Benediction.

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 😉

Do not go gentle into ‘The Dying Light’….

Until I sat on it yesterday, I had not been on my race bike since the last stage of ‘Ras na mBan’. And, other than the Westport to Achill spin with Burren CC, I haven’t been out on the ol’ Winter bike either. So it was with rubbery legs and a head full of “life” that I rose before dawn, ate my porridge, spent a good 2o minutes layering up, and pushed my good bike out the front door into darkness, and trepidation, at 7:15 yesterday morning. I switched on my lights (never had lights before, thanks Jim!), pulled on my warmest gloves, clipped in, and pushed off.

Bliss. Cold bliss, fecking freezing in fact, but bliss nonetheless……

There is nothing like that feeling of sitting on a bike that feels like it’s always been a part of you. Within moments I’ve forgotten how to walk. The bars are an extension of my arms, the pedals have grown from my feet. My legs only move like this. I slide into that perfect place on my saddle, rest my hands on the hoods, the wheels roll willingly, it’s like embracing a loved one. Despite the onGodly hour, and the week behind me, I am smiling away to myself as I spin along beside a glassy-coated Grand Canal, and towards a whole new cycling experience…..

There are many types of cyclists. A Venn diagram of all categories would display plenty of overlap, the sportive cyclist is sometimes a racing cyclists, the racing cyclist is also a commuting cyclist, the commuting cyclist mountain bikes at the weekend. And then there are those who enjoy an Audax. They are on our Venn diagram too, and they intersect with all the other groups, but dare I say their circle is a little oblong? Extending, as it does, over the edge of the page, and into territory that other cyclists remain a little wary of….. 600km, 1,200km, London to Edinburgh…. and back, around Ireland, across America. It has been said that sportives are for those who like to pretend they’re racing, and Audax are for those who like to pretend they’re not. But there is a lot more to Audax than finishing inside the time limit, and yesterday I decided to investigate further.

In the giddy eagerness of the early hour, I was the first to rock up outside Spar on Baggot Street. Me, the homeless guy, and an exhausted taxi driver had a 10 minute conversation about what madness I was about to engage in. Once I’d convinced them that yes, really, REALLY, I was planning to cycle to Cavan and back, we all agreed that I was possibly, right then, the one of us most in need of tea & sympathy. Steadily more blinking lights and well wrapped-up cyclists gathered. Greetings were exchanged, brevet cards were signed, excess fig-rolls were given to the chatty man sitting in the sleeping bag, and then, at 8am, 37 of us crossed the bridge and made our way northwards across the city as it emerged from the darkness into the first frosty morning of a new Winter.

We cycled together for the first 30km or so, until we were well clear of the waking suburbs, and I was almost able to feel my fingers again. Then, as the pace threatened not to break the 20kmph barrier, a breakaway group formed through some unspoken code and disappeared around a corner. I hadn’t made a plan-for-the-day in my head, I didn’t really know how I felt about cycling 2ookm, and I was also interested in spending time with the people around me, so, even though I was anxious to cycle faster, if only to get warm, I didn’t race off after the fast group to join it. Also, I knew I was going to be too lazy and cold to stop and examine the route sheet, so as long as I stuck with some of the troops who clearly knew where they were going I probably wouldn’t have to think all day. Yeah, yeah, a bit of a cop-out, I know.

We passed through Donore, putting the first quarter of the journey behind us. Slivers of ice still lay carelessly on the roadside puddles, and the grass verges were white where the promising sun had yet to shine. We chatted as we cycled, praising/bemoaning the weather, comparing reasons for being there at all, and matching names once heard to faces now seen. After 70km I reached the First Control at Ardee in one of the many splinter groups that had formed. I had really only barely thawed out, so after a quick cup of tea, some awesome banana bread (thank you Andreas&Sharon!), and a visit to the “facilities” (thank you Wogan’s Furniture shop!), I was back on my bike in less than 15 minutes,  and I was determined to up the pace to body-temperature, at least.

