If you look at the start list for this year’s Tour de France, you won’t see an Irish flag alongside any of the competitors names, yet there is one rider who has spent half his life here and so considers himself half-Irish at least.
hris Juul-Jensen may have a Danish flag alongside his name but the 32-year-old was born in Wicklow and spent the first 16 years of his life growing up in Kilmacanogue. He began his cycling career with the local Sorrento Cycling Club and even represented Ireland at the Youth Olympics in Italy in 2005.
Ironically, of the current crop of Irish WorldTour riders, only Juul-Jensen and Eddie Dunbar were actually born in Ireland, and he still has the accent to prove it.
“I can’t compete against Eddie,” he laughs of the Banteer man’s accent, “but I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I have a better Irish accent than Nico (Roche). I used to slag him about his French twang when we were team-mates at Saxo Bank. My accent is maybe fading a bit now with all the time spent in Denmark but riding for an English speaking Aussie team helps a bit.”
Having moved to Ireland for work in the late 1980s, Juul-Jensen’s parents fell in love with Wicklow and decided to raise a family there, with Chris and his two siblings’ formative years spent riding bikes in the shadow of the Sugarloaf.
“It was a beautiful spot to grow up in,” says the Team BikeExchange Jayco rider. “It’s easy to see how they fell in love with the place and stayed. I had a great childhood growing up in Wicklow. It was a great place to ride your bike. My fondest memories are as part of Sorrento CC. I grew up with a Sorrento jersey on my back. Aidan Ryan was my first coach, the first one to give me a training plan, hand written on a piece of paper and I have to thank him for that.”
Juul-Jensen went to primary school in Delgany and completed his junior cert in St Andrew’s College in Booterstown before he was selected for the Irish team at the Youth Olympics in Italy in 2005.
“That meant the world to me at the time,” he says from his rest day hotel at the Tour. “It’s still a huge event for all of the youth riders and athletes. That was the year where things started to take off in Ireland with the Seán Kelly house in Belgium and we had a few trips to Belgium to race. It was the start of a new era for Irish cycling. I bumped into Kurt Bogaerts the other day, who works for Ineos now, but he played a big role in that whole process of developing Irish riders and that led to me getting picked for the Youth Olympics.”
Shortly after though, Chris copied older brother Thomas and headed to Denmark to spend transition year in a cycling school in Aarhus where training and racing was valued as much as education.
“Cycling was just as important as maths, probably even more so for us cyclists,” he says. “Everything was built around cycling rather than the other way around. It was part of the curriculum. Once you finished that year of transition, you were part of the Danish sporting elite underage programme and your secondary education was structured around your sport so that you were able to train and race as you needed to. Kasper Asgreen (2021 Tour of Flanders winner) went to the same school a couple of years after me.”
Juul-Jensen’s rapid progression on the bike that year though triggered an unexpected permanent move to his parent’s homeland soon after.
“Before then, we’d only been to Denmark on holidays,” he recalls. “Being born and raised in Ireland, my Danish was a bit rusty compared to them. I didn’t know anything else. But when my brother went over there first after his junior cert and stayed and then it was my turn, my parents saw the writing on the wall. They had two out of three kids living in Denmark and, in the end, a prolonged summer holiday saw my younger sister integrate straight away into a Danish primary school and that was more or less it.”
From there, Juul-Jensen progressed to selection for the Danish national team, got into a continental feeder team and eventually made the jump to the WorldTour in 2011. He even made his Grand Tour debut in Ireland, when the Giro d’Italia came to Belfast and Dublin in 2014, and this weekend began another ‘home’ Grand Tour when the Tour de France kicked off in Denmark.
“To start my first Grand Tour in Belfast and travel to Dublin meant a lot to me. That was a memorable experience because of all the friends and everyone from Sorrento coming to the race. I remember the late Noel Kelly and Gaybo Howard were there. My parents came over as well and finishing around Grafton Street was brilliant.”
The Tour’s Grand Depart in Denmark has been hugely successful too, with enthusiastic crowds packing the route on the opening three stages.
“It exceeded all my expectations,” he says of the reception from the Danish public. “It was unbelievable! The Danish riders couldn’t have asked for a better reception. I think everyone in the bunch was blown away by how we were welcomed by the fans. I saw a good few Irish flags out there as well. There’s a strong Irish community in Copenhagen and there were lots of tricolours on the time trial course. I’ve a few Irish friends in town and they were all out in force too. With the Giro start in Ireland and the Tour start in Denmark, I’ve sort of ticked all the boxes. What more can you ask for as a pro?”
The fact that his BikeExchange Jayco squad took stage three victory with their sprinter Dylan Groenewegen on Sunday only added to the enjoyment of a squad missing their team leader Simon Yates through injury.
“For Dylan to top it off with a stage win before we left Denmark was just the icing on the cake,” he says ahead of stage four today. “Coming to win stages at the world’s biggest bike race, you want to get one early, especially when you come with a sprinter like Dylan. He showed yesterday that he’s one of the fastest in the world and when he gets a good run at it he’s faster than the others. It was such a relief, a big relief you know, all the boys here did a great job and he pulled it off yesterday.
“We have a different focus probably this year in that we will be looking for opportunities on days that suit us and taking it easier on the days that don’t. We have Dylan in the sprints and Michael Matthews as well and I will be having a go on some of the days when we get to the mountains. I’m a bit of a here, there and everywhere type of rider. Hopefully there’ll be an opportunity soon enough.”
As usual, Irish fans will be warmly greeted.
“Absolutely!” he says. “If you see me, come say hello or give me a shout.”
We’ll be hearing from Chris Juul-Jensen every week during the Tour de France to get his race insights and hear about his and his team’s progress