Normally at this time of the year, cycling fever would be in the air with the Giro d’Italia a recent memory (remember the year it started in Belfast?), and that other famous pharmaceutical warehouse on wheels (sorry, bike race) the Tour de France just about to start. This year it’s all different though, but it hasn’t stopped the Middle-Aged Men In Lycra (MAMILs, I believe the modern terminology is) – ie people like myself – from making the most of these long bright evenings after a busy day of sweating over the laptop by donning the tight shorts, mounting their state-of–the-art light-as-a-feather titanium carbon-fibre machines and taking to the local roads. As we struggle to ascend every hill, the beads of sweat rolling down our face and the lactic acid accumulating we can imagine we’re heroically climbing Mount Ventoux or the Col de Galibier and being cheered on by enthusiastic spectators, as we dream of the elusive yellow jersey.
Although my local area can’t boast of sunflower fields, Mediterranean coastal roads or hairpin Alpine bends, there’s a good network of cycle lanes.
Ever since Dubliner Stephen Roche became the first man from these islands to win the Tour de France in 1987 (despite the valiant efforts of his fellow countryman Sean Kelly from Carrick-on-Suir who won almost everything else) I’ve been fascinated by the sport.
It’s a healthy pastime, but as we all know it has its risks – as I was to find out through personal experience one summer evening many years ago. My 16-year-old self was cycling through in the countryside a few miles from home and enjoying the thrill of a rapid downhill descent. But unbeknownst to me, the front wheel had come slightly loose.
I was suddenly thrown over the handlebars on my way down the hill and hit my chin on the road. I didn’t think much of it as I got up and brushed the dust off my hands. As far as I was concerned I’d just fallen off and was about to get back in the saddle and carry on. Then I looked down and suddenly realised that the white t-shirt I was wearing was soaked in blood and had a big rip down the front. My front wheel was badly buckled, so the bike was now unrideable. I was forced to walk towards home carrying the bike.
When I got to the main road I was eventually picked up by a concerned motorist who took me to the hospital.
The doctor spent about an hour taking grit out of the wound before he stitched it up. For the rest of that summer, there was a huge cut visible on the side of my chin.
Usually, at this point you would expect me to say “And I’ve never ridden a bike since that fateful day….”
But the truth is I got back into cycling in my late 20s and have kept it up on an on-off basis ever since – and enjoy it immensely. Ironically it was Lance Armstrong’s amazing comeback after suffering near-fatal cancer that inspired me to get back in the saddle – a comeback which eventually proved to be a little bit too amazing to be genuine. How the mighty fall. It seems that Armstrong’s mistake was his greed. He had just gone for the three or four in a row he may well have got away with it. But we’ll never really know.
But back to the positives. Even in cold wet weather, there’s also something therapeutic about cycling along a wet tarmac surface on which you can see your reflection, with raindrops or sleet stinging your face. It’s amazing how quickly the body heats up during a short sustained burst of vigorous pedalling.
That combination of adrenaline and endorphins brings about an unrivalled feeling to brighten up an otherwise dull Sunday afternoon. One of life’s simple pleasures.
The adrenaline rush of downhill descents and the build-up of lactic acid in the lungs and thighs on the ascent is simply thrilling. It’s not quite the same as racing the fields of rural Provence with the multi-coloured peloton in hot pursuit or popping the the champagne cork on the Champs-Elysée, or the agonising ascent up a Pyrenean mountain pass – but there’s no other feeling like it. And of course, unlike the professionals (or at least unlike some of them) I don’t have to rely on pharmaceutically-enhanced “medication” to go faster.
And apart from the obvious risks of taking to the saddle, there are few things more irritating than when a small flying insect whizzes into your eye and you spend ages trying to get it out or wondering if it’s still there.
So if you want to make the most of these warm bright summer days while the traffic remains at a relatively low volume in this time of Lockdown – get on your bike.
But take care!
Ciaran Ward is from Co. Tyrone and is now based in London where he works in the data protection/cybersecurity field. His latest book “On Square Routes”, a collection of memoirs, travel writing, short stories and poetry has just been published and is now available from Amazon.