Kingscourt, the most northerly point on our Audax was at 93.5km, and it was also on top of a mountain; something those who had sold this 200km to me as “flat as a pancake”, had neglected to mention!! By the time our group had crested Alpe d’Kingscourt, and the drumlin country beyond, we were down to 5 merry souls….. Aidan was in charge of navigation, Bernard was our mechanic, I was wrong turn maker (Fiona! FIONA!!!! Not that left, the NEXT left!!!! ….. in fact with all the racing off in front, turning around, and chasing back on I did, my computer read 213km when I finished!), and Trish & Sarah were in charge of the horses ;-).

We five cycled the second century of the day together. We talked 300km events, Paris-Brest-Paris 2015 aspirations, and a bit of life-in-general. We enjoyed the backroads beauty of the Autumnal countryside, we mustered a modicum of curiosity in the villages and townlands we passed through, and we changed two puntures. Then we rolled through The Phoenix Park, back down by the canal, and landed in through the green door for homemade soup and a pat on the back.

And what did I learn?

Well, this is what I think………

Inside every Audax rider lies a dream.

It wasn’t really about speed today, it wasn’t about who got back first, or in the first group, it didn’t matter who cycled 200km the fastest. I believe everyone who set out from Baggot St. yesterday morning could have cycled ‘The Dying Light’ faster than they did, I know I could. But it wasn’t about that. I think it was about the smile inside your head as you rested your bike against the wall in Eoghan & Celeste’s back garden, that feeling in your legs as you climbed the stairs to their apartment. You still felt good, fresh even. Finishing a 200km cycle is part of a process. A process that includes knowing that you could have kept going. That you had another 200km in you still, that you could have kept cycling all night in fact. Audax cycling is about always having another goal.

London-Edinburgh-London, …….Paris-Brest-Paris, ……..Race Around Ireland, ……Race Across America……..  everybody needs a dream.

And finally. IT WAS NOT FLAT!

(putting my race bike away for the winter now…… might put the blog away for a while too….)

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

 

If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Aside: I originally published this post about ‘Ras Tailteann’ on 27th September 2012, but in a rush of blood to the head (well, finger….) this morning it got deleted (see “No men were harmed….etc.” below for background info!). Anyhow, someone kind and good had saved it elsewhere……. I am so happy, and flattered, Thank You !!! 😀

On the morning of Good Friday this year, in a car-park in Kilorglin, someone introduced me to Gene Mangan. He was leaning against a car having a laugh with Ted Crowley, I was, in theory, leaving team wheels with Neutral Service for Ras Mumhan, …….. except I had no idea which car was doing this job so I was wandering from one to the next like an abandoned puppy….. When we exchanged greetings and he offered his hand, I couldn’t shake it because my hands were covered in that black tyre-dirt that now I barely see as dirt at all; I wish I could have shaken your hand Gene……. to me you were just another gentle man, one of many involved with Ras Mumhan that weekend……. little did I know you are also a hero.

Last night, during a fortunate lull in “on-call”, I watched ‘Ras Tailteann – Rothai an tSaoil’ on TG4. This documentary, dubbed ‘The Secret History of The Ras’, was typical of the insightful material produced by TG4, and I couldn’t believe I was the only one sitting in front of it in the tv room in The Res. I wanted everyone in the hospital to be enjoying this, especially everyone who wonders why I spend my weekends and my holidays supporting cycling, or trying to be a better cyclist myself…… “Look everyone!!! This is what it’s all about! Look at them……. this is what loving the work is; you can’t do this unless you love it. They look like they are suffering, and they are, but inside they are smiling, every one.”

