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Tour de Force from Lee Grace

Interview with Lee Grace in Hoops Scene No. 10 2018, Shamrock Rovers match day programme v Dundalk (1 June 2018)

As we kick off June with the clash of Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk at Tallaght Stadium tonight, the front loaded League of Ireland schedule means that at the end of this evening’s match we are already a couple of games into the second half of the SSE Airtricity League season.

That is 20 league games completed in the first 16 weeks of the season with the remaining 16 matches due to take place over of the next 21 weeks. Only one Shamrock Rovers player so far this season has played every minute of every league game for the Hoops and it isn’t really a surprise that it is Lee Grace the man from Carrick-on-Suir.

A former member of the Irish defence forces, Grace hails from the town on the River Suir where they are made of hardy stuff. On the Tipperary and Waterford border, it is where Sean Kelly was reared. Kelly is a legendary cyclist who dominated the professional era in the 1980s. His palmares, which is listed on a plaque in Sean Kelly Square in the town, includes nine of the top monument one day classic races, seven Paris-Nice wins, four Tour de France green jerseys and one Tour of Spain overall win.

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The town is also home to Sam Bennett who recently became the first Irish rider to win three stages of a Grand Tour, something even Kelly didn’t manage. Bennett also went one better than Stephen Roche who won two stages en-route to winning 1987 Giro d’Italia. Bennett, whose father Michael managed Waterford in the League of Ireland, mixes it in the rough and tumble of the bunch sprints – something that Kelly did particularly early in his career.

When Grace was growing up he played hurling, soccer and did some cycling and has been following the progress of Sam Bennett closely.

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“I used to cycle as a kid with my uncle who is mad into the cycling,” said Lee Grace when he spoke to Hoops Scene earlier this week. “I was in school with Sam Bennett so I’ve been following his progress. He was a year ahead of me in school but my brother was in the same class.

“He has been doing unbelievable. He is flying. He is the first Irish man to win a stage of a grand tour in over 30 years. Fair play to him. He deserves it. I’ve never seen a man work as hard.”

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Last week, the Hoops went head-to-head with Bohemians in a keenly contested Dublin derby at Dalymount Park that ended in a 1-1 draw. The Bohs fans ahead of kick off displayed a banner ‘The North Side’. With Bohs based north of the Liffey and Rovers south, it isn’t too far off the sporting rivalry that Grace has seen in his home town, although the rivalry is mainly between the two clubs on the Tipp side of the county boundary.

“Carrick-on-Suir is right on the border with half of the town in Tipperary and the other half in Waterford. I’m from the Tipp side. There are two clubs on Tipperary side and one on the Waterford side.

“I played for the Waterford side when I was younger and then moved to the Tipp side. The two clubs in Tipp have a very big rivalry and it is intense in the town every time they play.”

It looked like the Hoops were going to have the Dublin derby bragging rights when captain Ronan Finn put Rovers 1-0 up with seven minutes remaining. However, it was to be another late derby goal for Bohs – this one two minutes from time – that saw the points shared.

“It was a tight game and a scrappy affair,” was Grace’s assessment of the match. “There wasn’t much ball played. There were patches where we tried to play. Those derby games are always like that.

“We caught them on the break. Greg (Bolger) tried five or six of those balls in the game and he said himself that none of them came off until that one for Ronan. He got in on goal and it was a great finish. We scored and I thought we would see it out as there were only six or so minutes to go.”

However the Hoops conceded a free kick high up the pitch, one that most Rovers fans felt was very soft. “A set piece did us in the end and so it was a disappointing result. Ethan (Boyle) said he barely touched him but any contact there and they are going to go down and from the referee’s view it is an easy free kick to give.”

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Last Friday Graham Burke and Shane Supple were rivals on the pitch but both then were part of the Ireland squad that flew to France last Saturday ahead of the friendly against France.

“It is great for the both of them to get into the Ireland squad and it is great for the league as well. It shines a great light on the league. I hope they do well. For Graham he really deserves it as he is such a hard worker but he will go out and enjoy himself.”

Over the years, there have been a couple of occasions when Grace has had to choose between different sports and even different clubs as he looked to progress as a footballer. “I’m a big hurling fan and I used to play but then had to give it up to concentrate on the soccer.”

