Shay O’Hanlon Four Times Rás Winner
‘O’Hanlon rode alone’ is one of the more perceptive observations of Shay O’Hanlon, as offered by one of his contemporaries.
Four outright wins, 24 stage wins and 37 Yellow Jerseys powerfully demonstrate his stature as the most successful Rás rider ever. Such bare statistics, however, merely provide evidence of a phenomenal physical capacity and do little to reveal an equally remarkable intellect. Like the efforts of his peers to signify the essence of O’Hanlon through examples of his feats, the revisiting of a few of the seminal scenes from his Rás career may provide some fleeting illustrations of his combination of acumen and athletic ability which, arguably, produced the most dominant rider ever in Irish domestic cycling.Rás veterans generally like to reminisce about the great Rás riders of their era and, like any sport, the exploits of past masters and the revisiting in the mind’s eye of epic sporting scenes leads to a flow of descriptive and colourful discussion. Enquiry about Shay O’Hanlon, however, provokes a perceptible difference in reaction – a response that hints at an elusive dimension difficult to articulate. His peers, in attempting to describe his qualities as a rider, sometimes struggle to find superlatives; emotion is visibly stirred, while the body language suggests a slight discomfort at an inability to adequately express their sense of him – ‘What can you say about O’Hanlon?’ Personal reminiscences are quickly reverted to – scenes that are burned in the memories of those who rode with him and which might illustrate those subtle qualities: ‘I’ll never forget the day…’
The Phoenix Park, 1962, is one such scene. It is the end of the final stage of the Rás and O’Hanlon rides into the park, on his own, wearing the Yellow Jersey. He is well ahead of the field and almost twenty minutes clear of the next-placed rider on GC. The usual enormous crowd is there to witness the finish and he is on his own to savour it – there is no distraction of a contested sprint as he crosses the line. This exhibition is telling enough in itself, but its real significance lies in the fact that it is the clinical, calculated execution of a Rás-win scenario which O’Hanlon conceived twelve months previously when, frustrated at being denied a win by an unlucky roll of the tactical dice, he resolved to cap his first Rás victory in precisely this way.
The first stage of the 1965 Rás, from Dublin to Monaghan, is the arena for another such illustrative scene. O’Hanlon is riding in a lead bunch. One of the Dublin support team, Mick Glancy, comes up to the group on a motorcycle and makes eye contact with O’Hanlon. With a gesture of his head, he urges him to attack. It is not considered wise to assume the burden of the Yellow Jersey on the first stage and O’Hanlon shakes his head at Glancy, who then retreats. But Glancy returns and the scene is repeated, except that at the second urging, O’Hanlon accepts the advice. He wins the first stage and takes the Yellow Jersey. Then he retains it, for a full three years. From the first stage in 1965, to the final stage in 1967, the combined efforts of all of his rivals are unable to wrest the Jersey from his back and no other man wears it in the Rás for these three years.
The 1961 Rás provides what is, perhaps, the most telling image of all. Mick Christle has orchestrated the break into Castlebar that that has left most of the field, including O’Hanlon, eighteen minutes down. To all observers, the race is effectively over for anybody who has missed the decisive move. It is evening, the fluster of the day has died down and O’Hanlon is resting in his room. He takes a copy of GC sheet and studies it. There are eighteen men ahead of him on the list, some with an eighteen-minute advantage. The nineteen-year-old then ticks off names, one by one, as he resolve to overtake each of the eighteen over the next seven stages. An average gain of approximately 2.5 minutes per stage, sustained for seven days, should be beyond the expectation of any rider. But this he effectively achieves and gets to within 1-minute 40seconds of the leader, Tom Finn, at the Wicklow Gap on the final day. Team loyalty forces him to forgo further gain when he is instructed by his manager to assist Finn, his team-mate. This GC sheet, still in existence and with O’Hanlon’s notes and marks on it, is possibly the most striking, almost chilling metaphor for the phenomenon that was ‘O’Hanlon’.