I watched enthralled as one after the other these Men Of The Ras reminisced about the early years of this great race. Gene Mangan and Se O’Hanlon spoke not only of their pursuit of victory in the Ras, but also of being spirited away to France to race against their continental peers under assumed names……. The infamous Joe Christle instigator of the very first Ras Tailteann (and several other notable historical events…. who knew? Not me.) was featured; a shadowy figure with a big dream…… Mick ‘Iron Man’ Murphy talked of being forced to leave home because his fanatical training, at ungodly hours, drove his family to distraction….. Stephen Roche confessed that his experience of the hardmen-racing-style of The Ras helped to make him the legend that he is today…….. The inspirational Dermot Dignam talked about the evolution of The Ras from it’s Nationalist origins, to the international event it now is. I lapped it all up.

But for me the most moving aspect of TG4′s golden hour was the black and white footage of these men (no women featured in this program, why would they, The Ras is all about men, as it should be; for me The Ras has come to mean what being a man is all about…… this may not represent a great reflection on me, or my judgement!!). There was Gene, young and handsome; Paudie Fitzgerald, full of youthful energy; Mick Murphy, glowing with strength and vitality; and here was Paddy Flanagan, young and indestructible, being interviewed as he rode the Ras of 1970….

“Will you win this one Paddy?”

“No. I’m too old”

Paddy was 29.

Working in a hospital gives me a perspective on life and death that is not afforded to everyone; this is something for which I am unashamedly grateful. The people I am required to X-ray on-call at night, like last night, well, they are the proper sickies…… newborns struggling to get started in this life, and elderly patients, gasping their last few breaths within these walls. Who are they all. Nice old man in Bed 2…… who are you? What’s your story? What things did you do that everyone exalted you for? Did you fulfill your dreams? I meet “visitors” on the stairs and always try to smile, who are you coming to see? did your sister just have her first baby? is your mother dying in CCU?

I don’t mean to be maudlin people (though I am not long in the door, and I am over-tired…), but I do want to say… “Do not take this life for granted!”

Do not take this life for granted.

Shay Elliot, Des Hanlon, Paddy Flanagan, Peter Bidwell, Ben McKenna, Mark Hayden, Kevin McInerney…. Cycling in Ireland has a long tradition of honouring its departed heroes by naming races after them….. And, not to favour one legend over another, The Paddy Flanagan 2-day is run each June, by Newbridge Cycling Club, in memory of this 3 time Ras Tailteann winner. Paddy died in 2000, he was (only) 59 years old. I am rambling a bit now (again, I’d like to play my ‘Tired’ card…), but,….. just….. You too will be old someday my friends…. do The Ras while you still can, do it as many times as you can, do it because you will suffer, do it because great men have been here before you, and you will be great men too…….. there is a legacy to live up to, ……do it because to finish a Ras is a victory…..

How does it go?….. If you are ever forced to look back & ask yourself if you have regrets, regret the things you did, not the things you didn’t do.

“No men were harmed in the writing of this post”, The Sequel

Last night I wrote a post that had the attached Disclaimer: “This post may have nothing to do with cycling”.

It didn’t, it had some random cycling references and characters in it (Victoria Pendleton and her relationship with her coach Scott whoever was mentioned, as was Bradley Wiggins and his vaguely one-sided relationship with Chris Froome), all of which were employed to illustrate a critique of my relationship history. MY RELATIONSHIP HISTORY.

It’s my blog, IT’S ABOUT ME!!

Anyhow, unexpectedly, some people I care about took offence. I have deleted my post because I care more about other people than I probably should. And I care about some people more than I care about myself. I am replacing the post with part of the explanation I have offered to one of those people I care about. Why? Because I cannot know that others unnamed did not also feel a perceived jibe from my introspection….

“Dear Victoria,

It was about me.

Fabian very kindly spent several hours yesterday listening to me bemoan my lot (ask him). He laughed & critiqued each of the my relationships as I described them to him, not just with men, but those with my family. At the end of it all I was in much better form, mostly because I’d stepped back and had a good laugh at myself.

