Digging the Foundations
It was late January 1978 and a bitter northeast wind was blowing the sleet right into our faces as we struggled across the high plateau known as Calory Bog in County Wicklow, just south of Dublin. I could no longer feel my feet and my hands were like ice, despite wearing so-called all weather gloves. We had covered one hundred and twenty kilometres in around four hours – a decent pace for the time of year. We still had another thirty to get home. As the downpour intensified, a constant stream of freezing spray from Denis’s back wheel covered my face. I wondered why he couldn’t get a back mudguard, even though I didn’t have one either.
I could feel the road grit in my eyes. Every time I got out of the saddle to heave up another small incline my thighs screamed at me to just stop peddling. I looked down at my gears every few minutes as if the tiny sprockets had become my worst enemy. I cursed and spluttered like a lunatic. How could this be considered training? It was more like some sort of extreme masochistic punishment. Was this really what I looked forward to every day when I sat at my desk looking at the latest medical bills from the bold sailors in Yokohama or Brussels or wherever?
Every now and again, Denis would look cautiously over his shoulder to see if I had completely lost my mind.
“We’ll just ride steady all the way in Mick,” he said with the stoic demeanour of a man who had weathered a thousand storms. “Otherwise we’ll be out here all f-ing day.”
In an effort to avoid the blinding spray, I started to focus on Denis’s rear derailleur. If I could push my front wheel as close as possible to the mechanism, I would also get some relief from the crosswind. In my mind, I could see the chain whipping through the sprockets like some steel plated ogre. For some reason, I recalled the guy in the film Midnight Express who started walking around the millstone in the opposite direction to everyone else. That was when the music from the film started in my head, the same tune over and over again like some sort of perverse mantra.
As I inched ever closer to his machine, Denis swerved to avoid yet another pothole. The rim of my front wheel touched his gears and I barely stayed upright.
“Jesus, you could live in that one!” he shouted.
To my addled mind, it was all part of a deliberate attempt to rid himself of this burden who would not take a turn at the front.
“Dammit!” I roared in response, and Denis laughed.
“Cup o’tae and a sambo would go down well now,” he yelled cheerfully.
At the same time, we knew that there were a hundred other cyclists scattered about the Irish hills. I knew that my Dublin neighbour Stephen Roche would be out there too, but like Denis, he would be riding into the wind with that impeccable pedalling style of his, looking as though he was out for a ride in the park when there was a force eight gale blowing across the hills.
As we descended the gateway to the mountains known as the Long Hill, the biting wind was muted by tall hedgerows and I was able to regain a sense of purpose. After all, this was our eighth outing of the month and we already had some serious ‘base’ miles for the long season ahead.
I could not help but admire Denis as he negotiated the curving road at high speed. He looked as though he was part of his machine, despite, as he would put it, ‘riding on one leg’.
When we finally got back to the cottage in Greystones, I had to laugh when I saw Denis’s face. He was covered in muck and cow dung, but there were two clean circles around his eyes where he had removed his glasses.
“You can talk! Go and take a look at yourself in the mirror,” he responded. “That’s what you get for sitting on my wheel all day!”
I looked as though I had fallen head first into a pig sty. My training gear was caked in mud and it took me several tries to extricate my frozen feet from my saturated shoes and socks. So much for the plastic bags, I thought.
After standing under a hot shower for ten minutes, the agony of the blood returning to my toes subsided. It was somehow satisfying to watch the mud swirling around the drain before disappearing. Finally, I began to feel human again, which also meant that I had the time to reflect on the ride we had just finished.