What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Interviews: Darach McQuaid

INTERVIEW: The Grande Partenza of the 2014 Giro d’Italia is less than four months away, but this spring comes with an Hibernian twist as cycle sport’s coolest Grand Tour starts outside mainland Europe for the first time. PEZ snagged a precious slot in the crammed diary of the man behind the Giro’s three-stage sojourn in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Darach McQuaid.

Selfishly, the news that the Giro was coming to Northern Ireland was a blessing for me … I can go see one of our sports greatest spectacles and not even have to go to the airport. A drive down the coast, hop on the ferry for an hour or two and I’ll be there.

Darach’s face hides none of his enthusiasm for hosting the Giro as he receives a Maglia Rosa in Brescia.

But the machinations behind attracting and hosting such an event are intricate, time-consuming, and a logistical balancing act of massive proportions. Just how did the idea germinate, how challenging has it been to set up and, as importantly, what will it mean for cycling in a place where Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Shay Elliott are still heroes?

More importantly, what does this event represent in places where the semantics of colour and symbolism have meanings that go beyond the comprehension of most people?

Darach McQuaid is in the final stages of preparing for the Giro’s launch, and has only just stepped off a plane from Milan back to Dublin when I got in touch.


PEZ: How did it all start Darach?
The first meeting I had with RCS Sport was in December 2009. I approached them and the initial reaction I got was very positive so it gave me the gumption to go away and see would there be interest from an Irish government point of view.

Then in March 2010, or late February I think it was, there was a new Government elected. The previous government, considering the (economic) crisis, I decided not to approach them because they were just pretty much stuck in a crisis mode, do you know what I mean? Whereas the new government, with Enda Kenny as the Taoiseach … you know, Enda is a cyclist and I approached him. In fact, I met him in the White House in America on St Patrick’s Day. And he said: “Absolutely. We’d be very interested but also make sure and speak to Northern Ireland.”

And I got a very similar reaction when I went up to Northern Ireland that spring, to say: “Look, we’d be very interested in this.” We just really started looking at the nuts and bolts as the year went on. At that time, my company was putting together the bid for the Richmond, Virginia, World Championships which had a bit more urgency about it.

It was later in that year when the work started in Ireland, north and south, in terms of looking at which departments might be able to fund it and meeting the various stakeholders and trying to get something concrete to go back to RCS to say that there is a very tangible bid here.

PEZ: Was the challenge maybe more in selling it to the ordinary man or woman in the street, maybe more than the politicians, because at a time when finances are tough … maybe seeing money going on certain cultural events or sporting events is viewed with suspicion?
Yeah, but there’s a funny … maybe … broad thinking in Ireland, north and south, that we’ve been doing sports tourism for quite a few years. Tourism itself is one of the biggest industries in Northern Ireland and the Republic, so anything that helps that I think people see the value in straight away.

The nettle had been grasped (in terms of the economic crisis – Ed.) … I was very, very quiet about the whole thing. Really it only came out when the bid was almost put together, so it wasn’t like the press in Ireland, north or south, were writing: “There might be a bid.”

Pretty much when it eventually leaked out that there was a tangible bid, the bid was almost finalised to be honest with you, so there was no period of public “Should we support this or not?” But once we did announce officially that we had a viable bid, the reaction from the media and the public, north and south, was very positive.

PEZ: Did it help you because the Giro has also started in the last few years in Denmark …
Of course!

PEZ: … and Amsterdam in 2010, so seeing that it worked in those venues …?
Without a doubt. As everybody knows, the Tour de France is the biggest, it’s the monster and we had the Tour de France here in 1998. But the Giro to a non-cycling person would be a bit more: “Oh? What exactly is that?” And once you explain it, people are like: “Oh, right!”

“It might actually even be cooler to cycling fans?” “Yes”

“It attracts massive inward tourism?” “Yes”

Once you describe the Giro and how special it is, and how it worked in places like Amsterdam and Denmark … in fact, Denmark was on when our bid was really rolling. The folks in Sport Event Denmark were very helpful. The Chief Executive Lars Lundov sent us all their economic impact reports and it was all extremely positive.

In fact they got something like 40,000 Norwegians alone coming over for that big start in Denmark That was in Herning and Horsens, which I attended and it was really superb. But Belfast and Dublin are two globally known cities.

