By Graham Healy
Back in 1992, a young man from Belfast had one of the best ever performances by an Irish amateur cyclist. The particular performance was when Conor Henry took the overall win in The Milk Race.
The top amateur race in Britain had its inaugural edition back in 1958 and Irish riders had come close to victory a number of times, but the overall win had eluded them, despite some near misses.
Peter Doyle had finished third in 1968, winning the points and mountains jersey along the way. Sean Kelly had claimed a couple of stage wins when he was an amateur and Billy Kerr finished in ninth place in 1978. It looked likely that an Irishman would finally claim the overall win in 1983, when Paul Kimmage came so close, but he lost the lead due to a mechanical issue with just a day remaining.
In the 1980s, the race was opened up to professionals which made the likelihood of a win for an Irish amateur even less likely. There was still hope of a stage win though.
Conor Henry, Stephen Spratt, Kevin Kimmage, Paul Slane, Mark Kane and Ian Chivers were the riders selected on the Irish team for the 1992 race, with Henry being included as a late replacement for Robert Power.
All eyes would be on the professionals from the Banana-Met and Collstrop-Histor teams though, and it was expected that it would be one of the riders from these teams who would win the race overall.
However, after Kevin Kimmage had a memorable stage win the previous year, the Irish team felt that they could do something in the race. The Irish team manager, Alasdair MacLennan would recall that “Kimmage’s stage win in ’91 gave us confidence that we could do well in ’92.”
The race got off to a disastrous start for Henry. At the prologue in Penzance in the South West of England, he somehow managed to somersault off the start ramp. In front of a big crowd, he steered to the left coming down the start ramp and fell. He explained afterwards “It cost me 30 to 40 seconds. The pusher didn’t shove me hard enough and I lost my momentum. But it was my pride which was hurt most.”
The following stage didn’t go much better as Ireland finished 15th out of 18 teams in the team time trial from Land’s End to Penzance, which was won by the Collstrop-Histor team, although according to MacLennan, that was more or less the result they expected.
However, that afternoon, Henry showed that despite a bad start, he was actually in good form. On the stage to Bideford, he infiltrated a nine man break midway through the stage which then reduced to four coming towards the finish. He managed to get third on the stage.
On those early stages of the race, it did not seem that the Irish team were taking themselves too seriously, and maybe they were lacking belief that they could make an impact.
Henry would explain afterwards, “Stephen Spratt and I had an eating competition during the first few stages, each determined to out-eat the other. He had told me how good the hotels were and how much food there was to be eaten. We were so tired after eating so much that we were falling asleep in the Jacuzzi.”
However, they would soon start to take the race very seriously. Henry followed up his third place with more consistent performances as he climbed up the leader board. By the time the race reached its midway point at Liverpool, he had moved up to 13th place overall, but was still over four minutes down on the race leader, Willy Willems of Belgium.
A top ten seemed like a reasonable target, but with growing belief within the Irish camp, they wanted more. Stage 8 took the riders 190 kilometres from Blackpool to Darlington, and Ian Chivers followed the plan for shaking up the race by setting off up the road. He was joined by 10 others including Henry.
MacLennan recounts the attack, “Chivers was trying to make it into all the moves that day. “Squeaky” has one of the best stage race brains, and he saw that apart from (Neil) Hoban, there were no big threats in the group. This was in the days before race radios, and he had to figure out the threats in the group himself before the team car could get up to him. Chivers drove the break flat out for 15 miles.”
The two Irish riders along with Neil Hoban of the Banana-Met team did the majority of the work. The break grew to nearly 8 minutes at one stage. Chivers was dropped but managed to get back to the leaders to help drive the group again. However, his tenacious fight back to the lead group wasn’t all as it seemed. “The commissaire was pretty lenient regarding a sticky bottle,” according to MacLennan.
Chivers was dropped a second time, this time for good. The peloton did manage to reduce the leaders’ gap but were unable to haul them back.
Henry finished in 8th place in Darlington to take over yellow by just 12 seconds from Willy Willems of Collstrop-Histor. It had been an incredible performance by the Irish duo. Behind in the peloton that day, Mark Kane crashed over a fence, but escaped relatively unscathed. That was important as Henry would need every team mate to try and defend his lead.
It was great to get yellow, but could he hang on to it for four more stages? After eight days of racing, there was a lot of tiredness in the legs of the Irish team, and with numerous others within striking distance, the team were going to have contend with a lot of attacks.
Henry finished in the bunch on his first day defending yellow, but it was the following day to Scarborough, where many expected him to lose the lead. Numerous attacks went throughout the stage, but he responded each time to retain the jersey for another day.
He now had just two stages left. The Irish team may have initially been seen as being there to make up the numbers during the first week of the race and there to have a good time, but they were deadly serious now. Each of the team were driving themselves into the ground to help defend his lead, and the British and Belgian pros were coming under increasing pressure from their directeurs sportifs to regain the yellow from the amateur rider.
MacLennan recalls that, “the pros felt they could pick and choose amongst themselves who would take the yellow jersey, and they were content for the Paddies to hold onto it for a few days and control the race. There was contempt for the Irish team. A big division emerged between the pros and the amateurs in the race. Conor was friends with (Danish rider) Lars Michaelsen who was his team mate in France.”
