Sunday 17 November 2019

Biggest day since the visit of JFK

Wexford was in the grip of cycling fever in July of 1998, hosting one of the biggest sporting events on the planet. Reporters David Looby and Padraig Byrne rekindle the fire with a look back on the day the Tour de France thrilled thousands

Pikemen line up on both sides as the peloton makes its way across O’Hanrahan Bridge in New Ross, en route to Cork. Picture: PJ Browne
Pikemen line up on both sides as the peloton makes its way across O’Hanrahan Bridge in New Ross, en route to Cork. Picture: PJ Browne

More than 10,000 people watched the Tour de France peloton pass through New Ross on the sunny morning of Monday, July 13, 1998, on the biggest day in the town's storied history since the arrival of President John F Kennedy 35 years previously.

The town and district was buzzing all summer at the thought of the biggest annual event in world sport arriving as the World Cup was ending, complete with television cameras from around the globe. Festivities got under way in earnest the previous Friday when the New Ross Comoradh '98 et Tour de France Festival was opened by the 'Voice of the GAA' Mícheál O'Muircheartaigh. Over the weekend New Ross welcomed thousands of visitors and took on a French flavour, with French food on menus in local restaurants.

The town never looked better, with eight months of preparations by the New Ross Traders' Association paying off. Cherry's Road and John Street looking particularly improved for the big day when the eyes of viewers across the world were set to be firmly fixed on the Barrowside town. There was music, theatre and great entertainment in town all weekend for the festival and along the quays people took time out to view two French naval ships docked at New Ross Port. Sunday's 1798 parade, featuring dozens of local pikemen, pikewomen from Wales, colourful floats, majorettes and marching bands, was a highlight for many.

The Artane Boys Band provided a musical start to Monday which was naturally billed as Tour de France Day.

Early that morning 1,500 vehicles in an advance cavalcade set out from Enniscorthy ahead of the cyclists. At 9.59 a.m. a canon fired from Vinegar Hill and the 189 riders began Stage 2 of Le Tour from the Duffry - a 205 kilometre trip to Cork.

Clonroche was the first village on the route and it had the distinction of being the only village in County Wexford to play host to a bonus sprint that day. Red, white and blue bunting greeted the cyclists as they zoomed through the village - with its newly paved road - to the delight of spectators.

In New Ross, gardaí and council workers were kept busy on crowd control duty, particulalry at Mount Elliott.

The tour's publicity cavalcade was the most enjoyable part of the morning, especially for youngsters who had become disillusioned with waiting hours for the cyclists to appear. Complete with novelty and space age cars, also including a plethora of promotional vehicles and race team cars, the cavalcade sparked huge excitement, while the blaring of race horns and p.a. systems was deafening.

Villages around New Ross emptied as people gathered in the Barrowside town where people lined the streets from 8 a.m., securing the best possible vantage points. The Glenmore Tour de France Committee erected a first class grand stand at the bottom of the hill, affording a birds' eye view of the cyclists. Fresh croissants and coffee were reportedly served and a good few bottles of wine uncorked.

In town local business ground to a halt with hundreds of workers enjoying a one-ff bank holiday weekend Monday.

John Street, North Street and Quay Street were ablaze with French blue, white and red and Irish tricolour flags, while local pikemen provided a poignant reminder of 1798 by lining either side of O'Hanrahan Bridge in salute to the cyclists.

The swirling of four helicopters overhead heralded the imminent arrival of the race, along with the arrival of French and Irish motorcycle police. Liverpudlian Chris Boardman was at the front of the bunch entering New Ross. Within minutes the cyclists were gone in the blink of an eye, but the memory of the occasion still burns bright to this day in thousands of local residents' minds.

Rosbercon residents equally turned out in force to greet the peleton and the Tour led to lengthy road closures on the Waterford side of O'Hanrahan Bridge. In the following Wednesday edition this newspaper signalled the outrage in the community that RTE failed to cover the most important day in the town since the arrival of President John F Kennedy 35 years earlier.

Wexford People

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