PEZ: Yeah, I was in Dublin for the ’98 Tour de France, been a few times, but I’ve only been to Belfast once.
Belfast is really rocking in the last couple of years. It’s kinda like where Dublin was in the mid-90s, it’s got that real vibe of excitement. There’s a cool new restaurant opening every week. There’s a lot of young people from all around Europe want to be studying or working in Belfast because it’s got that edge to it, a good edge, a positive vibe to it.

Stage 1 – a Team time trial around the streets of Belfast.

PEZ: So, if you can summarise, how have you gone about getting to this stage? Was it sorting the physical logistics that was the biggest challenge?
It’s a combination … number one on the list would be the logistics because even when the Tour de France started in 1998, it was a serious logistical operation, but essentially it was get everything on the ship in Cork a number of hours after the event and “Off they go.”

We’re having to duplicate the structures – this will look, smell and feel like the Giro but the structures will not return to Italy because they’ll be waiting for them in Bari when they go back. That’s a significant step up in logistical work and competence.

We’re working with local, world-class providers here. Our structures company EventServ – they did the Queen’s visit, Obama’s visit, they do all the big concerts. RCS Sport are very confident in this company … that this will be the Giro, but the actual physical structures will stay here and they’ll go back on the Monday and find a set of structures waiting for them there.

So that’s certainly number one, and then – north and south – we’ve set up a lot of committees which are working together.

Everything from steering group to a race committee, marketing and communications committees, activations committees, dressing committees, local authority committees. It really has got a really big ‘buy-in’, in particular from Northern Ireland. The majority of this is in Northern Ireland. I’m delighted as a Dubliner that it’s coming south of Northern Ireland, but my family is from Northern Ireland so I’m kind of a ‘half-Nordy’ as well!

In particular in Northern Ireland, in a massive way, public and private enterprise are behind this 100%. The biggest challenge has really been getting the logistics sorted and then educating people as to what exactly this event is. In 2012, I brought some Northern Ireland government people to the Giro. We got them in cars on the Cortina d’ Ampezzo stage – I mean that’s just an incredible eye-opener to see just how gorgeous the event is and how people interact with the event. Last year, we had a promotion in the 2013 Giro, working with Tourism Ireland, we had a booth at each stage start and finish and we had a car in the publicity caravan.



We had a lot of different government people come over, and I remember at the start of the first road stage in Naples we were actually standing amongst the riders, and a lot of the people who would have worked on, say, the Irish Open (the golf tournament), they said: “In golf everything is roped off, you don’t get close to the players. When they’re walking around, they’re always separate. But here I am standing right in the middle of all these riders just before they start the race.” So they got to understand how cycling is different in that sense, how the fans can get really close to the riders, which is one of the things that makes it special.

So that operation has been ongoing. We’ve had police at the Giro as well as the Tour of Lombardy and we’re working on more site visits for Tirreno-Adriatico and maybe Milan-San Remo as well.

Stage 2 starts and finishes in Belfast too but there’s 218km to cover.

PEZ: In terms of what remains to be done, is the route all set or are there minor tweaks to be made?
It’s pretty much all set. It’s a fairly timely question. Tomorrow I’m in Drogheda, County Louth, meeting with Louth and Meath County councils, and the police. On Thursday, I’m meeting with Fingal County Council and Dublin City Councils and the police. And next week, we have a site visit to go over some of the items in terms of the route for the Republic section of stage three.

In Northern Ireland, we’ve had many meetings on the route and next week we have a site meeting with Mauro Vegni, Stefano Allocchio and Giusy Virelli from the Sport department, and we will have a big meeting in Dublin with the race committee and all the partners involved and similarly on the 21st in Belfast. It’s pretty much the final sign-off on the routes.

The last stage in Ireland is Stage 3, a 187km stage from Armagh to Dublin

PEZ: I wanted to ask you about the symbolism of the race. A lot has been made of this symbolism, and having worked on trans-national projects before with partners in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland … I know how long it used to take to even design a website because of all the political and religious connotations of colours … (I can hear Darach chuckling in the background at this point!)
When I went up to Northern Ireland first with this project, I got straight in at a very senior level. They’re so dynamic I ended up in with Minister Arlene Foster … she just said: “Find this man the money, let’s get this done.”