I know we are all paranoid enough, at times, to think that if two people we know are in a room they must be talking about us….. do you know what I mean? Well, as you also know, deep down (because sometimes you are one of the two people…… Sometimes we all are……), this is mostly not the case. Why? Because we are all narcissists. All we really want is to talk about ourselves……. we want someone we care about to sit down in front of us and say “Go!”, and not get up until we’re done. I know because I am more often the one who says Go. Yesterday I got to do the talking (poor Fabian) & then when I got home I wanted to retain as much of what I’d taken in as possible…..

For me the obvious forum for this was my blog. Why? Because it’s my blog, it’s about me, it’s about how I feel about stuff….. read it.

But you know what the thing is, I am old enough to be made up of bits of everyone….. what I mean is, none of my experiences are unique to me really. Anyone out there who has been in more than one relationship, has been in a relationship that I’ve been in too (possibly even with me!). I intended that post to be self-reflective, I intended it to be something I would go back & look at, and use to remind myself to be nicer to myself….. to aim for the honeybee – flower relationship frankly. And at this point I can say that THE ONLY NON-ME relationship I considered was, believe it or not, _______ & _______ ….. from my outside perspective I think they personify relationship perfection. And you know what else? That’s the other thing, I’m around a while but I’ve known, & acknowledged, for a very long time, that nobody knows what goes on between two people other than those two people. I respect that, I know that, I WASN’T speculating about / judging anyone’s relationships other than my own.

I am not perfect and make no pretence about it. I am as flawed as the next person and as proof I offer you this: I DID NOT consider that anyone would take offence to my blog post. If I thought anything, beyond that it might be too much of an exposé of my own insecurities, I thought (vainly, stupidly) that it was pretty funny. Imagine.

Anyway, it’s gone now, completely…. And why? Because on a second reading of it Fabian thought it might be offensive to Jens. And Jens in turn pointed out to me that other people might read themselves into some of my tragedies, people I know, people I care about.

I spent 3 hours working on it. Of the 84 hits it had in its 12 hour existence any feedback I got online was positive; people laughed, people enjoyed it. People I don’t know. Anyhow, now it’s gone, and all that with it. But that’s ok. Isn’t it.

As for your relationship ……. [redacted]…..
If it’s any help at all, I am very upset about this whole idea that I’ve upset anyone else. In my innocence I never thought my disasters would invoke any reaction in people other than pity, for me. And I am upset that I was forced to delete something I’d poured so much of myself into.

I’m sorry, and I’m sad.”

And now I’m done.
Sent from my HTC

Boom!

Heading into the 6th, and final stage of Ras na mBan I was 48mins 40secs down, and 39th on GC. I was also rather sore. This was the shortest stage in the race, and it only had one climb of note, Moll’s Gap. Moll is well known to the many who have tried their hand at the Ring Of Kerry sportive, it is a grand steady climb and presents little by way of a challenge when taken at a moderate pace. But with only 45 seconds separating the top 6 riders in the race, I had a feeling the pace might be a little above comfortable.

My resolution for the day was to finish Ras na mBan less than an hour down on the winner (I was 1 hour 40mins down last year), so I had just over 11 minutes to play with (hey, I was being good to myself, post-traumatic stress and all!). My hope for the day was to finish Stage 6 without losing any more time at all, and maybe even to move up the GC (I’d moved up one slot per day so far, in fact, if I could drag this race out for another 39 days I’d win the bloody thing!!). I’d also re-promised myself that I’d try to ride at the front as frequently as I could.

We lined out under Louis and Valerie’s watchful eyes, and Declan’s watchful ears (you know what I mean), one more time. We did our final ceremonial lap of lovely Sneem, and we were off…… out the road to Kenmare, ocean on our right, cheers on our left, motorbikes ahead, cavalcade behind. One last time girls, this time with feeling.