Shay O’Hanlon was Dublin-born and christened Séamus – the derivative Sé was also used. To cyclists, he was only known as O’Hanlon and, in some Dublin cycle circles, simply ‘O’H’. To media and the public, he was Shay. As a schoolboy, he joined his local club Clann Brugha Club. His family had little inkling of his enormous potential and, at one point, his father forbade him completely from cycling when he arrived home from a day-long trip well after dark – O’Hanlon had taken a school friend on one of his excursions into the Wicklow Mountains but did not fully understand the limits of a normal youngster. His companion became exhausted and had to be pushed much of the way home. Jim Killean intervened on his behalf – O’Hanlon’s father and Killean had been comrades in the War of Independence and this connection saved his fledging career.
By the time he was sixteen, O’Hanlon was going to the Phoenix Park and challenging some of the top Dublin riders in training sessions – he was intensely competitive from the beginning. He began racing in 1958 and travelled with the Rás that year, selling programmes and doing other such jobs. The event then had enormous prestige in the Irish sporting calendar, but O’Hanlon had no sense of its short history – to him, it might have been there forever.
He entered his first Rás in 1959, a month short of his eighteenth birthday. He intended to win, but youthful exuberance and the excitement of the first stage overcame him. He rode aggressively, as if on a single stage race, ‘blew up’, lost twenty minutes and finished in 84th position. Undeterred, he began clawing back time during the week and challenged for the last stage in the familiar Wicklow Mountains. He was denied a stage win by the ‘Iron Man’, Mick Murphy, who had won the Rás the previous year, but O’Hanlon nevertheless finished second on the stage and thirteenth overall.
Cyclists noted O’Hanlon’s extensive training during the winter of 1959-60, leading to much speculation about his potential for the coming season. This was answered with a stunning early-season display – he won seven races in a row, including road races, time trials and three-day events. He also won the prestigious Caltex Award for best cyclist of the tear. Nevertheless, he was thwarted by Paddy Flanagan, who gained the first of his three Rás wins. It was the beginning of one of the great rivalries of the Rás and a long-term battle that lasted around 25 years.
1961 saw more brilliant performances from O’Hanlon and he was to again win the Caltex Award. Early in the season, he created a sensation by breaking the 2-hour barrier in the 50-mile time trial. This had never been achieved in Ireland and was only achieved in Britain in 1947. The NCA record had stood at 2.03.47 for many years until O’Hanlon reduced it to 2.01.40 in a competition in 1690 and, in the process, knocked 1 second off Shay Elliot’s ‘official’ CRE Irish record. In a special challenge to his own record in May 1960, O’Hanlon broke the magical 2-hour barrier at 1.59.28, in unfavourable conditions. This display of form helped make him favourite for the 1961 Rás, but defeated by Tom Finn was another blow, not softened by his three consecutive stage wins.
O’Hanlon’s approach to the 1962 Rás was greatly influenced by the circumstances which had conspired to frustrate his hopes of victory in the previous three editions of the event. From these defeats, a strategy evolved that was relatively simple, with no tactical fineries or grand team strategy if other riders were to beat him, they had to catch him first and then they had to get away from him. In that year’s Rás, O’Hanlon made a solo, all-out, frontal attack on the race, charging relentlessly from the front, every day. Help was not anticipated or expected and regarded as a bonus if provided. He took the lead on the second day, but a conventional, prudent defence of the Yellow Jersey was a concept he refused to entertain – he rode each stage as if it were and individual, single stage race that had to be won, and without any conservation of energy.
It was a tactical approach that could only have been contemplated by somebody who was either very naïve, desperate, or self-assured regarding his ability. In this case, a potent combination of desperation and self-assurance produced and explosive performance. He was ‘head and shoulders’ above everyone else, and vstly superior to the best efforts of any team or any combination of rivals. He held the race lead for seven days, won four stages and finished 19 minutes 4 seconds in front – the biggest winning margin ever. It was the finest individual display ever produced in a Rás.
