Well. Not a bad day at all.”

“No, no. I thought it would be colder,  looking out, but sure it’s actually grand once you get moving.”

No matter how many mornings I travel it, there is always something idyllic about that porridge-fuelled spin from my house to The Castle where my club meet (yes, The Castle if you don’t mind; and a proper castle it is too, not some boomtime housing estate with a fancy schmancy name), ……. down past St. Canice’s Cathedral,……. up through the Sunday-morning streets,…. past Rothe House on my right,…… The Courthouse on my left, …… glide on by The Town Hall (clock winks 10am!), ……. up the hill at The Parade, ……and into the patch of sunshine at the entrance to The Castle. It’s always a good day, a day that starts like this…….. (even if I frequently have to TT the distance to make it on time!).

Ideally I time my arrival for about 4 mins after the hour, otherwise I might be forced to engage in talk of wind direction and other climatic variables that are way outside my general comfort zone.

(This may mistakenly imply that I have a comfort zone; I don’t think I do. Think Fr. Ted when Bishop Brennan is describing the island of cannibals he is sending Ted too, and Ted says:

“Your Grace, this isn’t really my area”

“Nothing is your area Crilly, you do not have an area, unless it’s a kind of a play area with sandcastles and buckets and spades”).

I left mine at home this morning. I feel at my least uncomfortable when I am on my bike. This is a good thing, I have no idea how I’d manage the bucket & spade and still be able to change gear.

Having spent the Summer gallivanting around on my ‘good bike’, I am only recently returned to The Club Spin* group, so there are several rounds of “Hey, how’re you, haven’t seen you in ages”. People question each other about who else we should expect……

“Is Tobin back on his bike yet?”,

“Gerry said he’d be here”,

“Terry is rescuing mountains this weekend”.

Then, at about 7 minutes past, we invariably turn our wheels, and our heads, and look to Joe to decide which direction we will be heading in, and what route we will do…….others might chip in with suggestions in the prelude to this point, and most are entertained with a brief hearing. But ultimately, if Joe is present (and thankfully he almost always is), Joe will lead us out. Joe’s decision-making is based on more factors than NATO considered before organising a no-fly zone over Libya, but ultimately the biggest issue he takes into account is who has actually turned up. If any of the newer members are out, the length & terrain of the club spin will be tailored accordingly (some of us are less merciful; what does not kill you makes you stronger,……. or makes you stay at home). If it’s a handful of the over-eager he sees before him he calculates a route that is designed to put manners on us.

Then we wait til 10 past the hour for Denis (Denis is always late)……..

There are seven of us out this morning,….. me (yup!), five others I know well, and one stranger….. but seven is perfect, so I hope the interloper can hack the pace and stick with us. Odd numbers mean there will be a chance for everyone to dawdle on their own at the back, a chance to peel a banana, or blow something unspeakable out of their nose, or just enjoy the peace & quiet of their own thoughts. A bit of head space on a Sunday morning, but in close proximity to the like-minded.  The solitude, and the silence are some of the things I love best about cycling, compared to other sports. And I don’t believe I am alone here. It is difficult to put accurately into words, but I think cycling is a surprisingly sociable activity enjoyed by people who are inherently anti-social. I don’t intend that to be insulting, or judgemental. Maybe it’s just that being content with your own company is a bonus in a sport where your mind must be stronger than your body. Is that what I mean? Or maybe sometimes you just don’t feel like talking, and that’s ok too. Anyhow, I can only speak for myself, ……. and an odd-number-sized club spin is easier on my sanity.

I start two back on the outside, behind Mick. This is a calculated move on my part; the roads are wet and dirty, and Mick has mudguards. As we form an orderly little parallel and roll out of town, I glance to my left and see bare hands on the hoods and I know that my first broken conversation of the morning will be with Pat…….

Road racing in Kilkenny has a glorious but troubled past, a history that those of us who have only ever been members of the current, 4-year-old, club know little of. Once upon a time there was even a 2-day stage race run here, and much-loved and well-attended it was too. Stage 1 of ‘The Ras’ finished in the city (/town, /whatever….)  this year, and later that week in May, some of the old-timers in the Ras circus shared with me their memories of the heyday of  cycling in Kilkenny. Tales of tight turns on crashy street corners, of big crowds and good craic, and hard fought wins on uphill finishes. Pat is part of that past. And gloveless hands on a cold November morning say hardman louder than any bragging I am may be entertained by on these outings. I have pried before, and I know that there are others from The Old Club out with us this morning, but this is not a day to delve further into whatever implosion occurred to bring that chapter to a close. So we talk of running up Croagh Patrick (him, not me), and then I move to the front.

On any given day, and whatever the weather, Mick is possibly the best turned out member of our club. Mick is the proud owner of a year-round tan, yellow Mavic shoes (currently living inside shiney yellow overshoes), an eclectic collection of colourful gloves, and, even on this grimey Winter morning, he has his whoosh-whoosh wheels on. He’s wearing his matchy matchy Lampre kit today, and he rolls along beside me like a beacon. If we were both ‘Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts’ Mick would be that one that has tiny little sugary pink or blue balls stuck fast to a yellowy jelly……. I’d be that tubular blacky-brown one that outnumbers the others 3 to one but still rarely gets eaten. On this, our first round of conversation, we talk weather, Mick & I…….

