I turn the corner and get my first glimpse of the summit, less than 500 metres away now.
A quick glance over my shoulder tells me the road’s my own, there’s no pursuant in sight. I stand up in the saddle, and hammer down hard on the pedals.
I climb quickly at first, gliding up the more forgiving inclines, before the final stretch kicks up suddenly. My breathing is heavy now, ragged as my shoulders slump towards the handlebars and my arse towards the saddle once more.
Get to the top, I tell myself, and you can have a sip of water and open the zip of your jersey a crack.
The thoughts of these scant mercies spur me on, and with a renewed sense of urgency I surge forward and up. The last 100 metres are torture on my legs and mind but every revolution of the pedals sees me reeling in the road just a little bit more.
“Reeling in the Road” would be the perfect name for my autobiography, I surmise in a head clouded with exhaustion.
I crest the summit at last and sit back in the saddle, freewheeling as I reach behind me to grab the water bottle from my jersey pocket. That first glorious sip leads to a few more generous gulps. Bottle safely slipped back into the pocket, it’s time to open the jersey as I had promised myself.
I scan the road ahead. 100 metres until the next turn. Plenty of time. I take one gloved hand off the handlebars and then, cautiously, the other. Still upright. Gaining in confidence, I grip my collar with one hand and the zip with the other.
The zip’s teeth have become misaligned, and so I give it a good jerk. The sudden change in equilibrium causes a wobble, and that turn that seemed a safe distance away is now upon me.
I’ve yanked too hard at the zip and so now my jersey is open down past my chest. The wobble sends me veering blind around the corner and across to the other side of the road. I drop my hands to the handlebars and tug left, narrowly avoiding the jeep I hadn’t heard coming against me but sending myself careening into the briars in the ditch on the other side.
The farmer in the jeep glances in the rearview mirror at the 14 year old boy, pigeon-chest showing under a half open lycra cycling jersey accessorised with a helmet, fingerless cycling gloves and mirrored wraparound shades, paired with Adidas tracksuit bottoms and a mountain bike.
“That young fella of the Keanes is at it again, think’s he’s in the fecking Tour de France,” the farmer mutters as he drives away down the hill past my house.
With that, the spell was broken for the day. This rural secondary road in North Tipperary was no longer Mount Ventoux in my head.I pulled myself and the bike out of the ditch and turned towards home. I’d already done 3 laps of the road that day anyway, and it was time for lunch.
While I ate, I switched on Eurosport. It was the final week of the 2004 Tour de France, and my idol Lance Armstrong was well on his way to his 6th successive victory. He dominated
I sat transfixed as the Texan dominated the final week, winning two key mountain stages and two individual time trials. A cancer survivor, so dominant in one of the toughest sports on earth, he was a hero to me. I had every book written about Armstrong, as well as posters adorning my walls and, of course, the yellow Livestrong band around my wrist.
I wasn’t alone wearing that silicone band, but I kept wearing it long after the gloss wore off for many others. I was the ultimate Armstrong apologist. I knew deep down (and not so deep down) that he was a drugs cheat, but to me his battles with Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Ivan Basso et al had defined my summers as much as any GAA Championship, World Cup or Wimbledon.
It’s easy to look the part when you’re a passionate football fan. Buy the kit (not if you’re over 12 years of age though, kit w*nker) and possess a football, and you’re there.
It’s slightly more difficult to emulate your cycling heroes. For one thing, even for an active teenager such as I was, 6% body fat was unattainable. As was EPO in North Tipperary in the innocent days before the dark web.