I’m worried. I might be late. I speed down the Dublin road towards Castlebellingham, my bike, Daniel, in the back of the car. I see the landmarks my friend Kathleen described, and there it is. The meeting point. The car’s clock says I’m a minute over time.
Kathleen welcomes me with her customary ready smile, and I wonder how this woman can ever, ever doubt she’s anything but beautiful. Jason is there, too, I only met him yesterday. Nuala comes haring round the corner moments later, hops out of her car and joins the banter. We’re on our bikes soon after, two by two down the road.
I hated the group cycle yesterday. Or rather, I hated myself in the group cycle. I looked back on my first outing and wanted to die of embarrassment: I’d been like something wild. Perhaps that’s what I was. I’ve cycled over 6000km by myself. I stop when I want to stop, and go when I want to go. In this case, I wanted to stop when I saw a bull calf out on the road.
I opened the gate to the field where the youngster clearly belonged. Some of the others had also stopped, and between us we got the fella back to safety.
I felt stupid. In South Africa, living on a farm for a year, I’d learned the value of a head of cattle. The things cost hundreds. Still, I’d brought the whole group to a halt.
I told someone at the top of Newry Hill that I’d never just go hell for leather down it, as I have too vivid an imagination and can picture the splatter of blood if I should fall all too clearly. I don’t think it was a full minute later before I thought: “Ah, feck it,” and went hell for leather down the hill. Everyone else did a controlled descent, I was the only insane and dangerous twit who hurtled forth at top speed.
The group rested a few minutes, and I took the sterling opportunity to make a fool of myself again. A small little black kitty was in the road, and I wanted to die thinking of it getting run over. I’d seen more road kill on last weekend’s cycle tour than I’d seen in my entire five years in Ireland before that. It got to the point where I kept my gaze riveted to the horizon and sang loudly to drown out my thoughts whenever I saw a crumpled shape in the road ahead.
The kitty I held in Newry wore a pink collar with a tag on. “Go on ahead,” I said to the cyclists around me, “I’ll catch up.”
I phoned the kitty’s owners, left a message, then ushered Kitty into the garden from where she no doubt escaped. After that, I learned…
Group Cycling Lesson One: Never Fall Behind.
Catching up to the group was hellishly difficult. It meant I pedalled harder and faster than they did, then caught up to them when they were half way through their long rest break. I ended up working harder, and resting less.
When we set off again I stuck with the group, and got used to the odd sensation of not having just space around me, not pedalling according to my own comfort level, and not focusing on the scenery but instead on the back wheel of the bike ahead of me. It’s different from cycling on my own the way racing through the desert is different from being on the Autobahn. There’s some stuff I miss, but it’s replaced by some stuff I never get when I’m alone. There’s a unity, a sense of being part of a greater whole. When group cycling works at its best, it has its own kind of magic. Yet you have to tune your body and mind to a different soul-sound.
Group Cycling Lesson Two: Tune The Self to the Group.
At this point, everything went to pot. I got increasingly hungry: on my own, I’d normally have had something like a sandwich on the long stop. I’d taken some money with me specially for that purpose. With the group, and my own stupidity making me fall behind, I didn’t even have time to finish a whole cup of tea. Now, I don’t know how it is for others, but for me hungry + cycling = disaster. Hungry + hard cycling = DISASTER.
Group Cycling Lesson Three: Take Food You Can Eat As You Go.
It was okay, though, we were just coming back into Dundalk. The outing was over, I could go home and eat.
Jason told me he was going on, past Dundalk down to Dunleer and back. I was sixty kilometres short of my intended distance for the day, but I’d programmed my mind to a shorter run after listening to the route description.
Group Cycling Lesson Four: Always Make Sure You Know the Precise Plan So You Can Programme Your Mind For It.
I was also finished, not having eaten for hours. I looked down at my water bottle, to see my energy drink down to a quarter cup full or so, sloshing at the bottom. Usually, on my own, a bottle of water suffices as I tend to drink three or four cups of tea when I stop for lunch.
Group Cycling Lesson Five: Take Two Bottles of Liquid for anything beyond 70km.
I called it a day and went home, feeling very disappointed and not sure I have it in me to cycle almost seven hundred kilometres in a group in less than six weeks’ time.
Having learned all these important lessons yesterday, I pedal on behind Kathleen and Nuala, with Jason beside me. Not having had opportunity to either make or buy a suitable container I could fix to my bike, I took an emergency measure and tied a cloth bag to the handlebars. This I filled with trail mix and pecan nuts. Eating a handful every ten minutes or so makes a huge, huge difference. It’s pouring rain, but I’m having a ball. Spokes hum, my muscles sing along. Life is great, and I’m feeling the joy I’d tasted briefly yesterday when I’d got things right and slotted into the pack.
We stop for a brief rest just outside Dunleer, four sopping wet cyclists having a quick bite of an energy bar or a handful of trail mix washed down with water or energy drink before we go on. Nuala turns to me, I wait for an expert observation, some hard-core cycling remark. “We’re not feckin’ right in the head, are we?” she utters her wise words.
No, we’re not, I suppose. I laugh so much I can hardly get back on the bike. Cycling behind Nuala and Kathleen, I can see the effect their hard work on the bikes has had on their bodies. They look, in a word, great. Jason leaves us at Ardee, he has to be back earlier than we do. We wave him goodbye, and now it’s just the three of us. I get along really well with Kathleen and Nuala. This harmony seems to extend into the cycling: I feel as if we pedal great together.
I’m drenched, my shoes are two mobile puddles still soaking my feet long after the rain peters out. My legs are tired, my shoulders are sore. Is there no better way to spend these hours?
I smile as I pedal hard to pass the others and take my turn at the front, breaking the wind resistance for the rest of the group for a while. There’s nothing else I’d rather do right now.