Over the next days as I slowly acclimatised, I had long days for thought and I began to remember my first relationship with bicycles. Coming from a big family, there was no money for new bikes so, as kids, we had to make do with whatever we could find, salvage and stitch together. Our bikes were always strange looking. However, we became accomplished bike mechanics, and when a group of Americans abandoned a bunch of wrecked racers, it did not take us long to put together a couple of the finest racing bicycles seen in Renvyle since the days of Oliver St John Gogarty. I was excited about my first racer. It was clean, well oiled and my trips became longer and longer. I began to cherish the independence and freedom that a good machine gave me. I realised that with a tent, a sleeping bag, a few bob and a good bike, the whole world was accessible. I won a couple of races on grass tracks at Community Games and began to think about racing more seriously, but there were no teams in Connemara at the time.
After leaving school, I ended up in Dublin as a young Garda, and before long, I joined the Garda Cycling Team, which at the time featured some great cyclists. I was impressed by the toughness and dedication of these men. I also began to understand something of the history of Irish cycling and its part in politics and social life, stories for another day. During this time I spent many hours training, mostly alone, as my shift work did not allow me an opportunity to train with the group very often. I got to know every road in Meath, Kildare and Wicklow as well as further afield and grew to enjoy the solitude and freedom of the road. I often wondered what was going through the minds of other solitary cyclists I met along the way, not least, the grinning cheery young man who whizzed along that road I had just travelled and who later went on to win the Tour of France, the Giro dItalia and the World Championship in the same year.
These and other thoughts passed through my mind as the desert grew on me and the miles slid by. I tried to remember when it was that I had progressed from the challenges of racing to the challenges of these long solo tours. I remembered the Pyrenees, that hard six days from the San Sebastian to Perpignan, the climbs that sapped all energy and exhilarating descents, the awesome beauty of the mountains and the solitude. Again, the lines of the song came to me as I began to read the desert.
“On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound”
The villages were fewer now and I had to carry more water. I saw no evidence of the hostility I had been warned about back in Santa Barbara. The locals were friendly, generous and encouraging. The only hazards were young Americans zooming by in fast cars, high on alcohol and drugs and excitement. On every bend of the road were memorials to those who had not survived their reckless escapades in the wilderness. The landscape had changed now and everywhere were rocks and cacti, like some western movie from the old days. There was no water for one hundred and fifty kilometres, so the weight on the bike increased, as I was now using about five litres a day.
Written by Stephen Gannon
Stephen Gannon, a native of the the townland of Derryherbert, is a permanent resident of the townland of Cloonluane, on the Renvyle Peninsula, in the parish of Letterfrack-Ballinakill.
Full Version available in “Pride and the Parish: Volume 1”