Eddie Dunbar became the first ever Irish victor of the under-23 Tour of Flanders on Saturday, with a strong solo effort that saw him cross the line alone 49 seconds ahead of a chase group behind.
The 20-year-old from County Cork, Ireland, is in his second season with American Continental squad Axeon Hagens Berman and called the win in Oudenaarde, Belgium, “definitely the biggest to date” as well as a “relief”.
Dunbar has victories in the Irish National Championships Junior time trial and road race as well as in both at U23 level, and his future potential was seen in 2014 when he dominated the Junior Tour of Wales – a race with a history of predicting stars of the future – scoring two stage wins and the overall by almost five minutes.
He signed for NFTO in 2015 before joining Axeon – coached by Axel Merckx – a year later.
“It’s a bit surreal, coming across the line I couldn’t believe it really. It’s definitely the biggest win to date,” Dunbar told Cycling Weekly after stepping off the podium.
“It’s a bit of a relief really – I’ve been trying for three years to win a big race,” he continued. “I always put a lot of pressure on myself, which is probably not the best thing to do. I’m probably my own worst enemy of doing that.
“People expect big things of me. Hopefully this will reassure a couple of people. I’m just a guy who enjoys riding his bike and sometimes I ride it faster than other people – today was one of those days”.
Dunbar has enjoyed a promising start to the 2017 season, finishing second overall a week ago at the three-day Le Triptyque des Monts et Chateaux in Belgium, which followed fifth places at the one-day Classica de Arrabida and five-stage Volta ao Alentja in Portugal.
Yet his victory in Flanders showed a different quality. Part of the U23 Nations Cup, the 168-kilometre route took in 18 of the regions most famous and iconic climbs. Dunbar attacked initially on the Eikenberg with around 40km to go, with Frenchman Jeremy Lecroq. On the second ascent of the same climb with just over 15km left he rode away from Lecroq, using his time trialling prowess to solo to the finish line. Belgium’s Jasper Philipsen won the sprint for second place.
“For me to win a race I always think I’ll have to come in on my own. I don’t class myself as a sprinter by any means,” Dunbar said. “But to win on your own like that in a race like this – even last year the race came down to [a group of 22] guys sprinting for the victory and then I think it was only 19 seconds [separating them].
“So to get the gap that I did… it was weird. I had good legs and I used them at the right time.”
Team Great Britain had hoped for a repeat of last year’s race, where Jon Dibben sprinted to second place, with U23 Ghent-Wevelgem winner Jacob Hennessy and Dunbar’s Axeon team-mate Chris Lawless leading the squad otherwise made up of riders on British Cycling’s Senior Academy.
However, despite the team getting their tactics right to place Lawless in a good position near the front of the race he crashed at the bottom of the Oude Kwaremont and spent a lot of energy catching back on to the group.
Dunbar is next due to race on Saturday at the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.