RACING BEYOND BORDERS
HOW CYCLING HAS PLAYED A ROLE IN HEALING DIVISIONS IN IRELAND
Cycling fans in Northern Ireland had plenty to shout about at this year’s Worlds. In the U23s Ulster champion Adam Ward spent 100km in the break, while Darren Rafferty underscored a breakthrough 2021 with consistent rides in the junior men’s time trial and road race.
It might be tempting, then, to note the historical symmetry of promising Northern Irish riders emerging at this year’s Worlds. After all, 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of both the first road Worlds and the creation of the Northern Ireland state.
But not so fast. Despite the Ulsterisation of British politics in recent years there are few places where memory and commemoration are as contested as they are in the ‘six counties’. I’m a historian working on the centenary of Irish partition, and trying to convey the complexity of Northern Ireland’s beginnings beyond the traditional unionist and nationalist narratives is often a thankless task.
One link that can be made, however, between this year’s Worlds and the centenary is how, like in Belgium, Northern Irish cycling over the past century has acted as a symbol of both unity and division.
The splintering of Irish cycling after 1921 reflected broader political and ideological faultlines. By the mid1950s the sport’s governance was split three ways, with separate calendars and cultures. The republicans of the all-island National Cycling Association resented the two UCI-sanctioned bodies either side of the border and, like their Flemish separatist counterparts, viewed cycling as a tool of protest, sabotaging and gatecrashing races to voice their opposition to the political and sporting partition of Ireland.
It took the international embarrassment of the 1972 Olympics – when a group of NCA riders infiltrated the road race prompting a mid-peloton melee – to act as the catalyst for the eventual reunification of most of Ireland’s cyclists in 1988. However, a significant hardline unionist portion of the NI Cycling Federation refused to join the new all-Ireland body. The ensuing dispute resembled a sporting version of the political peace process unfolding at the same time, with even UCI President Hein Verbruggen convincingly playing the part of exasperated international arbiter.
Thankfully, in recent years Northern Irish cycling has echoed the relative stability that stemmed from the Good Friday Agreement. By the time I joined my first club in the mid-2000s the inter-organisational conflict had been resolved, perhaps even more convincingly than in the political realm, through compromise and the accommodation of both British and Irish identities. Since then we’ve witnessed elite success in the velodrome through Martyn Irvine and Mark Downey (Ireland) and Wendy Houvenaghel (Team GB), and the emergence of new road talent, unburdened by the politics of previous generations.
Though cycling may lack the cultural cachet it holds in Belgium, it is fitting that the 2014 grande partenza of the Giro d’Italia in Belfast represented one of the clearest symbols of Northern Ireland’s post-agreement landscape. For one week pink replaced the tribal colours of red, white and blue, and green, white and orange, as people from all backgrounds embraced the Giro.
Of course, as we have seen throughout this centenary year, the past is always present in Northern Ireland, even during the Giro. The cover of a new book on the peace process, co-edited by my colleague Katy Hayward, illustrates this dichotomy perfectly. It depicts a paramilitary mural of masked gun-wielding men, a stark reminder of our violent and fractured recent history; in front of the mural the Cannondale team TT pass by, symbolising an outward-looking, peaceful Northern Ireland. For all its years reflecting our divisions, cycling can now firmly unite us.