This win was not entirely without difficulty and a tewm-mate, Sonny Cullen, was his main threat over the first few days. Cullen and Jimmy Kennedy had transferred from the CRE to the NCA that year folllowing a petty argument over not being allowed to keep their Irish jerseys after competing in the World Championships. Cullen was a former CRE national champion and he and Kennedy were friends. Among the hard-core NCA riders, there was a certain resentment of former CRE riders and a feeling that their transfer of allegience was motivated less by ideolgy than by the prospect of easier prizes in supposedly inferior races. Along with this, there was a concern that a Rás win by a former CRE rider might give crenence to the CRE claim that the Rás standard was inferior to the CRE’s Tour of Ireland. This put extra pressure on O’Hanlon. Cullen kept chipping away at his lead and got to within two minutes, but by the time they reached the mountains, the contest was over. Exactly as he had visualised a year earlier, O’Hanlon made a defining statement to himself, and to everyone else, by arriving on his own at the Phoenix Park finish.
As with Gene Mangan, the cycling hero of his youth, the lure of French racing now had to be satisfied and, in 1963, with the assistance of Joe Christle, O’Hanlon went to the Perpignan region, where Mangan had previously been based. As with Mangan’s situation, there was difficulty with his licence, so Christle contrived to print a licence for him, using the Irish verion of NCA-Gaelchumann Rothaíochta na hÉireann. This was confusingly similar to the Irish version of the CRE- Cumann Rothaíochta na hÉireann – and O’Hanlon raced successfully under this guise for a full season. But it was no more than a stop-gap measure and, as with Mangan, O’Hanlon was faced with the option of either joining the CRE or abandoning any serious ambitions of a professional career on the continent. Given his family’s republican background and his own loyalty to the NCA, he returned home at the end of the season.
What O’Hanlon and Mangan might have achieved in different circumstances remains one of the speculative questions from the history of Irish cycling. The denial of this potential, together with the personal costs to the individual, provides a compelling argument against a political role for sportspeople. Many feel their treatment was unjust and exploitative. An equally compelling and contrary argument, however, is that the considered and wilful decision of such athletes to make a sacrifice demonstrated the virtue and legitimacy of the cause.
The true personal cost of their allegiance can only be surmised as, for both men, cycling was integral to their self-identity and individuality. They had to reconcile themselves to untested and unfulfilled aspirations due to political beliefs, and to being both champions and casualties of a wider ideological struggle. Thus, they became true amateurs, without even the hope of representing Ireland at Olympic or World Championship level. They slipped back into the NCA domestic scene and became typical family men, with cycling inevitably subordinated to work and domestic demands. To be able to ride the Rás during their annual holidays offered welcome consolation. Yet, their sacrifice was not completely without recompense. Christle and the NCA were highly conscious of their role as champions of the NCA and they enjoyed an enormous public profile due to Christle’s promotional ability and efforts. It was a two-way relationship. Shay O’Hanlon, in a reflection years later, turned to Gray’s ‘Elegy’ to express his estimation of the obscurity and lost opportunity that might have been their lot without Christle’s efforts and the role of the Rás.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
O’Hanlon sold his bike before leaving France at the end of 1963 and arrived home to Ireland almost penniless. It was February before he was able to begin training properly and he was not fully prepared for the 1964 Rás. That was to be Paddy Flanagan’s year – he got his second win and the Caltex Award for best cyclist of the year.
The 1964 Rás was also remembered for an intrepid stage win by Gene Mangan. Though not very fit for that year, he reconnoitred the finish of the first stage, into Carlow, and noted that although the finish was on a new road, the old road – running alongside – was still open. Mangan perceived an opportunity. It was a bunch finish, with Mangan at the back, but coming to the line, he jumped onto the old road to pass the bunch. His line went wrong, however, and he somehow ended up on the footpath while passing the bunch. He only jumped off, in the lead, when the footpath became too crowded with spectators, but he had won the stage and the Yellow Jersey. His method was criticised by some as it was supposed to be a road race and footpaths should not be allowed. But his tactic was generally admired for its boldness. Nevertheless, he took a hammering the next day because of his lack of fitness and, to add to his many unique distinctions in the Rás, he became the first of only two men to abandon the event while wearing the Yellow Jersey and the only uninjured leader to do so. O’Hanlon, though not fully fit by his own standards, still managed to win two stages.
