Taking the circuitous route
Getting to the Olympics has been tough, but David O’Loughlin has no complaints, only further ambitions
“It’s been a long road to Beijing,” said David O’Loughlin on the eve of his departure, and he wasn’t exaggerating. O’Loughlin’s ambition to compete in the Games was born around 1996 when he was first making a name for himself in Irish cycling circles. “The Olympics has always been a goal of mine and it was about that time when I started to learn how these things work,” he recalled.
Eight years later a place in the Athens Games seemed to be his for the asking when he crushed all the other candidates to win the All-Ireland senior road race title. But another rider got the selectors’ vote – O’Loughlin was only first reserve. “That wasn’t a nice experience,” he said.
Now, at 30, he has achieved the dream and will represent Ireland in the Beijing track pursuit. No Irish cyclist has succeeded in winning a medal in the 112-year history of the modern Games; will O’Loughlin be the man to achieve the breakthrough?
He believes he has a chance. “I was only two seconds off the medals in this year’s World Championships,” he points out.
O’Loughlin took sixth place in the world title race last March, putting him among the world’s elite. Despite his high ranking, O’Loughlin’s name was omitted from the preliminary list of Olympic qualifiers. It looked as if the jinx had struck again. Some were quick to write him off, but O’Loughlin continued with his training programme, and his pursuit qualification was finally confirmed in June.
The pursuit is a particularly punishing event. It’s only four kilometres long but to be near medal standard O’Loughlin will have to achieve an average speed of over 33mph for the distance.
The much-publicised Beijing smog will not be a problem as the Laoshan velodrome is an indoor stadium housing a 250-metre banked wooden track. O’Loughlin had a preview when he rode to seventh place at the Beijing leg of the World Cup last December. “I like the track, it’s a nice shape with long bankings and short straights, which means it’s fast,” he said.
Cycling at this level is a year-round business, with road racing in the summer and track racing in the winter. O’Loughlin has been in continuous action for over two years, following a carefully planned programme designed to bring him to a peak in mid-August.
The weeks running up to his departure have seen him road racing in Belgium and putting in some intensive track work. For an Irishman to qualify for an Olympic track event has been likened to the Jamaican bobsleigh team making it to the Winter Olympics. There is no velodrome in Ireland, track training is done in Ghent, Belgium and Newport, South Wales.
“The preparation has gone OK, although at the end of June I had a reaction to one of the vaccinations I took for China; it wiped me out for two weeks,” he revealed.
In pursuit racing, success is measured in thousandths of a second, and the bikes are designed using Formula One techniques and materials. O’Loughlin will be riding a new bike for the Games, designed and built by Liverpool’s Terry Dolan.
“The main factor is keeping it light but maintaining the carbon fibre frame’s strength and rigidity. We’ve also made some small changes to improve aerodynamics.”
Asked how much such a bike costs, O’Loughlin confessed he had no idea. However, the cost must be tens of thousands of euro.
He is one of only three Irish cyclists to qualify for the Games. The others are French-based road racers Nicolas Roche, son of Stephen, and Philip Deignan from Letterkenny. The back-up team includes performance director Frankie Campbell, coach Tommy Evans, a masseur/helper and mechanic. They also have the overall Irish team’s medical back-up, including a psychologist.
At around 9am Irish time on Friday, August 15, the velodrome’s electronic timing equipment will beep its starting signal and David O’Loughlin will embark on the most important four minutes of his cycling life. His mission will be to cover the 16 laps of the track in the fastest possible time and qualify for the medal round of the championship. Seventeen other riders, all of whom have survived the ten-month selection process, will be striving for the same target.
Although the Games are a huge event in O’Loughlin’s career, they are likely to be a milestone, not the ultimate arrival. He’ll be back home in time for the Tour of Ireland, which races through Mayo on August 29, and has already dropped broad hints that he plans to be around for the London Olympics in four years’ time.
Bringing it all back home
MUCH of David O’Loughlin’s cycling career has been played far from home, in Continental Europe, Asia and particularly in North America, where he spent five years racing for US professional teams .
However, in Ryan’s Hotel, Cong on Friday evening the focus was firmly on family, parish and county as Mayo County Council put on a civic reception to celebrate O’Loughlin’s achievements to date.
Cathaoirleach, Cllr Joe Mellett (pictured with David), set the tone when, after listing O’Loughlin’s many victories, he mentioned his own love for cycling. Inspired by the Olympian’s example, the Cathaoirleach has vowed to cycle from Swinford to Castlebar for a Council meeting ‘although I’ll probably get a lift back’ he quickly added.
Among those enjoying the occasion were John Mahony TD, taking time out on the eve of Mayo’s Senior Championship qualifier, Senator John Carty, Beverley Flynn TD, Ballina Mayor Michelle Mulherin and County Manager, Des Mahon. Local councillors present included Cllr Damian Ryan, who had originally proposed the function.
Tommy Heveran of Mayo Community Games recalled David’s first All-Ireland victory in the grass-track cycling at Mosney back in 1993. And John Ferguson, cycling enthusiast and neighbour in Cong, remembered the 15-year-old passing him ‘like a streak of lightning’ on the road from Cong to Cross. He praised O’Loughlin’s strong work ethic. “Each morning when I was going to work I’d see David on his bike, setting out for his own day’s work, getting in the training miles.”
A number of presentations were made to O’Loughlin on the night – by Joe Mellett on behalf of Mayo County Council, by Ray McHugh from The Neale and Cong GAA, Patrick Luskin, Cong Community Council and John Ferguson, Cong Community Games Association.
David O’Loughlin’s family has strong roots in Cong and it was a proud occasion for his mother Aileen, father Brian, wife Mary, sister Jill O’Malley and grandmother Vera O’Connor, who were all present. Sadly, Vera’s husband, Fred, passed away earlier this year. Mary, Jill and her husband Damien and Brian, will all be travelling out to Beijing to cheer David on.