‘You tell me any other sport that comes into Dublin Airport with a world title and gets no reception at all?’

“I was 33 before I really started cycling,” says Eve McCrystal, the Dundalk woman who is undoubtedly the most decorated Irish cyclist of all time.

I’d done a few IronMans, but my daughters were very small, so I had to choose a sport,” she recalls. “Cycling was my best of the three, so I tried that. My first race was in the Ladies’ League at Corkagh Park. I had no idea what I was doing. Suddenly I looked behind me and there was nobody. I just kept going and won.”

In the 11 years since, McCrystal has won many more. Aside from a long list of national road racing victories, the Dundalk woman has four bronze medals, three silver medals and one gold medal in the national time trial championship, and two silver medals and another gold medal in the road racing championship.

“I was always there, but didn’t win a national title until 2018,” she says. “Then two years later I won the title in the time trial.”

While she has been at the forefront of the local women’s scene for over a decade, it was a move to para-cycling as a tandem pilot for the visually impaired Katie-George Dunlevy that earned McCrystal six world titles and three Paralympic titles, among several other medals.

It was her time trial prowess that Neil Delahaye, Cycling Ireland’s paracycling coach, first caught her attention after her first ride at Nationals earned her a bronze medal.

“When I took bronze at Carlingford in 2013, it coincided with Sandra Fitzgerald stepping down as Katie’s pilot,” she explains. “As a result of this result, Neil contacted me and asked if I would be interested in becoming Katie’s pilot. I did some tests at the Institute of Sport to see if I had the potential and I must have done something right.”

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The next step was to see if she could handle a tandem.

“I’ll never forget that,” she laughs. “I’ve never been on a tandem in my life… and I haven’t ridden a bike for too long either. He just handed me the bike and said, ‘Let’s go!’ I had to navigate all the roundabouts in Swords, which was a bit scary. But Katie was an established stoker, so she was able to explain everything to me.”

Since then, McCrystal have mastered the fine art of riding a two-person bike and the dynamic duo have represented Ireland at every major international competition, bringing para-cycling and para-sports in general to every household in the country.

“I control the gears, the brakes and the quick decisions on the road, but Katie knows exactly what’s happening,” says McCrystal. “If I get out of the saddle without telling her, she’s after me. She knows my body language so well. She reacts to my body language. She knows if I’m under pressure. She feels the pressure on the pedals, almost knows what watts I’m doing or what zone I’m in. We do communicate, but we’ve been together so long that a few words are enough. We are totally in sync.

“Technically, you have to remember that you can’t take the corners like you would on your own. But to be honest, I just think I’m on my own. When the bike runs well, you feel like you’re on your own.”

The duo’s most recent win came at the Para-Cycling World Championships in Canada, where they outsmarted a powerful British pair to claim their sixth world title and another set of rainbow jerseys.

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“They used to beat us in a sprint every time, so there was no way we could get them there,” she says of the duo’s tactics after the race hit the spot.


Eve McCrystal and Katie-George Dunlevy with their gold medals after winning their sixth world title earlier this month in Canada

“There were 14 climbs on the course and we almost did a copy of what we did in Tokyo. We attacked them on the climb and got a gap. In Tokyo it was only a kilometer from the line, but in Canada we rode the last 15km by ourselves.

“We had tested them on the hills during the race and checked where we could get a gap. I knew we were stronger going up and that we would be able to dig and get away. It’s hard to get away with the tandem. Once we had a gap, we didn’t talk to the finish line.”

One of the unexpected benefits of tandem racing, McCrystal found, was the speed at which two people on one bike can ascend.

“People underestimate how fast tandems can go,” she says. “We can sit cruising on a low-intensity zone 2 spin at 22 mph from the training spin. We were in the high 40’s for a time trial and came down a downhill run in Canada at 83 km/h. Below was a sharp left turn. I love the adrenaline rush of it.”

In the end, the duo had one minute and 36 seconds to pass British rivals Sophie Unwin and Jenny Holl, while a second Irish pair, Josephine Healion and Linda Kelly, took the bronze medal as they beat the Polish tandem in a sprint to the finish line defeated although their chain came loose in the final.

“Having another female tandem this year has been phenomenal,” says McCrystal. “It was great for them because we could talk to them. I could talk to Linda from pilot to pilot and say, ‘This is what I do. . .’ and maybe she can learn from me. You’ve had great experience at the World Championships and you’re just getting better and better. That’s what you want. You want the sport to progress and you want other athletes to look at you and say we can do it.”

Despite her success, McCrystal doesn’t care too much about the fanfare that accompanies it, although she says there are other reasons for it and admits she was disappointed with the response to her latest world title.

“We had two world titles at Dublin Airport,” she says passionately. ‘Are you telling me any other sport that comes into Dublin Airport with a world title and gets no reception at all? We don’t do it for the fame or the slaps on the back. We do it for the visually impaired kids at home or the kids with disabilities who might see us and say, ‘I could do that’.”

Now 44, there is little sign of McCrystal slowing down, although her place in Paris 2024 is not guaranteed.

“The ideal would be to have two bikes in Paris. Linda Kelly is the pilot of the other tandem. She is a phenomenal rider. She learns her craft. Because I’m older I just want to make sure I’m the right pilot for Katie. I want to make sure I’m the pilot who can bring her another gold medal.

“I would never take the place of anyone who could be better than me. i trust neil I trust the coaches and they will tell me what’s what and I’ll follow that.”

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