“Eh, ‘ you not freezing Mick?”

Including my gilet I have 5 layers (all black) on top this morning; Mick sports two. In 3 years of cycling with him I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mick spoil his “look” with anything as grubby as a rain-cape, never mind an ill-fitting gilet. He is never cold. The sun always shines on The Euro.

I’m on the inside now, and Joe rolls up to the front beside me. We talk about Kelly, Sean today, not Joe. Though Joe is as happy to talk about either, and is a big fan of both. When I ended up in accidental conversation with the late Joe Kelly’s lovely wife at the Suir Valley 3-Day this year I remember thinking that I should tell her how our Joe keeps her Joe’s memory alive in our club, taking us on a spin to Carrick, and on up Seskin to the Joe Kelly memorial stone at least once a year……. but our chat was brief and the right moment never arose.

Today Joe and I talk (actually, I mostly listen, and not just because I’m feeling the headwind; I’ve been the lucky beneficiary of a bank of Joe’s cycling knowledge over the years, I know when listening is the right choice) about how astute Sean is in his reportage of The Grand Tours on EuroSport. Sean always knows with absolute certainty and total accuracy when the seemingly impossible is going to happen, ….. today the breakaway will stay away. And it does. He calls it, it happens. Joe & I both love this. It’s like watching someone work some awkward fraction out smugly with a pencil and paper, while you are still struggling to find the calculator app on your iphone. And yes, Joe was in The Old Club too, but we didn’t talk about that today.

Now I’m behind Joe, and Eoin pulls up to my right shoulder.

“What? ‘ you not speaking to me today??”  he’ll say, with a laugh.

Often by now my breathing is laboured, …….. the chatting has taken its toll, and I’ve pushed hard to keep pace with the others (….. don’t let them see you’re struggling, …… keep the voice even….), but Eoin always knows. He’ll generally rock up and start asking me questions, purposely trying to make me do all the talking. Eoin introduced me to this club, these guys, this way to spend my time, and I am forever grateful. I was never really one for joining a club of any sort, and I genuinely thought the whole concept of a cycling club seemed a little mad; the idea of doing something as solo as cycling, in the company of others, hmmmmm……. But I was young(er) and didn’t get it. And now I am here and I don’t look back too often. There is much to enjoy, and lots to learn. And now these, and several others, are not just my clubmates, they are my friends.

We have history, Eoin and me. We have known each other for over 12 years now, once upon a time we were a couple, we moved from Dublin to Kilkenny together, but in recent years we have become just good friends, …… and no one could hope to have a better friend than Eoin. It is not the weather for it now, but there are few things I enjoy more than leaving work a bit early on a sunny Summer afternoon, rushing home for a banana and a quick change of clothes, grabbing my bike, meeting Eoin out the road, and spending a few hours trying to drive each other into the ground on some hilly route around the county. If I ever want to measure my form, there is no surer way than trying to big gear it up Kilmanagh or Coppenagh and seeing how long I can stay on Eoin’s wheel. In my head I’ll think I’m going well, I’ll even say to myself that tomorrow evening I’ll race him to the top and win. It never happens.

Next up to my shoulder is Denis (and yes, he was late). When I first started going on club spins everyone here this morning was very good to me, as were many others who didn’t make it out today. I was towed back on when I slipped quietly out the back,…. I was pushed up the drag between ‘Comer and Ballyragget, …. or accompanied home (“I have to head back anyway, sure we might as well go together”) when it was “suggested” that maybe I might like to turn off here and take a short cut (phew!)…… But to this day Denis is still always overly considerate towards me (and it’s not that the others aren’t, just that we’ve all hung together through some tough days, and now they don’t see me as being female anymore, ….. or something), so anyway, even now, when we’re ploughing into a headwind, Denis will still say “Don’t stay at the front too long”, or if he comes to the front beside me he’ll sometimes pull straight across, saving me half my turn, even though he may be suffering as much as me. Someday I will do the same to him, just for the laugh it will get out of him, but today I’ll just take it easy. Thanks Denis!

Another up and over, and now I am at the back, alone.

I take the time to survey the landscape…… newly cut hedgerows, freshly turned fields, high nests in naked trees …..  far off, on the wind, a call to the hounds,….. on my face, the brief wash of heat from a low Winter sun,…… like a benediction……

I think about the usual suspects who aren’t out this morning….. Mike, Gerry, Terry, Pat,  Paul, Frank, Fergal, James, Neil, Mick (our club is well endowed with Pats, Franks and Micks…… at least 3 of each!! All unique though, …. all unique!!). I wonder how Mick B is getting on with his injured shoulder, and look forward to him getting out with us again soon. Among his many charms, Mick B knows the name of every cross-roads, every townland, every church, and every rise in the ground for miles around, …… he recounts them like a nursery rhyme…… sometimes I wonder if he makes some of them up.

Now a gulp of icy cold water from my bidon, necessary rather than welcome ……. and, as the brain-freeze subsides, I realise that when we rotate again I will be next to the stranger, and that he has stuck with us, and doesn’t look too tired to talk either……

*Disclaimer: for anyone trying to work out the actual morning, this post may be an amalgam of a couple of Club Spins 😉