The 1965 Rás was the beginning of O’Hanlons three-year domination of the event. Interestingly, he himself considered his best period as a rider to have been from 1960-63. Nevertheless, O’Hanlon’s unbroken run of Yellow Jerseys, from 1965-67, remains his most outstanding achievement. He began the 1965 race as determined as he had been in 1962 and rode to win every stage even though he was race leader from the first day. Paddy Flanagan did not ride, as he had left to work in England, but it was still a difficult race for O’Hanlon. On several occasions, the race seemed lost due to tactical errors, yet he always managed to claw his way back into contention.
He won four stages and his final winning margin from Seán Lally was almost eight minutes.
O’Hanlon had a French team to contend with in 1966, led by Jean Bellay, a former professional who had completed the Tour de France. The French riders were an exotic addition to the Rás and a product of Christle’s efforts to give the event an international dimension as well as to improve the NCA standard through exposure to a high standard of racing. Joe Christle’s decision to extend the race to ten days was welcomed by O’Hanlon and other strong riders, but added considerably to the challenge for the average riders. But though the duration was increased, there was a significant shift in emphasis to shorter stages. Christle explained his reasoning in a press release
The long mileage had often been criticised as too severe for amateurs and as making the race into an endurance test … in the earlier years of the Rás it was not unusual for a rider to go into a house along the road, have a meal and a rest and then set off again … now speed replaces endurance, although it will still take exceptional stamina…
As well as the French, O’Hanlon had Paddy Flanagan to grapple with again, along with Mike O’Donaghue of Carlow and Jimmy Kennedy of Dublin. Gene Mangan also caused problems. He set his own agenda, attacking early and often, forcing O’Hanlon and many other contenders to respond to his initiative. He won three stages in the process – one of these was into Killarney. He also won the next stage – a circuit-race around the streets of Killarney town that was the fastest Rás stage ever at that point. Motivated by a huge crowd, a prime on every lap and a cash prize of £20 (€25.50), they rode the 50km (31.25 miles) in less than an hour.
A win in the first stage – a 26-mile (41km) time trial into Navan – had given O’Hanlon the race lead and a time-cushion that provided the foundation for his ultimate win – he eventually had more than 4 minutes to spare over Ballay. From O’Hanlon’s point of view, 1966 also raised an uncomfortable question. On a stage to Ballinasloe, a group of riders – including some of the French – was ahead, while O’Hanlon, in yellow, was further back. When the race went astray, it was stopped to get it back on course. Some were dubious about this, as O’Hanlon may have received an advantage. Such was O’Hanlon’s sportsmanship, it continued to bother him and the question was never fully resolved to his satisfaction.
He had strong opposition again in 1967. Along with another French team, the main threats came from Paddy Flanagan, Ben McKenna, Mike O’Donaghue, Jimmy Kennedy and John Dorgan from Cork. Nevertheless, it was one of those races where everything went well – he made no major tactical mistakes, there were no disastrous punctures or crashes and he won from a Frenchman, Pierre Ropert, by over 8 minutes.
O’Hanlon’s four victories in the Rás were the greatest expression of an extradionary talent in Irish sport – a blend of many qualities. Like any athlete at that level, he was extremely competitive and accepted defeat poorly. A companion remembered himself and O’Hanlon cycling home from a race, when O’Hanlon threw a trophy over a ditch in disgust at it being third place. This natural talent and competitiveness was complemented by a high degree of ordered, methodical and analytical thinking. He attended to every detail and his methods took no account of fashion or convention. His position on the bike, for example, was very unusual – his saddle was very far forward so that he sat over the bottom bracket. In France, he was expected to ride a conventional set up but reverted to his normal habits when he returned home because he did not see any good reason to change. But when he returned to France in 1966 to ride in the Humanité, he bought a book by Jean Bobet and changed his position and diet accordingly, corresponding to Bobet’s clearly outlined reasoning. His training was equally structured, rigorous and thorough. He did great distance work in the winter – something he did not look on as a chore. Rather, his approach was to enjoy it as a form of fast touring – long, pleasurable trips through the countryside in the company of friends.