When I explained why it’s pink, the history of the newspaper, why pink is such a big colour (in Giro history), they just said: “Well, nobody’s going to have a problem with pink up here!” And that’s definitely still the case. Pink is the colour of the Giro, and I don’t think anybody is going to have any issues.

But apart from the symbolism of colours, the symbolism of the race and an event of this global nature – just the history of the event, how long it’s been around and how much of a world, iconic sporting event it is – the fact that it’s starting in Northern Ireland says an awful lot about Northern Ireland in itself.

The fact that an event of such a global nature is starting in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and going to Armagh and coming across the border down to Dublin … a border which, when I was a youngster going up to visit my family, it was a sort of a weave around all sorts of barriers and go at two miles an hour with various rifles pointing at you.

Essentially, there is a border there, but you have to look at your mobile phone to see have you gone from O2.uk to O2.ie, to see that you’ve passed the border. So I think it has a great, positive symbolism in a sense of how far Northern Ireland in particular has come but also how much co-operation there is. About a month ago, I was in Newry for a dual meeting of the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) and An Garda Síochána (Police in the Republic of Ireland) and they work really closely together now. There are no issues like there might have been historically. And it sends a whole load of really positive symbolic messages from a social, tourism, economic and a peace point of view. The Giro start. Deciding to start in Northern Ireland … not that many years ago, a couple of decades ago, they would have laughed me out of the office in Milan.

PEZ: In terms of the 2014 Grande Partenza, who were you up against?
Yes, we were up against two other very strong venues. In fact, it would have been November 2012, I was expecting a decision in October or November, and I went to the route launch in October and some RCS people were saying to me : “Great, when are we going to announce?” So I was very confident, but I did get a phone call then saying: “Look, Darach, we really love the Ireland project. We think your bid is spectacular but unfortunately you’re not in pole position.”

Just the extra logistics, obviously the costing of the extra staging is quite significant, and then the chartering of the planes back to Italy, etc. So I had to go and find an extra, significant amount of money and I had a very short period to do it. But again, as I said before, Northern Ireland were so enthusiastic and determined to win this bid, that I found it in no short time and then we got the word that we were the winning bid. But there were two other bids, one in northern Italy and one in Austria, I believe. It wasn’t a shoo-in by any means.

PEZ: Having the Giro hold three stages in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland this year is going to be phenomenal, but even more so because it precedes the media frenzy around the Tour de France start in England …?
Yeah, I think it speaks a lot about where the sport is going. The two biggest races in the world have been looking to northern Europe quite a bit. You think it’s strange for example that the Tour de France has never started in Italy. I know Scotland and Yorkshire were up against Florence as well … if I’d been in a pub quiz and someone had asked me has the Tour ever started in Italy, I’d have hedged my best and said that it has.

I think both organisations see where the sport has developed. Even on the island of Ireland, since Beijing, our federation membership has gone from something like 4,500 to 20,000. The boom that you guys have seen in the UK, it’s very similar here. The Giro and the Tour de France, rightly so, want to bring their beautiful events in front of new audiences.

Obviously, it’s a business consideration as well. The bid was very strong from many points of view including financial. The fact that (these races are) starting in Northern Ireland and Yorkshire says a lot about where the sport is going.

PEZ: RCS Sport seem to be an ambitious, far-sighted organisation, because not only do they have this unique Giro start, but they have a new Dubai Tour this year as well.
I could not praise them enough. I’m dealing with every department from sport to logistics and operations, to marketing and the press operations, to site guys, from technical start, technical finish, technical headquarters. An absolute joy to work with, in terms of being professional.

They have a nice sense of having a good laugh but when it gets down to the serious bit of drawing starts or finishes, or having meetings sorted out, they’re extremely professional. Really good to work with.

On the marketing side, they’re really clever with their global social media strategies, how they launch things like the jerseys. They launched the Barolo-Barbaresco stage at Interbike. They have a real world view of the Giro, as opposed to an Italian view. It helps me a lot because I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They produce a marketing book, a handbook – I’ve been given large quantities of them and I’m able to distribute to critical stakeholders here and I wouldn’t want to try to design one myself because they do such a good job.

