Who is Eddie Dunbar? He just hit the top-10 at the Giro d’Italia and tongues are wagging in Ireland

From Ineos bench-warmer to Jayco leader, the steeled and steady rise of this year’s Giro d’Italia breakout GC rider.

Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

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Eddie Dunbar is one of the revelations of this year’s Giro d’Italia, climbing as high as fourth overall before ending Sunday in Rome with a hard-earned seventh place.

The Irishman from Banteer in County Cork leaves Rome with the best Irish GC result in a grand tour since Dan Martin.

“It was hard, I was a bit off, wasn’t feeling 100 per cent,” he said of decisive Saturday’s time trial. “I paid the price for it and lost a few places on GC. But it is what it is, you just have to try take the positives out of it and move on. There’s not much [else] I can do really.”

Dunbar is in his first year as a team leader and said that the Giro experience will only pay dividends down the road.

“There was a lot I learned,” he said before the final stage. “I haven’t spent too much time thinking about it, now is not the time, next week’s the time to do that. Just enjoy today and get through it safely. Then I’ll sit down in the next few weeks and assess.”

There will be plenty to assess, and plenty to celebrate.

The Irishman is now 26, and remarkably, only raced his second grand tour of his career.

Injury and illness complicated things, but to too was playing second fiddle to other riders at Team Sky/Ineos Grenadiers, and being passed over for selection several times.

It’s fair to say he has proven a point at this year’s Giro, and that he will be a stronger rider again in his next grand tour.

Dunbar started the race targeting a top 10 overall. He fractured his hand in his first race this season and was a full two months out of competition as a result, but told VeloNews more than once before the Giro that he believed a place in that top 10 was still on the cards.

And so it proved. Indeed his performances have exceeded pre-race expectations. Rather than barely scraping into the top 10, he was for many days one of the strongest riders in the event.

Given that this is his first year in a leadership role, and given that the physical and mental demands of this Giro will stand to him in future races, the future seems bright.

“It is all [about] learning,” Dunbar said after Friday’s stage 19 of the race.

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He had just lost time at the top of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, slipping from fourth to fifth overall but, rather than being disappointed, he kept his eye firmly on the bigger picture. In his eyes, this Giro is a stepping stone to greater things.

Back in 2016 Dunbar outlined the scale of his ambition.

“I am not intimidated by anything,” he told VeloNews then. “It would take a lot to faze me. I just go with the flow. I always say, as long as I enjoy riding my bike, I will keep doing that.

“I have confidence. I do believe one day I have the ability to win the Tour de France,” Dunbar said. “It is a bold statement, but it is something I really want to do. I do believe it is within me to do it, it is up to me to find it within myself.”

Time will tell how close he gets to that target. But seven years on, he has now taken an important step towards grand tour success.

Putting Ireland back into the grand tour conversation

Dunbar climbed with the best across three weeks. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Dunbar’s breakout GC ride has tongues wagging in Ireland.

It’s the first Irish top-10 in a grand tour since Dan Martin’s 10th place in the 2021 Giro. It is also the highest overall finish since Martin’s fourth in the 2020 Vuelta.

Dunbar said the deep support at Jayco-AlUla helped him stay focused on the task at hand.

“It’s only a stressful as you make it, and thankfully the guys made it easy for me these last three weeks to be kind of stress-free, to a certain extent,” Dunbar said. “A lot of guys were a lot more stressed, I felt. That’s one thing I probably learned over the three weeks – control your stress and you will enjoy it a bit more.”

Dunbar’s top-10 in Rome on Sunday puts him in elite company.

In all just seven Irish riders have finished in the top 10 of grand tour. They are Shay Elliott, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Philip Deignan, Dan Martin, Nicolas Roche, and now Dunbar. Between them they have notched up 25 top-10s in all.

Elliott was the first of those, netting third overall in the 1962 Vuelta. Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche were the best, winning the 1988 Vuelta [Kelly] and the 1987 Giro/Tour double [Roche].