Of most significance, however, was O’Hanlon’s mental approach. As early as 1959, O’Hanlon was getting into decisive breaks and, though able to work in them, he was unable to achieve consistent results. Having analysed his performance, he concluded that, since his training was adequate, his mental attitude would have to change if he was to be successful. He became a firm believer in the ‘mind over matter’ maximum and had a policy of never thinking negatively – he did not allow himself to contemplate defeat, as he believed in the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. His mental discipline made it impossible to frustrate him, even under intense pressure – ‘you could sit on him, drag him, pull him or haul him, but he’d never lose his temper.’ He had a forward-looking perspective and was a keen observer, thinker and student of the mind and body. He was advanced in what later became known as the discipline of sports psychology.
The comment that ‘O’Hanlon rode alone’ expresses much more than his self-reliance, limited support and the fact that he had to do more riding than most to achieve his Rás wins – it also throws some subtle light on his psychological disposition vis-à-vishis interaction with other riders. While genial and cheerful in character, he kept private his thoughts about racing. He confided in no one and never revealed how easy or difficult a race was. As one peer remarked, ‘ His mind was a deep well’. That ‘well’ concealed insecurity about racing which was disguised by his outwardly confident demeanour. While seen as dominant and assured, he felt vulnerable and hunted on the bike. His expectations of himself verged on paranoia and everybody was a perceived threat – potential predators ready to pounce if he dropped his guard or made a mistake. Such fear provokes defensive reaction, but he converted this to a positive, aggressive type of riding.
This detachment, combined with his phenomenal ability, created an enigma. One country rider, who had only known O’Hanlon by reputation, shared accommodation with him on a couple of occasions during a Rás and noticed that he brought some unfamiliar food to breakfast each morning. The rider became preoccupied with this and thought that if he could only find out what O’Hanlon was eating, he would discover the key to success. But he could not summon the courage to ask. Years later, when continental tastes became common in Ireland, he recognised muesli as the food which so perturbed him when he had thought it unique to O’Hanlon. In order to anticipate conditions on each part of a stage, O’Hanlon listened for the wind direction and speed in the weather forecast, and studied maps carefully. This led to speculation that he adjusted his breakfast accordingly, using a secret formula to balance his food intake to correspond with the anticipated energy expenditure during the stage.
Yet another belief emerged, that O’Hanlon deliberately set out to psychologically destroy his main rivals. It was vaguely postulated that he achieved this by luring them into long, gruelling trips in vile winter weather into the Wicklow Mountains. There, he would display his strength and power, and they were left in awe and forever lost any confidence in their ability to attack him. Whatever its validity, the theory gained credence, and when the young John Mangan was brought to Dublin by his mentors, they would not allow him to train with O’Hanlon – ‘That fellow will destroy you.’
During the 1960s and early 1970s, when at his best, O’Hanlon had an enormous stature in the Rás. He was tremendously strong and was an excellent time trialist and sprinter. He could attack t will, jumping from the bunch with great aggression and power. There are numerous examples of him leaving the peloton and bridging, with apparent ease, a 5-minute gap to a leading break. Many such breaks were driven by a dread of O’Hanlon getting up to them because they knew that, if he arrived, he would ‘crucify’ them –‘Is he coming… any sign of him?’ they would ask, without any need to elaborate on who the ‘he’ was.
He could lead from the front, sometimes endlessly. On leaving Ballinasloe in 1967, he made one of his usual surges at the start and a few riders went with him. An unexpected gap of almost a minute opened quickly and he was faced with the decision of conceding the advantage or keep going all the way to the end at Castleisland, 113 miles (180km) away. It was an indication of his mental courage that he chose to stay out in front and go for the stage win from that distance. Various riders made it up and did some work, before dropping away again, but his physical strength and courage, and the ability to endure what must have been considerable suffering, was exemplified by his role in holding off the whole chasing bunch, including a French team which was to win six stages, for the entire 4 hours and 42 minutes it took him to win the stage.