PEZ: You mentioned the new jerseys … they had a strong Irish influence this year. Were you involved in that?
No, no. Not at all. I believe the designer Fergus Niland works for Santini, but I wasn’t aware that they had an Irish designer, and I think it’s super cool, and it’s a great honor for the start here, that such an iconic jersey has an Irish flavour and connotation to it this year. I was really pleased when I read about it.

The pink jersey that Cadel Evans, Nairo Quintana and co. will be fighting for this year.

PEZ: Turning to the race itself, you could have a very strong Irish presence with Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), Nicolas Roche (Team Tinkoff-Saxo) and Phillip Deignan (Team Sky). Depending on the wildcards, you might even get Sam Bennett (Team NetApp-Endura), Stephen Clancy (Team Novo Nordisk) or Martyn Irvine (United HealthCare Pro Cycling Team). It could be massive for the home fans.
Absolutely. Irish sports fans north or south are great fans, but if they’ve got one of their own to shout for it just ratchets it up in a huge way.

A long time ago now, Garmin-Sharp announced that Dan would be their leader at the Giro which was just superb. After the year he had last year, to see Garmin give Dan his first Grand Tour team leadership with the Giro starting here is just massive. I’ve been kind of giddy about this whole thing throughout 2013, knowing it was starting here, and watching Dan ride so well. Then watching Nicolas at the Vuelta was just superb, and then more recently he was announced as being selected for the Giro. You couldn’t wish for a better outcome than that.

Then when Phillip signed for Team Sky … I know they haven’t announced anything yet, but I’d love to see Phillip on the start line in Belfast. It would just be magic. In the next couple of days, United HealthCare might be one of the wildcards, or it could be Clancy or Sam Bennett’s team. (Unfortunately, for Irish fans, the wildcards went to Italian teams. – Ed)

Now the first three we’ve spoken about, in my opinion, might have it within them to win the Team Time Trial, which could mean we’d have a “Paddy” in the pink which could be Dan or Nicolas or Phillip. Either of those three teams is well capable of winning a team time trial opener, and I think two of them have already – Garmin and Sky have already won a Giro team time trial.

I think that would just send this thing absolutely stratospheric if we had an Irish guy in the pink jersey for stages two and three. Can you imagine? I’m content that they’re competing. That would be the cherry on the cake if either of those three teams were to win it and have either of those three boyos go over the line first.

PEZ: Further back, Stephen Roche’s win in the 1987 Giro, Martin Earley’s stage win in 1986 and Seamus Elliott before him, gives Ireland a strong historic connection with the Giro.
Absolutely. And we had Ciaran Power ride the Giro with the Linda McCartney team as well. Stephen’s win was so special, the first leg of his Triple Crown. Stephen is working with us as an official ambassador for the event and the guy is just magic. He could sit down with a president or a coalman and just talk, and inform people of his career. We couldn’t be happier that Stephen is on board with us.

Darach on left riding for Emerald CRC with Stephen Roche right, riding for TonTon Tapis in Wicklow approaching the climb of Glenmalure (Shay Elliott Memorial climb) – 1991

PEZ: Looking ahead, scenario-planning, three and five and ten years in the future, there has to be a sporting and social legacy from this Giro start.
I agree. I think there are about three or four things foremost in my mind. On what you might say is a selfish business front, it would be that I’ve been having a lot of conversations in the last couple of months about relaunching the Tour of Ireland in 2015 on a long-term commercial basis.

Unfortunately, even though they were a good sponsor but our title sponsor for the Tour of Ireland from 2007 to 2009 was Fàilte Ireland, the tourism body in the Republic, but when the (economic) crisis hit that went away. What we need is a commercial sponsor to come in and really put resources behind a new Tour of Ireland.

The legacy for Northern Ireland is already there, in fact. Just really winning the bid to host this has given them a lot of confidence to look at other major global events and attract them to Northern Ireland.

For me, that’s a huge legacy item. I think it’s really cool to see … I began to talk to them in 2012 when they were having that NI 2012 centenary of the Titanic, the opening of the Titanic museum, loads of other stuff. You could just see that new confidence in Northern Ireland … my parents are from Tyrone in Northern Ireland, and I’d been going up there in the 1970s and the 1980s and it was pretty grim.