Dunbar’s strong Giro adds impetus to Irish cycling and helps fill the gap created by the retirement of Martin and his first cousin Nicolas Roche at the end of 2021. Ben Healy’s strong debut also gives encouragement. The 22-year-old on EF Education-EasyPost won stage 8, was second on stage 15, and spent two days in the mountains classification jersey before finishing third in that competition.

Like Dunbar, he will be stronger in future years. Depending on how they progress, both could become grand tour podium contenders in time.

The future of Irish cycling is safe for the time being.

Earning early praise with big ambition

Dunbar hung with the top GC favorites deep into the mountains. (Photo: Gruber Images/VeloNews)

Like any rider, Dunbar’s cycling backstory is full of highs and lows, hurdles and early signs of racing prowess.

Dan Curtin is the founder of the Kanturk Cycling Club and someone who took Dunbar under his wing as a very young rider. He remembers his early drive.

“Eddie always wanted to be at the very top,” he said in 2019. “He always had that ambition, to be right up there.”

However cycling wasn’t his first love. Dunbar was initially more interested in rugby, playing that sport for eight years and also dabbling in football, the Irish sport of hurling, and cross-country running.

His father Eamonn was a rugby coach who was passionate about that sport but who became increasingly drawn to cycling. He joined Curtin’s club and his son also drifted in that direction.

“I think he preferred cycling and that brushed off on me a bit,” Dunbar explained in 2016. “I was better at cycling than I was at rugby. It was something that spurred me on.

“I used to watch cycling with him and he loved the Tour de France. He used to help Dan Curtin out a lot in the club,” he said. “They got on well. Dan coached me, my father let Dan do what he wanted. In that sense he was good. He never interfered. Some fathers do, they spoon-feed their children, but my father never did that with me. He would back off.”

Sadly, Dunbar’s father suffered from progressive kidney disease and died in 2010, when Dunbar was just 13 years of age. He describes that as “probably the defining moment” of his sporting path. He continued playing rugby for another year but found it too difficult to get to training in Cork city. So he gave up that sport and committed fully to cycling.

But Curtain said the seeds of ambition had already been long sewn by then.

“Ever since he was 11 years of age, he spoke about wanting to win the Tour de France,” he said. “He said that he was going to win this or win that. That was always and forever how he was. He was motivated for all those things and always had it inside his head he was heading there.”

Eamonn Dunbar’s passing could have derailed him but it had the opposite effect. The teenager wore a locket around his neck containing some of his father’s hair, and drew on memories as motivation.

“I used to watch cycling with him and he loved the Tour de France. That is probably what drives me a bit,” he said back in 2016.

But things didn’t come easy early on. He was small and slight and at a disadvantage to bigger riders on mostly flat Irish roads, yet rode aggressively in each race he did.

He became known for his early attacks, spending many kilometers off the front of Irish bunches. And while some riders initially profited from that by sitting on him and then sprinting by at the finish, Dunbar grew ever stronger.

He won more and more as time passed. He remains the only rider in its 43-year history to take two editions of the Junior Tour of Ireland. He was shining abroad too, winning the Junior Tour of Wales in 2014. One year later he finished ninth in the European U23 championship time trial at 18.

In 2015 Dunbar attracted serious attention, pulling off an audacious 100km breakaway in the under-23 La Côte Picarde Nations Cup event. He opened a huge lead over the peloton and while the bunch eventually brought him back, he won the mountains and intermediate sprints classifications and was named most aggressive competitor.

Significantly, his exploit earned high praise from Eddy Merckx, cycling’s best-ever rider.

“He was behind me for three hours in the car,” Dunbar told VeloNews in 2016. “He didn’t even shake hands with the winner, but he came up to me afterwards and said well done. He said that was very impressive, I think he liked it, it is what he used to do as a rider. Maybe he enjoyed seeing it again.”

Dunbar had already been in contact with the Axeon Hagens Berman team owned by Merckx’s son Axel. Amid suggestions that Merckx senior advised the team to take him on, Dunbar was signed by the squad and spent two years there. He won the under 23 Tour of Flanders during his second year and, after a spell with the Aqua Blue Sport Pro Cycling Team in 2018, moved to Team Sky in September of that year.

That was the beginning of a very productive period of time, but also a very frustrating one.

