When Eddie Dunbar accelerated sharply to snuff out Alexis Vuillermoz’s attack on the climb of Monte Serra in the finale of the Giro della Toscana last month, it was easy to imagine his earpiece crackling into life with a gentle reminder that things weren't quite done like that on his new team.
The Irishman was only added to Team Sky’s roster in mid-September following the collapse of Aqua Blue Sport, and the Giro della Toscana was just his second race in their colours. The team orders were to control affairs on Monte Serra in support of Gianni Moscon, and Dunbar did so in his own uninhibited fashion.
"That was my natural instinct," Dunbar told Cyclingnews at the Tour of Guangxi this week. "I was told after the race that the way they do things is to ride a little more steadily rather than accelerate, which is fair enough. As I said, it was just my natural instinct, but nothing bad came of it."
That is something of an understatement. Having restored order by chasing down Vuillermoz, Dunbar proceeded to lay down a ferocious tempo on the upper slopes of Monte Serra, and by the time he swung off near the summit only three riders – the elite trio of Moscon, Romain Bardet and Domenico Pozzovivo – had managed to hold his wheel. Moscon proceeded to claim victory in Pontedera, but Dunbar was, by some distance, the day’s best supporting actor.
"I wasn't actually supposed to be the last guy left, there were a couple of other guys who were supposed to be behind me, but they came up and said, 'Look, you're riding strong, you go last man for Moscon,' and I was like, 'Alright, no problem,'" explained Dunbar, who was surprised to find that the hierarchy of the team was so fluid: the best man for the job was asked to get on with the task in hand, regardless of prior experience. "That really struck me. They ride to win the race, and they ride to give the person they're working for the best possible chance to win that race."
Winner of the amateur Tour of Flanders in 2017, Dunbar stepped up to Pro Continental level this season with Aqua Blue Sport and made an impressive cameo in a rare WorldTour appearance at Amstel Gold Race in April before finishing 4th at the Tour of Belgium. A dearth of wildcard invitations meant that Dunbar's rate of development was not matched by the quality of his racing programme, however, while owner Rick Delaney's abrupt decision to disband the team in late August risked leaving the Cork man in limbo for the rest of the season.
Instead, after racing the Tour de l'Avenir with the Irish team in September, Dunbar put pen to paper on a contract with Team Sky, beginning with immediate effect. Rather than begin his tenure at the squad in 2019, a berth was freed up on the roster to allow Dunbar sample life at WorldTour level in the final weeks of the current campaign.
"As crazy as it was, it probably ended up better for me in a way," Dunbar said. "To end up on a team like Sky after what happened, you wouldn't have thought it, really. The circumstance at the time wasn't great but it turned into a better situation in the end for me. Getting to know how the team works, how they do things and all of that makes it easier for me going into next year."
Dunbar was back in a more familiar set-up at the World Championships in Innsbruck, where he led the Irish team in the under-23 road race. His performances at Sky, not to mention his 8th place overall at the Tour de l'Avenir, marked him out among the favourites for a medal in Austria. Back home, meanwhile, there were hopes that he could win Ireland’s first rainbow jersey on the road since Mark Scanlon claimed the junior title in Valkenburg twenty years ago.
If Dunbar fell short, it was not for want of trying. The green jerseys of the Irish squad were massed on the front in the flat opening hour of racing, while Dunbar himself threw himself into the offensive on the penultimate lap, reckoning that he was not climbing well enough to wait for the final ascent.
The attack with Switzerland’s Gino Mäder was eventually pegged back on the last haul up to Igls and Dunbar had to settle for 20th place at the finish. It was an all or nothing move, but one very much in keeping with his wholehearted conception of cycling.
"A lot of people were disappointed and saying I should have sat in, but if they're the kind of people who are satisfied with finishing in the top 10 and not winning a race, then so be it, they can be that way, but that's not me," Dunbar said.
"I race to win, and I wanted to win that gold medal. I didn't have it on the day but even if I'd sat in the bunch and waited until the end, my result wouldn't have been a medal. And I wouldn't have been happy with that. That would have been a failure to me."
Still only 22 years of age, Dunbar will be eligible to race as an espoir once more in Yorkshire next September, by which point he will have logged a full year of WorldTour racing. His race programme for 2019 is yet to be sketched out, though a man who can win an amateur Ronde and climb with the best at the Tour de l'Avenir will have no shortage of options. "Being a WorldTour team, you’re guaranteed that Sky are going to be in all of the races. It’s not like being in a Pro Conti team where you don’t know," he said.
This week in Guangxi, Dunbar will likely be asked to replicate his Giro della Toscana effort on behalf of Moscon on the race’s lone uphill finish, to Nongla on stage 4. “It’s all for Gianni, he’s riding well," Dunbar said. "There’s only one GC day here so we’ll go all in there and see what happens.”
All in? He doesn’t know any other way.