As instructed by Aidan, Charlotte attacked from the gun (well, the flag) and got a few to follow her…… exciting times!! The jersey holders and their teams were having none of it though and Charlotte was soon back in the fold. Then Ishbel, in her distinctive tartan kit, bounced off the front. She got out of sight in the twisty section and the bunch became uneasy…… bums lifted out of saddles, calf muscles flexed…..Race On!!!! We hurtled over the narrow bridge at 13km and up the rise beyond. We threw ourselves along the dead section of road between there and Kenmare. I know because I was at the front!! The very front most of the time in fact (and, eh, in the, eh, rather substantial wind actually. I would pay for this later), and I even attacked once, Really! I got a bit of a gap too (I would also pay for this effort, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth it). At one stage I looked to my left and saw my 3 team-mates across the front……. Cycling Leinster were setting the pace (yeah, yeah, pay for it later, blah, blah)!!!

We hit Kenmare and took the left turn that marks the start of the gradual climb to Moll’s Gap. As we rounded the corner I glanced back and realised that the speed we had set so far had taken its toll on tired legs; there were no more than 40 riders left in the bunch. As the road rose steadily so did the pace. Somebody was driving the front. This was the last chance there’d be to snap some elastic and shake up the top of the GC…..

I dug deep to stay near the front, and counted down the kms on my computer. C’mon Fi, hang in there. As the QOH came closer I started to slip. I put my head down and hauled on the handlebars. I heard the car engine behind and realised I was last man. I got out of the saddle and kicked on again, I got back on Trish’s wheel and tried to settle my breathing. We rounded the open right-hand bend two corners from the top and the pace went up again. A few more riders slipped by me, reversing. I dug deeper and tried to hold the back, ……but I was yo-yoing. One more kick up, one dropped wheel, and I’d be gone.

We rounded the penultimate turn and the crest of Moll’s Gap became visible, sweeping over to our left. I was exactly where I shouldn’t have been, ……I was at the back, ……. no, I was the back…… no, I was off the back. Crap.

“Number 5o loses contact with the bunch.”

….. Commissaire Car passes……. Neutral Service….. Medical Car…… (NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!)….. First Team Car…… Abergavenny car…… Look Mum No Hands….. Black Rose….. Team Ireland…… Aido & Tom….. Aido and Tom!!!! Brilliant!! Big shouts from the boys…… I jumped on the back as we came over the top, the bunch were still visible…… I heard Caroline shout “C’mon Cookie!!”….. I saw Peter, camera poised…… I pushed into the big ring….. Tom shouted at me “USE THE CARS!!!”. I knew what to do. There was a significant headwind as I started the descent, the only way I would ever get back to the bunch was to weave my way up through the cavalcade that had passed me so ruthlessly earlier, using the cars to shelter me from the wind. I’d seen this done a hundred times since Ras Mumhan, time to ride my ass off, again.

I heard Frank shouting at me from the Cycling Munster car behind me, I swung out right, off Aidan’s bumper and around by his window….. “DO IT!!!” he screamed. On, to the High Wycombe car, around it….. and then onto Gillian & Stuart’s bumper…. around them, and on to Black Rose…… bit of a tow from them (Thanks Aidan!!)…… around them….. and around Look Mum No Hands car…… Nearly there….. mouth hanging open, sucking the air in, must get on, everyone behind is watching, cars beeping their horns as I pass, letting the cars ahead know I am there, I know the radio call….. “Rider in the cavalcade”…… I’ve been in those cars. I’ve looked up the Start List to see what Number 50’s name is, I’ve rolled down the window and shouted him on…. “C’mon Gareth!” “C’mon Keith!” “C’mon Dave! You can do it, you’re nearly there!!”….. I’ve been in cars where we’ve cheered as we’ve watched that struggling rider make contact again. But more often I’ve seen them fail. When that happens we say nothing, we don’t look them in the eye as they slip by the second time, going in the wrong direction. Race over.

…… Abergavenny car…… Race Leader’s Team Car……. (Oh My God! I can do this!!) …… Neutral Service bumper, briefly…… around the Medical Car, hear a cheer from Conor and Paul….. Commisaire’s Car……. Whoooooo Hoooooo!!!!! ….*punch the air* …… “Number 50 is back in the bunch”.