“Lars had a fight with one of the Collstrop guys earlier in the race. So, the Danes were on our side, so were the Dutch, and some British amateurs, guys like Gethin Butler and Matt Stephens. At this stage of the race, the pros just wanted to make sure that an amateur didn’t win as it just showed them up.”
The penultimate stage took the riders from York to Lincoln and there were some big splits in the bunch in crosswinds at one stage, but Henry managed to stay in the front group, thanks in no small measure to the help from Stephen Spratt.
The Banana-Met and Collstrop-Histor teams tried to get rid of him, but he couldn’t be shaken. Willy Willems tried to drop him on the second last climb on the finishing circuit, but failed. He now had just one stage left, an 80 kilometre circuit race in Lincoln. MacLennan says that “We knew it would be a fight to the death in Lincoln.”
By now, the Irish team were on their hands and knees, but were doing what they could to try and defend their team mate’s lead. Henry led Willems by 19 seconds, with another four riders within a minute of his lead. He came under numerous attacks once again on that stage, but couldn’t be shaken. However, another of the Belgians, who hadn’t seemed like a threat attacked. Peter Verbeken, who was 2-15 down on GC soon started to eat into Henry’s lead.
At this stage, the Irish team were fighting as hard as they could to hold onto yellow. “On that last stage, Irish guys were getting dropped, literally stopping on the side of the road, waiting for the bunch, doing another turn at the front until they got dropped again,” recalls MacLennan.
“The commissaire was telling me that the lapped Irish riders needed to pull out of the race. Again, this was before race radios, so I shouted back through the window that they were criterium rules, and stage race rules were different.”
Was MacLennan sure at the time of what he was telling the commissaire? “No, but I was hoping I was right.”
Verbeken was now picking up time bonuses at the head of the race and at one stage, had drawn level with the Belfastman. It seemed that it would be another glorious near-miss for an Irish rider in the race.
Amongst the spectators waiting at the finish line was his mother Pat who watched anxiously as her son seemed to be losing the race overall. Also there was Paul Kimmage. “He can’t do it, he can’t do it,” Kimmage was heard to say. Henry rallied though as Verbeken lost momentum. The Belgian won the stage, with Henry finishing a minute and a half later. He had won.
As soon as Henry crossed the line to take yellow, the team mechanic Tony Campbell went into the nearest pub and emerged with pints for himself and Alasdair MacLennan. It had been a long two weeks.
The Irish rider’s winning margin was 19 seconds from Willy Willems, and he joined the likes of Hennie Kuiper, Eric van Lancker and Malcolm Elliott as victors of the race.
He said afterwards, “I was totally blitzed, thank God the nightmare is over. I was so smashed because I had to do so much chasing. I was seeing stars on that last lap. I didn’t know what was going on, people were shouting two minutes at me and I didn’t know what it meant. I only knew I was behind when one of the Banana riders told me. It was a savage stage, and crazy finish for this kind of race. The Bananas went early but my team kept the bunch going and they came back.”
It had been an incredibly nerve-wracking race, as his mother said afterwards, “I never want to go through that again.” It was also a relief for the whole Irish team. Regarding the good times that they had been having early on in the race, Henry would later say “Wearing the yellow jersey nearly ruined it for all of us.”
It looked likely that Henry would help to fill the void being left by the retirements of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche at that time. He was offered a stagiare contract later that season with the Dutch TVM team, which was in effect a trial to see if a cyclist had what it took to make it as a professional, and also whether he could be a good fit for the team.
Henry lined up for the team in the Tour de l’Avenir, where he was competing against some top professional teams such as Castorama, RMO and Motorola. The Belfastman rode particularly well, finishing 2nd on one stage in front of the likes of Lance Armstrong, Evgeni Berzin and Laurent Brochard, and it was looking very promising for him that he would be signed.
Unfortunately, Henry struggled in subsequent races in Italy for TVM and this drop off in form decided his fate. One of the directeurs sportifs for TVM, Guido van Calster said, “I know how difficult it is for an amateur to adapt to professional racing. I’m saying that here is a talent for two years’ time. He knows what he has to do. We can see he is an athlete with talent, but he wasn’t in condition in Italy.”
Robert Millar, who rode with TVM at that time, couldn’t believe that team manager Cees Priem couldn’t recognise his talent, and was said to have felt that it was an idiotic decision by TVM not to sign Henry. Alasdair MacLennan said that it was his commercial reasons that prevented them from signing him, as they opted to go with Dutch riders instead.
Henry said at the end of the season that TVM “will be watching how I do, and they are to keep in touch, but there is nothing definite about joining them. They have put it on hold for a few months.”
He returned to France as an amateur the following season, but unfortunately, he wasn’t offered a professional contract by TVM, or any other team for that matter. He would eventually give up his dream of turning professional, and his story really highlighted how difficult it was to gain a pro contract.
After initially hanging up his wheels, he made a comeback a few years afterwards, competing for Northern Ireland in the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. He showed he still had it, as he finished in 14th place, ahead of the likes of Stuart O’Grady and Matt White. He retired again soon afterwards, this time for good. He moved to England where he would establish a successful career for himself.
The Milk Race finished the following year, leaving Henry as the only Irish winner, but as Stephen Spratt said to him after his win, “You may have won the Milk Race, but you haven’t won the Rás Tailteann!”