A couple of years ago there was the option of continuing his career in the Irish Defence Forces with a deployment overseas or to give full time professional football a go with Galway United at the time – an option that he eventually went with.

Whether Stephen Bradley has deployed his men in league action with a flat back four or three centre halfs, Grace has been every present even with all the matches played so far this season.

“The midweek games are grand. You are none stop and there isn’t much time for preparation. Now we have a full week to prep for this Dundalk game and that is great. We can get a bit of freshness into the legs.”

“When we have three at the back we are obviously more stable defensively as we are a bit more compact and we weren’t conceding as many goals but at the other end we aren’t scoring as many. The other way we are a bit more open but we are scoring more. I’m happy in either formation.

“We went back to four against Pat’s and we scored three that night,” said Grace reflecting on the 3-0 win over the Saints in the last home game here at Tallaght Stadium.

“We brought a lot more energy and a lot more legs to the game in Tallaght. Even in Richmond Park, I think the 2-0 defeat to Pat’s wasn’t a fair reflection on the game. The sending off for us didn’t help but even with ten men I thought we were comfortable until a couple of mistakes cost us two goals. In Tallaght there was none of that and we fully deserved the win.”

It was Grace who opened the scoring with a header off a corner and another header by his centre-half partner Pico Lopes late in the game kept a Rovers clean sheet.

“We work on that a lot in training and those clipped balls to the front post are working for us. As defenders clean sheets are what we play for and I think that clearances off the line like that are as good as goals so fair play to Pico for getting back and clearing it with that great header.”

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Shedding some light on the shady cycling drugs game

November 4, 2011 Leave a comment

For those with an interest in cycling, drugs in sport or in the wider sporting world, they should get their hands on a copy of “Racing through the Dark – The fall and rise of David Millar“. The book tells the story of talented Scottish cyclist David Millar as told by the rider himself.

It is the story of how even a clean and successful athlete like Millar felt pressurised into taking drugs in order to compete and win in professional cycling. It charts the development of his career and the almost inevitable tipping point where he became one of the many cyclists competing while using the performance enhancing drug EPO.

In the week when three Pakistani international cricketers were sent to prison for their part in a betting scandal, it is interesting to read Millar’s expose into the cheating that occurs in cycling through the use of performance enhancing drugs. However Millar’s story, more importantly, is a tale of redemption. He honesetly assesses how he turned his life around, both personally and professionally, to emerge as a clean athlete, championing the cause of cycling by highlighting what can be achieved without drugs.

Written with the help of Jeremy Whittle (author of the equally good Bad Blood), it is a unique insight into the world of drugs in sport from a self-confessed doper and provides hope that cycling can emerge from the long dark drug fueled period.

For a few more recommendations from the genre of cycling literature, see my previous post https://macdaraferris.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/reading-and-riding/

Reading and Riding

July 11, 2011 2 comments

Sunday’s stage of the Tour de France had some incredible crashes. On the descent of the second category climb, a crash resulted in broken bones for two of the big Tour riders, Alexandr Vinokourov (femur) and Jurgen Van der Broek (collarbone). The second crash was as bizarre as they come with two riders in the six man leading breakaway knocked down when one of the passing TV cars veered into the group hitting Sebastian Flecha and bringing down Jonny Hoogerland. The Dutchman ended up stuck in a barb wire fence at the side of a field just like Steve McQueen in the Great Escape. It probably was a lucky escape for Hoogerland who “only” had to receive 33 stitches in his wounds.


With a rest day today, there were no live pictures to watch but it got me thinking about my interest in the race. I’m of an age that I remember the heady days of four professional riders taking part in the Tour de France (Kelly, Roche, Earley and Kimmage) with yellow, green and stage wins coming in the Tour for the first three in the quartet. And while Sean Kelly now commentates on Eurosport and Stephen Roche’s son Nicolas is riding this tour, it is probably the last of the quartet in Paul Kimmage that probably shapes my view of the tour and pro-cycling in general. I still enjoy watching it but I do so with a certain healthy skepticism.

Kimmage’s “A Rough Ride – An insight into pro cycling” is the seminal book on cycling and drugs. The Dubliner certainly broke the mould with his book where he told the story of his entry into the pro-ranks and how he began to take drugs, not to win, but to stay in the sport. Kimmage was lucky in that he was able to switch careers to journalism and his book is warts on all on the subject. The view from many in the sport is that he “spat in the soup” as many of his former professionals say about those who tell the tales of drugs in the sport.

