Reeling in the Road

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.

20180305_143323

Before a charity cycle in 2006.

“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.

Armstrong

Hindsight is a great thing…

 

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.

I tried my manful best however. My bike wasn’t the Trek racer I coveted from bike magazines, but it was a shiny metallic blue, and had an Italian sounding name, which made it incredibly European in my eyes and therefore perfect for my Tour de Castlecranna.
I had bought the gloves and helmet in Lidl, in that fortnightly sale of cycling gear that still occurs. The jersey, to me, was a thing of beauty. I had bought it in, of all places, the Nou Camp, the home of Barcelona FC. It followed the colour scheme of the football team which I loved, but the clincher was that it had three elasticated pockets on the back for water bottles and energy bars. It didn’t matter that the only route I took allowed me to pop into my kitchen to grab a glass of water and a snack (like the Tour de France cyclists a century ago who would stop in pubs en route), I simply had to have the jersey to appear a little bit more like my heroes.
Time went by, and following Armstrong’s retirement, his 2009 return, subsequent second retirement and admissions of being a drug cheat, as well as the revelations surrounding other successful cyclists, the sport lost its lustre for me. I no longer religiously followed the Tour each July, and unless I needed the bike for transport from A to B, it remained in the shed.
(Side note, the closest I ever got to Lance Armstrong was in the summer of 2009. I hopped on a bus down to Cork to watch a stage of the Tour of Ireland, which Armstrong and the ensuing media circus were a part of. The stage consisted of a few laps of Cork City, a route which incorporated the ascent of the notoriously steep Patrick’s Hill. On the first loop, Armstrong passed by me so close I could have touched him. On the second loop, he was nowhere to be seen. He gave up before the second ascent of Patrick’s Hill. Cork people can be proud that Patrick’s Hill broke Armstrong in a way that no Hors Category climb in the Tour de France ever did, although maybe he was off the drugs by then.)
Nowadays, i’m back cycling again. When the weather is agreeable, I throw my work clothes in a backpack and pedal the 10km or so from my home out to the office in Dun Laoghaire. There are days when I love it, and more days when I’m buffered by strong winds and my guttural expletives startle nearby pedestrians.
It’s a lovely cycle, that offers spectacular views over Dublin Bay if it’s safe to take your eyes off the road for a second. Sometimes, an old lady passes me on an electric bike and my sense of competition kicks in. I stand up in the saddle and hammer the pedals until I’m ahead once more. In moments like this, I’m transported back half a lifetime to the mindset of a skinny, awkward, slightly eccentric teenager who has grand dreams of reeling in the road before him.

 

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