Pro cyclist Stephen Gallagher is in it for the long haul, reports Sinead McNicholl
For those involved in sport, making it as a professional athlete can be an uphill struggle. But the dream became a reality for NI cyclist Stephen Gallagher, who now races for Team Murphy and Gunn-Newlyn-M Donnelly & Sean Kelly. This may be the most confusing team name in the history of sport, but is a recognised and respected name within the cycling world nonetheless.
Gallagher was born into a cycling family (father Noel was also a professional cyclist) so it was no surprise when he decided to take to the road at the tender age of seven. By the time he had turned 13, Gallagher knew what he wanted to do with his life and started to take cycling seriously.
'I was brought up around bikes,' Gallagher explains. 'My dad raced internationally, but it was never something that was forced on me. I guess it was just natural that I would become a cyclist.'
In NI there are many cycling clubs which Gallagher believes can be a great starting point for young riders interested in the sport. In his hometown of Richill, the Orchard Wheelers are one such club, regulars on the roads of Co Armagh.
'The domestic scene here is at a high standard and I think that helped me to progress to the next level,' says the 27-year-old. 'It was really a personal decision to move into the international field. As a kid I was brought up watching the races here and abroad. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. It really excited me. I guess I was quite headstrong. At school I didn’t have much of an interest in anything else except cycling. At an early age I made the decision that I would be a cyclist and it was all or bust.'
Gallagher made a name for himself on the amateur elite circuit throughout Europe before moving to professional level. But sacrifices had to be made, and one of the hardest aspects of competing as a professional for Gallagher is the fact that he has to relocate for more than half of the year, for training purposes. His current team is located in Belgium, which means long spells away from his wife and family.
'I have really been living away from home since I was 17,' Gallagher reveals. 'At the beginning I found it quite exciting. I lived in France for four years, Italy for a year, Belgium for three years and was based in Asia last year. It can be difficult as you get older, and obviously with my wife here at home, she can spend a lot of time on her own. But I still see it as one of the benefits of cycling. I have learnt to speak a lot of different languages and seen so much of the world. I certainly feel priviliged - you have to look at the positives.'
Another downside of the sport is the high risk of injuries during races. With so many cyclists contending for places, collisions are almost routine - the dreaded domino effect holds many dangers.
'Unfortunately I have quite a list of injuries. I've had broken scapulas, wrists, collar bones, tendonitis on my knee, a couple of hernia operations and of course there’s the road burns and scratches. When you fall on a bike, a bit of Lycra won’t help much. But it’s part of the job that you have to accept. You try not to think about it.'
So far for Gallagher, the highs have outweighed the lows. One of the most memorable moments of his career thus far was being selected for the Junior World Championships in 1998. His NI team were not regarded as championship contenders, but went on to win the race ahead of the fancied French and Italian teams.
'Representing NI at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne last year was a big occasion for me. It was something that I had been focusing on for quite a while,' Gallagher recalls. 'And one of the most memorable times was signing my first professional contract in Italy and knowing that I was achieving my dream.'
Gallagher has many years left in his legs yet and is looking forward to upcoming races before the winter break. Cycling may be a lone sport, where the individual struggles against both nature's obstacles and themeselves. But Gallagher is adamant that no cyclist can achieve success without the support of family and friends.
'It’s a lifestyle, not just a sport. It affects what I do 24 hours a day, from when I get up in the morning until I go to sleep at night, and I am grateful to the people around me for believing in my dream. I feel that I have to repay them and be successful and that drives me. Cycling is my life.'