Sunday 19 September 2010

JJ McCormack - a personal tribute by Sean Fox

JJ (second left) and Sean (far right) regale their audience with tales of past glories
during a cafe stop in Majorca.
It was with deep sadness that I learned last week of the death of my very dear friend JJ McCormack.

I met JJ in the early 1950's when I joined the Eagle Cycle Racing Club of which he was a prominent member from the time he came to Dublin from his native Birr, Co. Offaly. We immediately became friends possibly because we both had Offaly connections, my mother also being a native of the county.

JJ's roots lay in track racing and he had been a multiple National Champion, racing on grass tracks the length and breadth of the country. Eagle CRC had been formed by track racing stalwarts, including Vinny Lyons and Dick Walsh. With JJ, they were a formidable trio of speed merchants, especially in the almost weekly "gallops" on the 2 mile, 3 mile and 5 mile road circuits in the Phoenix Park, as well as at sports meetings in College Park, Lansdowne Road and elsewhere.

I suppose you could say JJ was the Mark Cavendish of his period, at least in Ireland. Small in stature, slim and handsome, he had great finishing speed but also the endurance to ride every sort of road race, with many successes. He was able to read a finish, follow the right wheel and e in the right place at the critical moment. He was cute as well, evidenced by the true tale of him squeezing between Jim McQuaid and Shay Elliott in a bunch finish in the Phoenix Park, yelling "Let me through, I think I can win". Amazingly, they both moved over, he shot between them and actually won! A true story - I was behind them and saw and heard it.

JJ represented Ireland on a number of occassions, for example in the Manx International on the Isle of Man and at the World Amateur Road Race Championships in Zandvoort, Holland in 1959. On the day before that race the team, with manager Billy Stewart, cycled out to Zandvoort from their Amsterdam hotel to look at the course, part of which was along a seaside promenade. As they rode at slow speed along the prom, a young lady in a bikini appeared up some steps. Our quintet looked in wonderment at this apparition (remember this was 1959 and bikinis had not yet reached Ireland!). Wheels touched and JJ, with the rest of the Irish squad as well as their manager, lay in a heap on the ground. Unfortunately Billy Stewart ended up in a Dutch hospital requiring extensive surgery to his face, which resulted in myself, as a delegate, having to take over his role as team manager of a somewhat scarred quartet.

JJ persuaded the Eagle and Emerald clubs to co-organise a two day stage race from Dublin to Birr and back to Dublin. He made extensive use of family and friends in Birr, his home town, to arrange overnight accomodation for riders and entourage and organised the finish and marshalling. I have a vivid recollection of JJ riding at the head of the peloton, directing them as they negotiated the streets of Mountmellick, en route to Birr.

In the early 1960's I lost contact with JJ when marriage and family sent me in different directions. Then, around 1983, my son, Ronan, decided he wanted to take up under-age cycle racing. I took him along to a race and met up again with JJ, who readily agreed to take Ronan under his wing. Before long I found myself being sucked (or perhaps suckered is the better description) by JJ into the Eagle CRC and up to the gills in cycling affairs.

By this stage JJ had created the hugely successful Junior Tour of Ireland - and I found myself in the thick of it. He was a great operator - he had the ability to get to the important person or persons when he required to get something done. He would work his charm, usually successfully, often getting what seemed the impossible. He persuaded the Gardai to provide motorcycle escorts as the Junior Tour went around the country and to operate a rolling closed road system. He even got both sides of O'Connell Street in Dublin closed for the race. He had contacts at the highest levels, often cultivated over the years.