Such performances generated admiration and, to his generation of riders, O’Hanlon was a Titan of the Rás. He was greatly respected and his dominance not resented. He wore the mantle of greatness with unassuming grace, was scrupulously fair and ‘he spoke with his pedals’. He became a benchmark by which riders measured their performance and they could articulate, by reference to O’Hanlon, where they lay on the spectrum of development and achievement. The average Rás rider would return home a proud and fulfilled man if he could talk about the day he was in the break with O’Hanlon. More ambitious riders would try and ride with him to gauge their level of progress- how far they could work against him or could they last in the break until the finish? When a rider gained the confidence and ability to ‘take-on’ O’Hanlon, he had crossed an important psychological threshold and knew that he had progressed into the elite ranks; one of the many compliments made about Paddy Flanagan was that he had no fear of O’Hanlon.
After his ‘three-in-a-row’, O’Hanlon was to remain at the forefront of the Rás until the mid-1970s he came to depend less on his strength, became very tactically astute and won five further stages up to 1975. He wore the Yellow Jersey again in 1973. To O’Hanlon- as to most of the riders –there was more to the Rás than stage wins and Yellow Jerseys, and he continued to ride in it up to 1984, the twenty-third event he started. In all, he spent about six months of his life simply riding the Rás
The Organisers Of The FBD Insurance Rás wish to thank Tom Daly for his permission to use this excerpt on this site taken from his book “The Rás”
Shay O’Hanlon’s 1961 Cycling Year By Paddy Hoare
During last year, O’Hanlon was week after week in the news and the results of his endeavours have carved another niche in the Annals of the National Cycling Association.For some years past it has been customary to select the top stars, in the various sports, by the top sporting journalists in their own field. When it comes to cycling for 1961 there is only one star – Shay O’Hanlon of the Clann Brugha Club Dublin.
In a short but brilliant career, O’Hanlon has proved himself the perfect bike rider. He can win overall mediums- track, road and time trials. This he has proven since he first took up the sport a few short years ago.
His success can be termed phenomenal. But this success, or can we turn it climbing to the top of the tree, has he yet reached it? I doubt it; can be fully gleaned from his great devotion to training and his avid love of the sport.
Last season Shamus established records ad lib. His greatest was of course, his Irish record for the all-Ireland 50 mile time trial championship.
in this race Seamus really excelled himself and the manner in which he finished the event- he was really flying- showing the cycling qualities which this Insurance clerk possess in his legs.
He came through the line in 1-59-58. For the distance. The first time two hours was ever beaten for the journey in Ireland.
On finishing, he was mobbed by well wishers, but Seamus took the lot in his stride for on this May Day he had other engagements.
Yes he was going to the opening of the Lourdes Stadium in Drogheda to compete in the All-Ireland 10 kilos point to point title. A quick change saw him away from the Navan road to Thomas Street, where Paddy Ryan gave him a rub down, a quick meal and then to Drogheda.
The news of his “50” time trial ride had preceded him and accordingly the promoters agreed to put back the All-Ireland track title race. When they went to the line Seamus was there but Lady Luck did not shine on him on this occasion. Every thing went wrong. He had two spills, then his handlebars went loose but he finished a gallant second.
From there on he never looked back and then want on to win the All-Ireland100 Mile Massed Start Championship, the All-Ireland 25 Mile T.T. title and the All-Ireland 100 Mile T.T title in record time of 4-23-32: the 30 Mile T.T. title in a new record time, and culminated a great season by winning the Palmer cup 25 mile T.T. promoted by the Harp C.C. in 58.05. Another Irish record. On top of all this he won the 5 mile point to point All-Ireland track title at the National Championships at Fermoy, was a member of the all-conquering Dublin team in Rás Tailteann, won the longest one stage race in Europe Dublin to Killarney and a host of other awards.
In relation to Rás Tailteann, He Started off a warm favourite, but tactics decreed that he was well down after two days. However the O’Hanlon spirit can never be curbed and he finished this great race in a blaze of glory when winning the last three stages.
Other notable successes which he gained were in the Ulster 3-Day, Tour of Kildare, Tour Of Wexford, Leinster Grand Prix, George Plant Memorial, Tour Of North East (2Day), Lemass Cup, Liam Healy Cup(Individual), Brian Boru Cup.
That was indeed a record which will take some beating- the only man that can do it will be Seamus O’Hanlon himself, who for the past two seasons has been acclaimed as the Caltex Award winner as Irelands top cyclist- an honour he richly deserves and one he is certain to hold on