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Conor Murphy on his way to TT silver at the Youth Olympics in July and now, in his first weeks as a junior, he is winning elite ‘cross races. He’s looking ahead to the Europeans and Dublin UCI World Cup, not to mention his plans for the 2024 road campaign, with European racing (Photo: Tyler Miller-Sportsfile)

After a year when a new generation of young Irish riders made so much progress, now a another young gun is coming through like a rocket; 16-year-old Conor Murphy out of Clogherhead in Co Louth. Coached by Bryan McCrystal – a former top rider and national Ironman record holder – Murphy is absolutely stomping his way up the ranks.

He collected his first Irish ‘cap’ on the road this year, at the European Youth Olympic Festival in Slovenia, and won silver in the TT – “I just couldn’t believe it, to be honest”. He added that accolade to the nine Irish titles he won in the youth ranks; two apiece in the road race, MTB XC and TT disciplines and one in the criterium.

So far, Murphy has shown he can do everything. While still vey young, the 5th year student from St Joseph’s CBS in Drogheda is well on his way. He was a winner, last December, in the U16 British Cyclocross National Trophy Series. On Sunday – a week after a victory in Switzerland – he won the elite race at the Leinster Cyclocross Series. In his first weeks out of the U16 ranks, Murphy already looks like a seasoned elite athlete; a beast from the north east, much like his coach.

Murphy has an easy manner about him when he speaks to stickybottle; quiet confidence and an absence of any self-imposed pressure. Two things are clear; he absolutely loves riding his bike – indeed bikes – and he sees his performance goal as “doing my best” rather than having to meet any expectations.

Murphy says he’d love to follow Darren Rafferty into the pro road peloton but insists he could never step away from cyclocross as he enjoys it too much (Photo: Sean Rowe)

“I wasn’t gridded so I was down the back and I kind of just worked my way up through the first half a lap,” he says of Sunday’s elite race in Blackwater Park, Navan. “And then I just saw the opportunity and I went from there, on the first lap.”

By the end of the six-lap race he was over a minute up on Jamie Meehan, the Spellman Dublin Port rider who will compete in the U23 race for Ireland at the upcoming European Cyclocross Championships, where Murphy will ride the junior event.

While he has already had a taste of international racing, those Europeans in Pont-Chateau, France, will be the first really big encounter of Murphy’s fledgling cycling career. Asked how he is feeling about, he offers a characteristic relaxed and pragmatic response.

“I’m excited about it,” he says. “I’m just going to see how I can do. I don’t have much pressure, I don’t have UCI points (meaning being gridded at the back). So it’s just about how much I can get up from the back and see how far I can go in the race. I’ll always give it my best. So whatever I do on the day I’ll be happy with, whatever the result is.”

Murphy’s nine national titles to date including two in MTB XC, a discipline he plans to continue finding time for despite plans for a full season on the road in 2024 (Photo: Atom Creates)

Murphy began racing – with Rostrevor MTB – in downhill when he was about six years old. He’s stayed with his first club until now, never feeling the need to change, though some plans are afoot for him for next season.

“I started off downhill racing and then I’ve done Enduro, the mountain bike… I’ve kind of done it all really,” he says, with plans to continue with road, MTB and cyclocross. “I like a bit of everything, I just like riding all the bikes. It’s great, you just don’t get bored of anything when you keep switching up. I love riding all three.”

That approach was very much in evidence at the Youth Olympics in Maribor, Slovenia, in July when the TT and MTB were both goals.

“I wasn’t expecting anything, I was just going to represent Ireland and just to do the best I could. The MTB race… I thought that would be the one. I had the time trial in the back of my mind but I didn’t think it would go that well,” he says of winning TT silver. “I just didn’t believe it to be honest. But you have to re-set pretty quickly and get back to normal training.”

He was in Switzerland the week before last as Ireland’s pick – along with Team WORC’s Greta Lawless, another whose star is shining brightly – at a special UCI-run cyclocross development camp. The riders rounded off the trip with a local cyclocross race; Murphy riding, and winning, the mixed junior-senior event.

“It was great, I picked up on a lot of stuff,” says Murphy. “We had one of the British Cycling coaches with us, Ed Collins, and he’s worked with Cameron Mason and everything. So he was very knowledgeable and I gained a lot from that.”

And on Sunday in Navan he was a winner again, once more against the elites. So he is surprised to be doing as well as he is, against the elites, in these first weeks of the new cyclocross campaign?

“Coming into the season, I knew I was going to be going alright,” he said. “But I don’t really put expectation on myself. I just kind of wanted see how I could go. But I didn’t realise I’d come this far in a year. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be around this (level). So I’m pretty happy with it, and hopefully it will continue to build.”

Bryan McCrystal has competed at a very high level in soccer, cycling and Ironman and is now coaching Murphy (Photo: Sean Rowe)

In McCrystal, Murphy has a coach who is at the heart of cyclocross; running the McCrystal Track in Co Louth, which has become a focal point for the sport. McCrystal also became one of Ireland’s top A1 riders, despite coming to cycling late after playing League of Ireland soccer.

And when he hung up his racing wheels he smashed the national record in Ironman, setting a new marker several times. An athlete with a reputation for getting the best out of himself when he competed, McCrystal seems to developing Murphy at a rate of knots, but keeping a sense of enjoyment at the centre of things.

“He’s amazing,” Murphy says of McCrystal. “He’s very helpful to me, and very knowledgeable. My parents are supporting me, but they keep me on the ground as well and get me to keep looking ahead and just always trying to do on my best.”

Looking ahead, Murphy obviously has next weekend’s Europeans as his immediate goal and then comes the UCI Cyclocross World Cup in Dublin three weeks later. That is a fixture where the junior race will be part of the World Cup; a great opportunity for Murphy.

“Then I’m looking to go out (to Europe) at Christmas for a week, trying to do some of the big races out there,” he says of an always packed Belgian-based cyclocross schedule over the festive period.

In the longer tern, he will do a full season on the road next year – looking to race frequently in Europe to gain experience. But he also wants to mix things up by making time for some MTB racing. He says when he sees a rider like Darren Rafferty go to Hagens Berman Axeon, win big races, and progress to World Tour team EF Education-EasyPost, it encourages him.

“I’ve always known him, since I was young,” he says of Rafferty. “He’s always been a few years ahead of me and it’s just amazing to see how so how far he’s gone; racing the same races that I am and now he’s riding full-time professional

“It really gives me hope. I think there was a bit of a dip for a while before Darren’s time and now there’s loads of young riders coming up; even the lads a year older than me, like Seth Dunwoody and the others, racing out in Europe, it’s great to see.”

Looking way down the road – though he says he knows there is a long way to go, and many hurdles to clear – Murphy says he would love to race as a professional on the road.

“I’d love to be doing well in the classics; that’s what I’d love to aim for, and time trialing,” he says. “But I don’t think I could ever give up cyclocross to be honest. I really just enjoy it. I love training for it, even. And then being out racing the midweek events at McCrystal’s Track… There’s always a good atmosphere and it’s not too serious, there’s always great support for it.”

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