Dublin cycling legend Sé O’Hanlon talks about his Rás record, cardiac arrest, rebirth and exercise in the 80s
The yellow jersey still stands.
Sé O’Hanlon doesn’t know what year it’s from or what catwalks he wore it on, just that it dates back to the 1960s when he led Rás Tailteann.
It’s 60 years since O’Hanlon won his first Rás, the first of four victories in the famous stage race, but the 80-year-old Dubliner still looks fitter.
“I never stopped cycling, I just couldn’t start again,” he says.
No one has spent more time in the yellow of the Rás than O’Hanlon.
From 1959 to 1984 he won a record 24 stages and for three consecutive years in the 1960s he wore the leader’s jersey exclusively.
“I think I spent something like six months of my life riding the Rás. It’s a terrible loss of youth,” he laughs.
“Oh no, I don’t really mean that.”
The Rás returns this year after a four-year gap with national and international cyclists set to battle it out over five stages, starting in Tallaght on Wednesday.
O’Hanlon plans to watch some of the action along the way.
He is still active on the bike, covering 25km twice a week and is a regular at the Awesome Walls indoor climbing center in Finglas.
“I also go there twice a week,” he says.
“I fell off the wall one day. I climbed the wall and the next moment I was suspended because I had suffered cardiac arrest.
“That was six years ago.
“It was a scare for the whole family, they were kind of told I wouldn’t live, but I lived and here I am back on the other side, still doing things.”
It was the quick thinking of the staff at Awesome Walls and the perseverance of the firefighters that saved him.
“I was very lucky that the staff had taken a refresher course the week before on CPR. They allowed me to continue,” he says.
“Then the firefighters arrived. They got me in the ambulance and they thought I was starving.
“They were giving me darts with the defibrillator and nothing happened and the guy was about to give up and he said ‘I think this guy is going to hang on’ so he kept giving me darts.
“Actually, I got hooked.
“But your life depends on little things, even on someone’s attitude.”
The experience and the fragility of life
reminded O’Hanlon of a story his late father Jimmy had told him.
Jimmy O’Hanlon was one of the anti-Treaty rebels who occupied the Four Courts during the Battle of Dublin.
It’s near the 100th anniversary of the siege that marked the start of the Civil War and the story has always stayed with O’Hanlon.
“That’s about the only story he ever told me (about it),” he says.
“He was in the four yards and he and another guy were looking out the window.
“There was a passerby on the street, lecturing them for causing trouble and all that.
“The guy with my dad said, ‘I’ll hook it up.’
“And my dad said, ‘Ah don’t bother, don’t waste it.’ And he didn’t shoot him.
“It struck me how finely balanced life is.
“This guy’s life depended on my dad saying, ‘Oh don’t bother. And my life depended on the guy from the fire department saying, “I think he might hang on.”
Fear of health did not slow him down. He hasn’t lost any of his competitive streak either.
When he rides with former cycling buddies, he always tries to outdo them, because they are with him.
Always on each other’s wheels. I always try to open the taps.
Even in the car with red lights, he finds himself trying to get away as quickly as possible, always looking for a break.
O’Hanlon was born just off Dorset Street on Innisfallen Parade and rode for the Clan Brugha club in Dublin.
At the time, national cycling was divided along Civil War lines, and O’Hanlon was part of the National Cycling Association – a 32-county organization that was banned from competing in international events.
But what the NCA lacked in international competition, it made up for with the Rás – a grueling road race across the country.
O’Hanlon finished 13th in his first Rás in 1959 at age 17 and sixth the following year. After finishing third in 1961, he was determined to win it in 1962.
“I kind of started to visualize the whole thing, like people do now,” O’Hanlon says.
“No one had heard of visualization back then. I kept convincing myself that I was going to win the race.
“Also, I was going to come alone to Phoenix Park on the last day with the yellow jersey. And by Jesus,
I did it.”
O’Hanlon took the yellow jersey on day two and had built up an extraordinary lead of over 19 minutes by the time he headed home alone.
It remains the biggest margin ever in racing and his parents, Jimmy and Susan, were there to see him do it.
“They didn’t do a lot of races, they never had a car. But they were in the park for the finish and they were thrilled,” he said.
“I can still see the day. Walk down the road and cross the line and say, “Job done, see you next time.”
After a stint in France, he began a period of unrivaled dominance in the Rás in 1965.
From the opening day of the race in 1965 until the last day of the renewal in 1967, O’Hanlon was the only rider to wear the yellow jersey.
“Years later, in the 1990s, I started putting all of Rás’ results on a website,” he says.
“It was only then, 30 years later, that I realized I had been the only one to wear the shirt for three years. I was totally blown away.
“When you do these things, you do. And you move on to the next one, you don’t just sit there and talk about it.
One stage in particular remains in his mind from this period when he was the king of the road.
“It was Ballinasloe’s fifth stop at Castleisland in 1967,” he says.
“I attacked at the start and took to the road with two or three others.
“We had 110 miles ahead of us to Castleisland.
“You would never consciously set out to do that. But I fell into it and had to keep going.
“I managed to stay out of the way from the start when the flag went down until the finish in Castleisland, and that’s something I value.”
The visit of the Czechoslovakian team in 1968 was also particularly memorable for O’Hanlon.
“These boys were really good,” he says.
“I had an argument with the Czechs after the first day and Milan Hrazdíra, the guy who eventually won the Rás, came to me.
“He was giving away yards in Czech about our tactics and he spat on the ground.
“It was very funny because my wife Marie, she came over and kicked him in the shin.
“She was famous in our family forever. Defend your man!
O’Hanlon remained a force in racing throughout the 1970s and was in the pack when Stephen Roche won in 1979.
He was also instrumental in ending the split in Irish cycling as chairman of the NCA and bringing the sport together under one umbrella.
After falling ill and dropping out of the 1983 race, he decided the 1984 Rás would be his last.
“I didn’t like the idea of finishing my last Rás in the car,” he said.
“So I said I would do it next year to finish on my bike, but it was kind of an anti-climax.
“When you’re in a race and your intention is just to finish it, it’s not the same thing.
“I would call it a lack of ambition.”
When he returned in 1985 it was in a car, driving race official Jack Watson around the country.
On one stage they were following a break when Watson told him they were getting too close to the riders.
“I forgot I was driving a car, I thought I was still racing,” he says.
The Rás was a big part of his life and he remained involved in various forms as new stars like Sam Bennett emerged and put their names on the stage winners board.
After a four-year hiatus, O’Hanlon is thrilled to have the race back on the calendar.
“You get used to the fact that you are a fossil in the limestone of the event that unfolds year after year,” says O’Hanlon.
“But when the real rock disappears and takes the fossil with it…you know…it’s a shame.
“So it’s great to see him again.”
He laughs at the suggestion of a ceremonial starting position in the lineup.
The competitive advantage is still too strong…
“I would start nudging someone,” he laughs.
He has four children; Emmett, Ronan, Aisling and Seán and 10 grandchildren and has lived with Seán since the death of his wife Marie in 2016.
And he has no intention of slowing down either.
“I cycle about 25 km now,” he says.
“I think about the things we did years ago and what I’m doing now seems less than pathetic.
“On the other hand, I know I’m lucky to be able to do what I’m able to do.
“And Bob Dylan is still hooking up. There are a lot of old guys still hanging around.
“I’m 80, I’m active, I’m lucky.”
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