when the bunch is doing 50kph and you’re on your last legs. Then I found myself with 5 kms to go thinking that it’s not every day that you have a chance to compete for a ras stage win, so I’ll give it an ould lash! I wasn’t even sure we were sprinting for the win but I found myself about 20 riders back with 1km to go. I was hoping to hold on for a top 20 or maybe even nick a top 10! Happy days. Then one of the British rider’s wheel blew out with about 800 meters to go, and as he pulled out to the right he seemed to take a few other riders out to the right side of the road and I dived down the gap that had opened up like a mad man. I left it quite late to open up my sprint but absolutely hammered up the outside coming around a lot of guys and I felt like I was the fastest finisher just pipping Paul Griffin of the Kerry team for 2nd, and finished about 1 bike length behind Elliot who had sprinted on the other side of the road. I was absolutely elated. The first man up to me was none other than El presidente Eddie Lynch, who had made the trip down to see the finish and was probably expecting to see us all arriving in with the stragglers, but instead sees me up there with the best of them. It was a day I’ll never forget. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face and I got an added bonus of getting the blue stage winners jersey because Elliot was in the green points jersey.
THEN there was the next stage as you so eloquently referred to as “getting wiped”. And you’re right too. I was riding along nicely in the blue jersey feeling like I was the man and ready to give this stage another lash with the stage finish at the top of Seskin hill. About 10kms past Fermoy we went through a feed zone. You all would have seen the feed zones on TV. A rider take a musette off the team soigneur at the road-side, takes out fresh bottles and places the race food in their pockets before launching the empty musette over the ditch out of harm’s way. However, in this instance an idiot from Germany decided to toss his musette carelessly to his left. I remember it so vividly almost like it happened in slow motion. The musette almost got caught in an Usher rider’s bike but somehow untangled itself and went straight into my front brake sending me flying over the bars and I landed heavily breaking my left collarbone. I remember being on the ground trying to get up but I couldn’t move. The race doctor was out straight away and diagnosed the break and told me that I’d have to retire. Hero to zero is one way to explain it. The body was so tired after 6 days of racing that the fall really rattled me. It could have been so much worse though. My helmet was cracked in 2 and it really makes you think what if.....
One of the most frustrating things is that the guy who dropped that musette is now a proper pro and will probably be riding Roubaix and Flanders in a few weeks time. Not that I’m keeping track of his career and living in a world of bitterness or anything! AND my lovely blue jersey was ripped to shreds although I wouldn’t let the nurse in the hospital cut it off me....
Your greatest cycling highs/achievements?
Winner Junior Tour of Ireland 1999,
A few top 10 Ras stage finishes: 2nd, 5th, 6th, 8th.....
Ras in 2003; 21st on GC; 4th Irish rider; 4th U/23 behind 3 guys who are now on pro-tour teams.
5th in a Belgian U/23 race
I have won about 10 senior 1st category races
Rode junior worlds in Verona, U/23 Europeans in Athens and Bergamo
I was on the Irish team that won the team prize overall in the Tour of Malaysia in 2002.
Your biggest cycling lows/disappointments?
That musette incident is probably top of the list of lows but there have been many others. Getting a hammering wearing the Irish national jersey is probably the most disappointing. The one that stands out for me was at the 3-day stage race, the Tour de la Somme in Northern France. It was my first race on the senior national team as an innocent 20 year old. The hail stones came down after about 20kms into the first stage and the speed jumped up and it was just carnage. I was outside the time limit and after the stage I was taken straight to the airport where I had to wait for a free seat on a flight home. At least they gave me a lift to the airport though and didn’t make me cycle there.
Tell us about your time racing abroad and your eventual decision to return home to study and pursue a career?
As a first year senior I went to Holland and raced criteriums for 1 month. I stayed with the same gentleman Michelle Geogheghan is now staying with just outside Gouda, and he really looked after me well. That was brilliant riding 80km criteriums 3 times per week. They close down a town and there could be 5,000 people out watching the race. I think I lasted about 25 minutes in the first race I did there and thought I’d never get the hang of it. Before I came home I ended up winning a few primes and finished 15th in one of them that was 100 laps of an 800m circuit with 7 turns on it. It was a brilliant introduction to international racing and I’d certainly recommend it. It was a lovely pace of life in Holland and people are so ridiculously helpful, healthy and fit looking over there!
I then went to France after that for 1 month and stayed in the house of the Wasquehal club near the Belgian border. That was tougher going in a fairly boring part of the world but a great experience at the same time.