Kimmage’s book, 1990 William Hill (WH) Sports book of the year, is one of a number of cycling books I have on my bookshelves. There is a mix of auto-biographies, biographies as well as a number of sports book of the year winners and nominees. I’ve a few books by Irish sports journalist David Walsh. His Kelly biography documents Sean Kelly’s career up until 1986 and I’ve also a pictorial book by Walsh and Kelly himself (Sean Kelly – A man for all seasons) which charts all of Kelly’s career from his first Tour de France stage win in 1978, his amazing seven Paris Nice’s in a row and all those classic wins (Paris Roubaix, Liege Bastogne Liege, Milan San Remo to name but a few).

A rider from Kelly’s era who is no longer with us is Laurent Fignon who died of cancer last year. His autobiography “We were young and Carefree” tells the tale of a rider who straddled the era of more casual drug use in the sport and the recent rampant EPO era. The story is shaped by those eight seconds that he lost the 1989 Tour by but this is rider that won a brace of Tours as well as a Giro d’Italia. In a brutally honest account Fignon outlines not only his strengths but his weaknesses and cycling against Tour legends like Hinault and LeMond.

Britain’s current top rider Bradley Wiggins was another rider that had to abandon this year’s tour due to a broken collarbone following a crash. In the 1980s, Britain’s most successful Tour rider was Scotsman Robert Millar. In 2007, Richard Moore wrote “In search of Robert Millar” (Best Biography British Sports Book Awards) a fascinating insight into this enigmatic climber. A former team mate of Stephen Roche, Millar won the climbers polka dot jersey in the 1984 tour. His story includes how Spanish riders conspired for him to lose the 1986 Tour of Spain where he finished runner up. It also includes the strange story of Millar’s withdrawal/disappearance from cycling and public life in recent years.

A cycling book collection would not be complete without ones on the rider that dominated the sport in the 2000s and continues to be one of the most talked about riders despite his recent retirement. Lance Armstrong’s autobiography “It’s not about the bike – My journey back to Life” (WH Winner 2000) is the incredible story of Armstrong’s battle with testicular cancer. Most readers will have been touched at some point in their lives by cancer and the story of how he is diagnosed and the battle to recover is amazing even without the conclusion to the story with him coming back to cycling to win the Tour a record number of times.

The problem with the story is that it is too good to be true. David Walsh’s “From Lance to Landis – Inside the American doping controversy at the Tour de France” chronicles Armstrong’s story. Walsh uses court testimony and interviews with those who were within Armstrong’s inner circle to document what was going on at the Armstrong’s US Postal team. The section where Walsh details Damien Ressiot’s L’Equipe newspaper examination of past blood samples using the new test for EPO and Armstrong’s doping control form documentation is stunning. In a similar vein (pun intended), Jeremy Whittle published “Bad Blood – The secret life of the Tour de France” (2008 WH shortlist). Whittle tells the story of following the tour as a journalist and his gradual awakening to the doping fraud that he was watching in front of him in the peloton.

One final book on my shelf is Matt Rendell’s “The death of Marco Pantani”. Pantani was a pure climber who seemed to glide up mountain passes with his career highlight being his victory in the controversial 1998 Tour de France which started in Ireland. The first half of the book documents Pantani’s soaring career and his fall from grace that ultimately saw Pantani found dead in a Rimini hotel following a cocaine overdose. The second half of the book is a forensic assessment of Pantani’s drug use using Pantani’s own doping records. It details how if every rider is on drugs, it is not the best rider that wins but the rider who responds best to the drugs. Whittle explains how the drug use in the off season or when there are no controls, allows riders to train harder and push their bodies to the edge pushing their haemocrit levels far above the safe 50% allowable level.

It was with interest I read the reviews of David Millar’s recently published autobiography in the paper over the weekend. Millar, who has returned from a two year drugs ban, is riding in this year’s tour. The book has been described in the Irish Times as “a shocking expose of the corruption at the heart of a wonderful sport. Those who run cycling at every level would be well advised to closely study it, though history tells us they probably won’t.” Sounds like my kind of book! Happy reading and riding…

Categories: Cycling, The Book Club