The text took me by surprise: We might have a space on Mizen to Malin for you. Weeks ago, when I’d asked for a place and found the quota filled, I asked to be put on the waiting list as one of those things you do without expecting or even hoping that anything would come of it. Now the possibility of joining the group of cyclists travelling between 220 and 250km a day for three consecutive days was real.
I spoke to Kevin on the phone later. He was serious, realistic about what this undertaking would require. We worked through the obstacles I faced, and in the end it boiled down to two questions for me: Can I do the distance at 28km/h average, and can I cycle with a group? I undertook to find answers to these, and let Kevin know my decision as soon as possible. He didn’t give me a deadline, but I saw on Cuchullain Cycling Club’s website that the fee for the trip was due 25 July. Counting the day I received the text, it left me nine days to make a final decision.
Saturday, I tackled Muckno Mania Sprint tri, and I was pleased with my performance. It’s not great, but I hadn’t expected to do well at all less than a week after a 400km, four-day cycling trip with my relatively heavy hybrid bicycle and loaded panniers. More importantly, I got to speak to a few other cyclists. They’re all sure I have a good enough base fitness to be able to train enough over the six remaining weeks for Mizen to Malin. I’d join the leisure cycling group next morning, and start learning to cycle in a group. My confidence was high, I knew I could do this.
What worried me more than my fitness was the fact that I’d have to strip the budget of all its fat just at the time my mom comes over for a once-in-two-years visit. She doesn’t like loads of money being spent on her, but even an occasional day trip to sights she’d enjoy would have to be sacrificed. And that camping trip I’d promised the kids…
I at first enjoyed the group cycling, though I came out of it feeling like a failure. Confidence plummeted, I realise how much my personal cycling rhythm would have to be tuned to that of the group. I realised what a disaster it would be if I don’t have enough food with me, as the whole group can’t stop for me everytime I need a bite. I can’t do this, I thought, and wallowed in depression. I went online to check prices of the gear I’d need to buy, and simply couldn’t think how I’d manage.
Monday I joined Kathleen, Nuala and Jason for a 70km spin, and it went much better. There’s a lot to enjoy about group cycling, and having got the first time ever out of the way, I experienced the calm harmony that can be found in togetherness. Confidence was once more high. I tackled the gear issue like a problem to be solved rather than a hopeless obstacle I’d never be able to conquer. If I compromised a bit on quality, hunted about and ordered online instead of supporting my local bike shop, I could get what I needed with the money I’d have.
Tuesday morning I went out by myself. I cycled terribly, I realised later. Anxious about what average I was doing, I let consistency and a smooth pedalling rate fly out the window. I killed myself trying to go fast, gave in to my strange impulse to speed up as soon as I tackled a hill. Ah, technique! I was a disgrace, so I was. I kept my eye on the clock, as it was Lara’s birthday. She’d asked me to rouse her at eight, as that was the exact time she turned eleven and she wanted to be awake. My alarm went off, I hit the brakes and phoned my baby. She was already up, looking forward to me returning, but happy for me to be out cycling.
I ended the call and carried on cycling. Thoughts poured through my mind.
Micky’s fortieth birthday Alpine Climbing course, which he’d planned for and had been looking forward to for more than a year, would end less than a week before Mizen to Malin starts. No matter what I did, if I went for this trip, the focus would very much shift to me, to my huge adventure instead of his. I knew he wouldn’t mind, but the thought didn’t sit well with me.
The children had not had a holiday last year. We’d moved, it was chaos, and with all the related expenses, we simply couldn’t afford it. I’d promised them I’d make sure we went for a cycling holiday or perhaps camping sometime over the holidays, and that I’d take them on some nice day trips as well. How could I keep my promise when every euro I have would have to go to my cycling equipment and the cost of the trip? If I’d had two or three more weeks to spread the costs out… But I didn’t, that was just the reality.
My mom’s first visit to Ireland, two years ago, had been the first time she’d flown to another country from South Africa. She’s seventy this year. Would she be up to the twelve hour flight in two years’ time? How many more times would I have a chance to see her, would she have a chance to see the kids? It’s true, she said she’s not here so much as a tourist as for time with us, gardening, going for walks, seeing and enjoying our daily life rather than seeing Ireland. Even so…
I slowed the bike and stopped, pulled out my phone and spoke to Micky. I was not going to do this trip. Final decision, like in Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. When I got home, my legs were so tired I had trouble climbing the stairs. I switched the computer on and wrote Kevin a message. My heart near broke doing so.
Over the whole of Wednesday, I can’t stop thinking about the trip. I might never get this chance again. Pondering group cycling has me tearing my hair out. I’d felt moments of joy in it, but felt overwhelmingly that it wouldn’t work for me. The solitude and attuning to my own soul is such a huge part of the reason why I cycle in the first place. Maybe I was so finished by the few days’ hard training because of wrong technique more than lack of fitness. I have a gut feeling I’ll do better cycling a hundred kilometres twice with rest days in between rather than cycling fifty kilometres four days in a row. There’s just not enough time to experiment with my unique abilities and needs, to attune ‘me’ to the challenge I wanted to tackle.
And what about that, then? Micky offers to help me do this journey by myself soon, at a time which suits me better. But do I even want to do this? Do I want to travel from one end of Ireland to the other, lengthwise? I puzzle myself by not being sure of the answer to this question. Surely it’s the kind of challenge I relish?
But no, it’s not. I don’t like setting a goal and getting fit for it. I like being fit, then seeing a possible goal and saying: “I bet I can do that.” Cycling is also so much about combining that challenge with new things to see, new places to visit. Had I not just concluded over my recent cycling trip that I have now seen so much of Ireland that I really need to go to another country next time? Should I therefore not spend my resources – mental, physical and financial – on cycling along the Danube, or tackling at least a big part of the across Europe route I’ve eyed for a few years now?
This question is related to the one I asked myself before starting triathlons: will this work for me? Can I do this on a mental level, can I handle the shock of having an audience when I face my self and overcome her? Yet triathlons, even with an audience, turned out to be the kind of solitary sport which suits me to a tee. In a way, the thought of tackling Carlingford Olymic, a longer triathlon than I’ve ever done, excites me much more than the thought of joining Mizen to Malin.
My gods. There, I’ve said it. When I’m completely honest with myself, the thought of Mizen to Malin leaves me cold. I’m unlikely to see anything new, as I’ve cycled through most of the parts they’ll go through. (In any case, when you’re in a peleton your world narrows to the back wheel in front of you and the handlebars beside you. That’s where your focus lies, so even if there’s something new to see, I’ll miss it.) I’d enjoy the companionship, but I’d sacrifice the glorious aloneness, the brief interlude of being only me which I love so much when I’m cycling.
My life plays out as part of a unit. I’m a mommy, a wife. I would not ever have it any other way. Even so, time away from them, then, is balance: just me, no-one else to consider, no-one else to ask whether we should stop or go, slow down or speed up. My precious days away are also opportunities to stand in awe of the amazing world around me, to see gigantic mountains and lakes with water of a colour I would not have believed had I not seen it myself. It’s broken English, Dutch and German combined so this English-speaking Afrikaans Irish resident can understand a German-speaking Italian in Switzerland. It’s about castles – ah, castles! I want to go back to one I briefly saw and linger, and stare – and rivers and ice and snow.
I knew it would help me find the core of what was in my heart if I wrote it out. I’m confident in my decision not to go now, because I think I finally understand it. What a relief. What a joy. It’s good to understand yourself. And it’s good to know how to be happy.