There were double celebrations in Banbridge town centre on Friday evening.
Not only did Banbridge CC host the Irish Criterium Champions, they only went and won the team event as well!
It was always likely to be a good evening, but few could have predicted the success of the championships, as Banbridge CC hosted an evening of short circuit racing in the town centre.
Crowds lined the streets as the racing cyclists provided fast, exciting and nail-biting entertainment for all who made it out.
The evening kicked off with a women’s support race and with two World Masters Champions in the line-up the standard of the racing was always going to be high.
It was local lady Heather Foley of Lisburn’s Maryland Wheelers who stole the show however, powering away from Dubliner Aideen Keenan of Scott Bikes – Orwell and Fiona Guiden of the Irish Centre for Cycling.
The main event of the night hosted the Irish Championships and attracted a top class line up with competitors travelling the length of Ireland to make the start line.
Defending champion Mark Dowling of ASEA Wheelworx started the race as narrow favourite with a strong team backing him, but with such a competitive field it really was hard to call a winner.
Jason Prendergast from Mayo had marked out the race as a key season objective and Conor Hennebry from Carrick-on-Suir was returning home from a string of victories in Belgium.
Local lads Gareth McKee, James Curry, David Montgomery and James Curry were all keen to impress in front of the home crowd also.
With the added attraction of the event being televised for TG4, every rider was keen to make the early moves and gain some airtime for their teams and sponsors, and from the moment Councillor Glenn Barr dropped the starters flag the action was clearly on.
With the race lasting only one hour and with hotspot sprint prizes every 15 minutes, there would be no time for hesitation and the speed started to see the 60 strong field in one long line with riders under pressure from the opening laps.
Lindsay Watson of Plush MTB was the first to win a hotspot prime and with MC Cian Lynch revving up the crowd the spectators were loving the success of the local riders.
Next up it was defending champion Dowling, who had pushed on the pace and formed a breakaway group containing fellow Dubliner Philip Lavery of the Belgian team Baguet-M.I.B.A.-Indulek-Derito, Belfast’s Glenn Kinning of Kinning cycles and Banbridge man Gareth McKee of the host club Banbridge Cycling Club.
Dowling claimed the sprint prize at the half hour mark and the group worked well together to stretch out a lead, but with such strong firepower left in the main bunch there was always a risk of being brought back.
James Curry of Banbridge CC played a great team game and clearly visible at the front of the bunch monitoring any counter attacks and playing minds games with those who had thoughts of trying to bring the front group back.
He was obviously confident in the ability of team mate McKee up front and he was right to be – the Banbridge man was a constant pace setter, putting his breakaway companions under pressure at several stages and claimed the last hotspot prize of evening at the 45 minute mark.
With almost an hours racing completed the front group grew more cautious and measured their efforts with the thought of the final effort for victory looming.
This played into the favour of the much diminished chasing bunch who had closed the gap, and by the time the race had entered the final lap the gap between the two groups was reduced to only two seconds.
The large crowds, delighted with the drama, erupted as McKee lit up the pace and once more as they crossed the line with only a single 1km lap to go.
The finishing straight of Newry St fell quieter with baited breath to see who would exit the final corner on Kenlis St.
The breakaway riders had done enough and it was defending champion Mark Dowling who had opened up the sprint early with 200 meters to go.
Lavery and McKee fought all the way to the line, while Kinning was beginning to be distanced, but no one could match Dowling who claimed the win from Lavery by the narrowest of margins with Banbridge’s Gareth McKee closing out the podium in third.
Both James Curry and John Buller had put in sterling efforts against some of the best riders in Ireland, and the home crowd gave a loud cheer when the judges had confirmed that they had placed well enough for Banbridge CC to claim the team prize at the event.
Banbridge CC members are to be congratulated on their efforts in hosting the Championships and bringing the event to the town.
The vast number of yellow jersey clad volunteers on show erecting safety barriers, podiums and equipment demonstrated the team spirit that had infected not just the riders, but supporters and volunteers.
The club would like to thank the Banbridge public who embraced the racing and added to the atmosphere, and also Banbridge PSNI and ABC Council who assisted with the logistics and planning of the event.