And I stayed with them. All the way to the finish. I finished in the lead bunch of 29 riders. We raced the 58kms in 1 hour 42mins. I lost no time. NO TIME!! And I finished Ras na mBan in 34th place on the GC.

BOOM.

The Race Of Truth

This is for all of you, all of us.

Today I didn’t ride Ras na mBan, I rode my own race. I started out in Ras na mBan but after 10km another rider decided she liked the piece of road I was on a whole lot better than where she was, and in the blink of an eye I was face first into the ditch. In that brief moment of silence that happened as my body became separated from my bike, and I readied myself for the impact, I thought, “I just want to be able to get up and walk away from this”. Silence. Crash. Pain.

The bunch sped by, I heard Orla crying out my name. The cars sped by, I heard people calling to me. Then Tom & Aidan pulled up, and then Conor. Tom sorted my bike, Conor sprayed my cuts with something stingy, Thanks Conor, Thanks Tom, Thanks Aidan :-). But I just want to go guys, get me going, they’re all gone on, time is racing away from me…… And I was on the road again.

Crashing is part of racing, you have to learn to deal with it,  blame helps nothing, but I was mad. I turned the corner up to the first climb…….. no one. No one to be seen. Then it started to rain. 85kms of racing, including two Cat. 1 climbs, lay ahead of me and I was going to have to do it on my own. I was mad, and madness kept me going, and madness kept me sane.

Adversity means something different to everybody, and we will all face it someday. How we cope is a measure of nothing, but we must never give up. It will be very hard for some people to understand when I say that today was one of the two toughest days of my life. Nobody died, nobody is sick, nobody is missing. But I nearly broke today.

I felt like everything I came here to do was gone, like everything I’d fought to achieve all week had been whipped from in front of me. I couldn’t believe I had to race the toughest stage of Ras na mBan without the comfort of the bunch, without a single body to shelter behind, without my teamies and my buddies encouraging me. I pushed on, over the first climb, down the hairy descent. I came upon one or two other single riders, each fighting their own demons. We barely spoke, spent a minute or two together, and then I had to go. I was racing my own race and I had to do it at my speed and I had to keep going, and whatever had already happened, I wanted to do it as fast as I could. I wanted to get the hell out of there and the only way home was to pedal, to pedal as fast as I could.

I passed a few more lonely riders, heads hanging low, I went by without saying a word, we were like the last survivors leaving some doomed city and there was nothing we could do for each other. I battled on into the wind. The rain washed most of the blood off my legs, and it stung my face where it was scratched. The second Cat 1 loomed up before me. I could see it from some way off, like Mordor, a rising wall of stone. A few team cars were pulled in near the top, they had straggling riders out the road to encourage home. There were helpful shouts, and offers of bars and bottles, but I was in my own bubble now and nothing from outside could get in. I struggled up the wall, in my head I pictured the day The Ras went over The Mamore gap. I remembered how the guys had described it, sometimes you felt like you were moving so slowly you would surely fall over. Flat on your side, onto the road, bike and rider still conjoined.

I crested the top and turned into a stronger wind. Still 70km to go. And now The Suffering really started.

I told myself I couldn’t keep doing this. I told myself I could. I looked down at my speedo and I promised myself I’d keep it above 4okmph, then I’d be home in an hour and a half. I pushed up into the big ring and I pumped the pedals up and down, up and down, as if they were solely responsible for moving the blood through my heart; if I stopped I would die. If I stopped I would die.

I thought about many things. I thought about my club mate Jim Fitzpatrick who is doing the race around Ireland right now……. he is racing all around Ireland Fi, you only have to race 60 more km, no, 50 now….. I thought about my team-mate Caroline who had been so sick this morning that she almost didn’t start, then she got so weak on the first climb that she had to get in the car. I thought of my good friend Anne who was so ill that she hadn’t kept any food down since dinnertime yesterday, yet she togged up and presented herself at the start line, so that her team would be in with some chance of keeping the Team GC they’ve held since Stage 1. I thought about all the girls out on the road today, ahead of me and behind, every one of them fighting the good fight…… 40km to go now.