For many years a big percentage of races in the Dublin region were JJ McCormack promotions, with a team of stalwarts he'd built around him. He could, however, at times be difficult to work with, with some very fixed ideas. He had, for example, a limited appreciation of why a company would put money into cycling by way of sponsorship. I think he thought sponsors simply shared his great love of the sport. This caused me some difficulties when I persuaded one organisation to sponsor the points jersey in the Junior Tour. A critical proviso was that this jersey was to be printed in the product colours, blue with the logo in white. I spelled this out but, when the jerseys were delivered on the day before the race started, they were in the traditional Tour De France green. The sponsor went ballistic as their grand marketing plan, photoshoots and so on were scuppered. He didn't return the next year but it all went over JJ's head.

When I recommenced riding my bike, JJ and I teamed up for Sunday runs around North County Dublin. These were very pleasurable ad relaxed outings. JJ was a great companion and was always in great humour. We even took part in the Dublin/Belfast/Dublin Maracycle.

On one occasion, to esacpe the imclement spring weather, we decided to leave our spouses behind and take off with our bikes for a week to Majorca. We stayed in the resort of Magaluf, near Palma. In glorious sunshine we headed off after breakfast, in a different direction each day, to explore the highways and byways of this cycling island. One of our spins took us up the series of hairpin bends on the road to Soller. At the top of the "col" we stopped at a roadside cafe. As we sat under the shade of a tree sipping our cold drinks, two cyclists pulled over having ridden up from Soller. One looked at JJ and said: " Last time I saw you,you were getting out of a bath to let me in".

About 40 years earlier, during the short-lived An Tostal Festival in Ireland, a 4-day cycle race attracted a top class field, including Irish, English and Scottish national teams and other top club teams from the two islands. Stage three wasfrom Cork to Waterford. Near Mitchelstown ad the Galtee Mountains the weather rapidly deteriorated, with rain turning to sleet and then freezing cold snow. Riders retired in droves, more than 100 of them stopping due to the conditions. Eventually around twelve only reached Waterford, coming in over a considerable period of time. They were directed to the Tower Hotel where a bath of hot water had been readied. Each finisher was submerged in the warm water to thaw out. As the English cyclist remembered, JJ was emerging from the bath as he stripped to take his place. Bizarre!

One evening a JJ promotion was due to start at the Grasshopper Pub in Clonee. A promised Garda escort failed to show but JJ quickly got another motorcyclist to volunteer as a mobile marshall. A few miles into the race a Garda on his Honda pulled along beside us and was "verbally assaulted" for being late. The Garda, who knew JJ and was involved with the Garda Cycling Club, protested that he was, in fact, on his way to Trim with an urgent dispatch for the local Superintendent from the Garda Commissioner. He insisted he couldn't work on the bike race. JJ however pulled out his trump card, saying "There'll be two pints for you in th Grasshopper if you come with the race". Let's just say the delivery to the Superintendent was delayed by about an hour!

I'm sure many more people have stories to tell involving JJ.

In his later years he worked for former International cyclist Karl McCarthy and his Biocel business, based in Cork. As well as being his boss, the now deceased Karl was a great friend to JJ, sharing his love of the sport. Karl loved to travel to World Championships and Olympic Games and usually brought JJ with him, covering all their expenses.

In 1987 JJ decided to organise a coach himself, to take supporters overland to Villach, Austria to see the Worlds. He packed out the coach. This was,of course, the year Stephen Roche won the Professional Road Race, to the great delight of all who travelled from Dublin.

It was a staggering blow to me personally when I heard JJ had become afflicted with that terrible scourge, Alzheimers. Some time before he was diagnosed and shortly after JJ was in a road traffic collision with a truck, Ronan and I visited him at his home. It was clear to us that evening that he wasn't his usual self. He seemed unable to remember things said minutes earlier and we found ourselves repeating stories and bits of conversation. But that is not the JJ I will remember. Instead I will remember him as this loveable rogue, so full of life, this funny person, this generous man always ready to help out.

I would like to offer my deepest condolences to Rita and all of the McCormack children, spouses, grandchildren and great-grandchildren on the death of JJ, a loving father who always had great pride in his children and their achievements. He was a great friend to myself, Vera and our children, who all remember him with the deepest fondness.

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