To see that new confidence and that new investment in a peaceful Northern Ireland, for me personally, it is a really cool thing that this event will make Northern Ireland go for big events and I think that’s a superb legacy.

You mentioned that you were at the Tour de France in 1998. Phillip Deignan came down on the bus with his mates to watch it … from Donegal, and he said: “Damn, that’s a pretty cool sport, I’d love to try that out.” And, lo and behold, look at what he’s achieved.

Given where the sport is going in Ireland, north and south, we could have a fourteen- or fifteen-year old looking at this and saying: “I want to be riding these races in ten years.” That would be massive.

If we could make that happen with the show and the razzle-dazzle that comes around these races, it’s understandable that youngsters would be impressed and want to be part of it.

PEZ: You talked about increasing numbers of registered riders with the Irish federations, but I guess the thing is to see a bigger uptake of engagement with the bike generally.
Absolutely, and not even from a rider point of view. You can have all the riders you want, but if you don’t have people involved in the sport at other levels it goes nowhere. You’ve got to have race organisers and coaches and people to support the riders and drive their kids to races.

It’s a big ask, the sport of cycling, but I think the rewards that young boys and girls get when they race is worth the effort that families and friends had to put in to make races happen. It’s not like a stadium sport where everything is handy and nice and tidy like it would be on a tennis court or a football stadium. This is a lot more difficult to put on even at a grassroots level.

For this event, there could be upwards of a million people – for all of those people to see this gorgeous show, it’s not only young bike riders that might get inspired, it might be their mothers and father as well.

PEZ: The proposed new Tour of Ireland – do you have an idea of where that might slot into a racing calendar?
I wanted to wait to go to the UCI until I had a firm partner in place, and I’m really happy to say that at the moment we are talking to some really big brands who are looking at the sport in a serious way, and I myself and our company Shadetree Sports have put considerable investment into putting a professional package together, not just selling it with a verbal (approach). We’ve done a lot of research and put together a number of packages.

As soon as I have that traction, and a draft agreement with a partner, I’ll be straight onto the UCI, but I don’t want to waste their time saying “I hope I have a sponsor.” I only want to go to the UCI when I have a viable partner.

PEZ: In terms of sport’s political changes over the last few months, Pat McQuaid has been replaced as President of the UCI by Brian Cookson, and Michele Acquarone has been removed from his role at RCS Sport. What effect have those changes had on the process?
For the Giro project, there has been no effect, with either my brother Pat or with Michele. People seem to think that my brother Pat and I were in cahoots, that we were working always with each other, but we had very little to do with each other professionally, to be honest with you.

Michele, I did have a great relationship with, and I was very sad with that whole episode, to be honest. But RCS themselves were very direct with us, and very decisive in informing myself and both governments about what the situation was, what was happening and what they were doing to correct the situation.

On my brother Pat’s side, I have an amount of sympathy for him for losing the vote, even though I think he did an awful lot of good things over his eight years. Ultimately, maybe in a few years time, people will look back and they won’t have such a negative view on what he achieved. But I’m happy that the Irish papers are not constantly full of Pat McQuaid polemics because it was just getting a bit much.

On the Michele front, I have been dealing with a big team of people in RCS and continue to do so, so this project itself has not been impacted at all. On a personal level with Michele, I could say that I have been impacted personally because I got on very, very well with Michele.

PEZ: You’re also looking at establishing a Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia in Ireland, I believe?
Correct. I went over and participated in the Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia in Coral Gables, just to get a flavour. Particularly given my discussions in the last year with RCS, and how well the format that they put together has gone in the US, and they’ve launched one in Jerusalem … we’re working hard, and hope to announce a Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia in Ireland for 2015. It would be a three-year agreement, minimum.

PEZ: What impact might the Giro have on the famous An Post Rás and Rás na mBán?
Well, I think those two plus a lot of others, it’s only going to have a positive impact. I mean, you look at the Ràs na mBan was on Eurosport last year, that’s just superb for a women’s race.

And the Rás, with one of the best cycling sponsors I’ve ever seen An Post, our national Post Office. They do a great job … and I’m speaking to An Post about some programmes with the Giro so there could be some cross-marketing.

Darach riding the FBD Rás in 1990

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