I thought of the night I’d climbed Kilimanjaro, everyone around me on their hands & knees retching and hallucinating because of the altitude, and my friend and I pushed on & up; we’d come here to do a job and we’d be damned if we didn’t finish it….. 30km to go now. I thought of The Paralympians; if amputees can cycle competitively what have I got to moan about. I thought about The Cycling Leinster Team I have had the privilege to be part of this week, this was for them, for Aidan, and for Tom, for Charlotte and Niamh and Caroline and Orla, and for Mags who had pulled us all together…… 20km to go Fi.

I thought about everyone everywhere who has gone to the edge and not jumped.

I know some people will read this (I’m assuming someone other than me will read it…..) and not understand. But trust me when I say that part of me died out there today. Tomorrow I am racing home.

Strawberry flavoured cement

Well the highlight of  Stage 4 today was without doubt all the school children out waving An Post green flags at us (it was like following The Ras all over again!). We started at Sneem National School this morning and every child was out waving and cheering us. There were big shout outs for Louise (Moriarty), “Number 37!! Number 37!!!” and she high-fived the whole school, to great applause, before we rolled out.

Then all along the road, and all around Valencia, every school we passed, flags and cheers, brilliant. I wish I could have waved back at you all, and I did my best, but I was hanging a bit kids, sorry. You cheered us up and lifted our spirits no end though, Thank You lots! And thank you teachers too!!!

And the stage? Well, I can’t deny that I am happy without how it went for me. It was windy out there, and it was no day to get caught out on your own (my abiding memory of this stage last year was being in a small group stranded out on the long bleak road from Valentia back to Sneem, it was windy, it was wet, we were down, it was a long day….). Most of the bunch stayed together today, over Coomaciste, out to Valentia, and around the island,……. and I stayed with them 🙂

Then on the last climb the pace kicked up and a few of us lost contact. We chased down the descent, I looked around me, there were about 10 of us, including my team mates Charlotte and Caroline. We could still see the back of the bunch, and there were only 5km to go, so we re-grouped and up-and-overed, and we definitely minimised our losses. We could see the lead group crossing the line just ahead of us, and as we sprinted in we can’t have been more than half a minute behind them, success (well in my book anyhow)!

Every time I race I learn something new. But there are lots of things I know about cycling that I don’t implement, and the biggest of these is eating on the bike. I am crap at it. I carried two gels around every stage of Ras na mBan last year, the same two gels, they had a great time. I have retired them now. I have been known to carry a bar on a 160km cycle and never even contemplate eating it. I mostly rock in from the end of  a stage with my two water bottles as full as they were at the start line (I call this weight-training, others call it stupid; and they’re right). I’d totally planned to get on top of this issue long before Ras na mBan rolled around again. But I didn’t.

Anyhow, this week I have been better. Stage 1, ate nothing, drank most of one bidon. Stage 2, TT, nothing needed. Stage 3……. well, once I was out there on my own I practically booked a table. I ate everything I could find in my pockets, anything to make the time and the kms pass. Today, by the time we’d climbed Coomaciste and hit the halfway mark I still hadn’t eaten. Then Charlotte appeared beside me like a nutritional angel. “Fiona, have you eaten? We still have 40km to go. Eat a gel, now!”. So I did. I pulled it out of my pocket during a lull in proceedings, I bit the top off and spit it out like a pro (and a litterbug, sorry) and I squeezed it into my mouth. Strawberry flavoured cement. Yum. I washed it down with a gulp of water and thanked Charlotte. And I did all this while holding my line and not even feeling nervous; it can be done Fi, cop on.

I am lying on the floor in Room 217 now, waiting for my leg rub from Carl. Orla is on the table chewing her wrist so she won’t scream……. it’s possible that this hurts more than the racing……. I’m up next, eeeek!!!!