The first 2 years of the Sean Kelly cycling academy I spent the summers over in Belgium flying home for big races or flying to wherever the Irish national teams would take me. Those were great times. The Belgians are mad about cycling and they loved to see Irish guys racing there because of 1 man - Sean Kelly. He is still such an icon over there it’s unbelievable. Amateur racing is incredibly strong over there.
Life as a fulltime cyclist is a funny one and when you’re not on the bike you should be sleeping or eating. Some the lads had no problem flicking through the 6 different MTV stations all day long, but that used to drive me bonkers. I find it hard to sit still at the best of times and the amount of idle time we used to have just didn’t suit me.
I think I always knew that I was never good enough to make a career out of cycling. My way of looking at it was that as long as I was good enough to be on Irish teams and get to fly around to different places I should make the most of it. Once you go beyond U/23 level you don’t get as many opportunities and when the likes of Philip Deignan came through a few years behind me and I saw the raw talent he had I realised I really wasn’t in that league at all.
As for the career change, it all comes back to that musette incident when I was sitting at home, injured with nothing to do at 23 years of age with no job and I thought I should probably cop myself on and do something before I become unemployable. I joined the Bank of Ireland graduate accountancy programme which meant I went back studying and unfortunately professional exams and top level competitive cycling don’t go too well together.
Who are the best riders you have raced against (or with) in your cycling career?
I’ll be accused of name dropping now but I have ridden against some class riders.
Junior worlds had Cancellara, Cunego, Pozzatto....
Europeans: Visconti, Albasini, Valverde...
Riders from the ras: Stefan Schumacher, Andre Greipel, Thomas Lovkvist, Ronnie Brannigan, Tony Martin (who finished a measley13th the day I was 6th into Sligo and with who I was chatting to while we were both waiting in dope control after the stage the following day).
In Belgium and Holland the top guys were Johan Van Summeren who was an absolute beast, Thomas Dekkers, Hans Dekkers, Greg van Avermaet.
I also found a startlist from the Mi-Aout Bretonne in France from 2001 where I raced against Floyd Landis when he was on the Mercury team. He didn’t stand out at the time.
I was on Irish national teams with quality riders including Philip Deignan, Mark Scanlon and Nicolas Roche and many people probably don’t know this but Nicolas and I were the only 2 Orwell underage riders for a few years. I think he’s 3 years my junior and it was nice to be reunited on the senior national teams.
Your favourite training route/coffee stop?
Strawberry beds, Lucan, Newcastle, Saggart, Brittas, Sally-gap, Laragh, Wicklow Gap, Blessington lakes and homeback through Lucan. From the Strawberry beds if I can sprint up Somerton lane at the side of Castleknock hotel at the end of it I know I’m going well. It’s about 5hrs 15mins. What makes the spin even better is my wife nearly always has the dinner on the table when I get home! She makes a mighty sweet potato and red pepper soup and her quiche and lasagne’s are mighty. I start to salivate when I’m close to home thinking about the food that’s going to be waiting for me.
As for coffee stops this won’t be a popular one among the Orwell socialites but I don’t really do these too often anymore. I don’t think we have the weather for it! I used to love the lazy days off over in Belgium and Holland though. A 30min ride in the sunshine to a cafe and sit back in a pretty town square and watch the world go by in no rush to go anywhere. That was the life.
What music is on your MP3 Player now?
People are about to lose a whole lot of respect for me. This isn’t all necessarily cycling music but....
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett, Michael Buble, Queen, Girls A’loud, Take That, Westlife, Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, Taylor Swift and I have been known to do intervals while listening to “Eye of the tiger” on repeat.
For the last few weeks on the nice bright mornings I’ve been doing 1.5hrs before work while listening to “Marty in the morning on lyric FM – where life sounds better”.
Obviously your wife has put some of that music on your I-pod?
It’s now 4 years since you last rode the Rás, will we see you back at that level again in the near future? (and/or)Tell us a little about your plans for the coming cycling season?
I’d like to win a proper A1 race. Paddy’s day was only a handicap!
As for the ras, I would love to ride it again this year, however unfortunately I may not get the time off work to ride it and it’s not looking good. I won’t know until after Easter which is not really ideal but I’m going to try to train properly anyway. I can always try to peak for the club hill-climb champs that are on the week before.
I’ll be riding the Ras Mumhan over the Easter bank holiday and I hope to gain good form out of that. You only feel the benefits a few weeks after these races.
And finally, what advice would you have for young riders who are dreaming of going places in cycling?
I’m not going to lie and say that it’s easy out there. Don’t do it for the money anyway! It sounds cliché but you really have to enjoy the bike and that’s fact. It’s a fantastic sport and if you get the chance to race abroad for a spell I’d say go for it and try to progress from there.
I think Greg Lemond summed it up when he said “It never gets any easier – you just go faster”.