‘I am not going to lie … I was very disappointed’

Dunbar paid back Jayco-AlUla’s faith in his GC ambitions. (Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Things went well early on with Ineos Grenadiers. Dunbar finished third overall in the Tour of Yorkshire in 2019 and went on to start his first grand tour, riding for Pavel Sivakov in the Giro d’Italia. He was third on a stage and 22nd overall there, and emerged hoping to ride further grand tours and to keep developing.

Instead, he endured a three-year block without any of those races. Illness and injury played a part. He crashed at Tirreno-Adriatico in 2020 and missed the Giro due to a fractured collarbone. One year later COVID-19 ruled him out of the Vuelta. But it is also clear that he had fewer and fewer opportunities at talent-stacked Sky/Ineos Grenadiers.

He was regularly required to ride for others, such as helping Richard Carapaz win the 2021 Tour de Suisse, when Dunbar was fourth on a stage and 12th overall. But despite strong form, he was repeatedly passed over for grand tour selection.

Things came to a head in 2022. Dunbar won the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, his first pro victory, and believed a Giro ride was assured. Instead Ineos told him he wouldn’t be taking part.

“I am not going to lie. I was very disappointed,” he said in May 2022. “To miss out on the Giro was one of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever had to receive, really. I was very down for a few days. But it gets to a point where you can keep being down or you can start to bring yourself up. One thing I’ve learned is that you can get stuck in a rut very easy, and that’s not a nice place to be.”

Dunbar bounced back in the best possible way. He went to the Tour de Hongrie, and won that as well.

“I’m a professional, I’m very professional. I’m an honest guy, and I get paid to do a job,” he said then. “So I will always do it to the best of my ability. No matter that I was disappointed, I was still able to come back and to do what I was asked.”

Those two wins peaked interest from other teams. Jayco-AlUla had previously been in contact, with sports director Matt White showing interest in him for several years. The squad promised him leadership, showing faith and belief in him which he didn’t get at Ineos Grenadiers, and he signed a three-year deal.

The 2023 season is the first year of that contract and he has rewarded Jayco-AlUla’s faith in him.

Seventh overall in the Giro is encouraging, but only tells half the story.

He was sitting fourth overall on stage 18, rubbing shoulders with eventual winner Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), Geraint Thomas (Ineos-Grenadiers) and Joâo Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) on the climbs. And while he slipped back on stages 19 and 20, he lacks the grand tour depth and experience of the other riders. This Giro is only his second three-week race.

He also had a very disrupted preparation, missing two months of racing due to a hand fracture sustained in his first day of competition this year.

It’s clear that Dunbar has plenty of room for improvement. This Giro will stand to him, and should see him perform strongly in this year’s Vuelta a España, and in future grand tours.

So how good can he be? Alex Camier is Dunbar’s coach and said earlier this year that the data is very encouraging.

“His potential on paper seems very good. His capacity as an athlete is impressive. For a high 50 kilos, sub 60 kilo rider, we’ve got a lot of data as a team. We’ve had three GC guys come through the team in that sort of weight category. And he’s as impressive as the best of those.”

Those three riders? Adam and Simon Yates, and Esteban Chaves.

Between them they have won one grand tour, taken three podium finishes and clocked up 15 stage wins. It’s illustrious company to be in, and Dunbar could well go on to similarly big achievements.

He’s talented, driven and has always worked hard. Former coach Curtin remembers a young Dunbar as an incredibly focused person.

“You hadn’t to wait for Eddie for anything, whether it was coming to training, or going away with a team to the races. If we were staying somewhere overnight, Eddie would be down first thing in the morning with everything ready. He had his bottles done himself, he had his food ready.

“He would be sitting there in the minibus ready to go, whereas with other fellas you would be constantly chasing them. You’d be telling them to be in bed at nine or half nine; Eddie would already be in his.”

He believes the best is yet to come.

“He won’t be happy until he wins a grand tour. This Giro will stand to him. There are no two ways about it. This is taking the boy out of him now, he is going into manhood.”

A top-10 at the 2023 Giro is a huge step toward that goal. The best seems yet to come.

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