Last Sunday, along the East Coast of Ireland, was Giro D’Italia Day.
Yes, that’s right, the Giro d’Italia descended upon our shores last weekend to complete Stage Three of that prestigious cycling event. And no, it’s not an annual event here in the Emerald Isle. We just got lucky this year.
Much though I love to take my bike out for a spin, I am pretty clear that this is biking of a very different sort. Beyond that, my knowledge is limited. But it didn’t stop me from getting out there to see what all the fuss was about.
The publicity machine behind the Giro have been doing their best to educate us for the past few months. Full and half page advertisements have been running in the newspapers for months and advance warnings were posted about traffic restrictions in all the towns along the route.
The Discover Ireland people produced this very attractive promotional video.
And lots of homeowners went to great trouble to decorate their homes in with Giro pink balloons, and bunting.
Some even went to the trouble of dyeing their sheep!
Sheep in Giro Pink Fleece
(Image from theirishpost.co.uk)
And, over the weekend people from all over Northern Ireland and the Republic, turned out, in their droves to cheer the riders on.
Or perhaps, like me, find out a little bit more about this cycle racing lark.
I certainly found out what it was to be part of the crowd at a bike race.
Early arrival was essential, as the Giro signs had impressed upon the locals what road would be closed and when. With extra traffic anticipated, and rolling road closures, travelling and parking would be a little more challenging
Onlookers started to arrive some two hours before the predicted race arrives at my chosen hotspot. Most were dressed in an assortment of layers as befits our recent multiseasonal weather. Pink clothing abounded too,of course, with the occasional pink umbrella and one brave soul even sporting pink hair.
There was the low hum of good-humoured conversation, punctuated by occasional laughter. Most folk were happy to wait for this once-in-a-lifetime event.
Most people. Except Jessica.
But Dad, I don’t want to sit on a stone wall for two hours!
I’m telling ya, Jessica, this is the best spot. You will see the riders coming down that hill and up that one.
Jessica if ya don’t stop that moaning, you can hit the high road now an`start walking home
Gardaí (that’s what we call our police force) manned the barricades and were having their patience tested too.
“You can’t cycle across the road son, you have to walk”
“No Ma`am we can’t open the barrier til the race passes”
“It should be here in around fifteen minutes”
Of course thirty minutes pass before the first of the headlights come into view. The crowd turns their head in expectation. And the van flashes its lights obligingly. But it’s just a merchandise van. Still, with Giro emblazoned on the side it is surely a portent of the oncoming peloton.
A Garda traffic car zooms past and eventually a team van.
Then nothing for another age. The threatening rain now falls in heavy plops and umbrellas are raised in defence.
Suddenly, a siren…
A cavalcade of Garda motorbikes spans out along the route, one driving raising his arm to the crowd who cheer enthusiastically, the others a little closer to the crowd to encourage them to keep off the road. Next the lead car and then, and then….
My camera is in movie mode and the clustered pack of cyclists has disappeared as quickly as it has appeared. It barely registers on my screen.
The lead pack have gone in a blur.
Honestly, someone should’ve told those guys to slow down a sec so we could see them properly.
But the race is not done. More cars and then, cresting the hill, a line of blue and green helmets glisten as they hove into view. Big cheers from everyone. I think I am witnessing what people in the know, and wikipedia, call a peloton. But to my uneducated eye it looks more like some gargantuan alien has landed. There isn’t a human in sight. Instead, it’s a blue and green multilegged speed machine writhing its way expertly around bends and over hill with fantastic speed and agility.
More cyclists follow. The are threaded in little groups amid the caravan of accompanying team cars. These cars must be vital team support vehicles as each one bears racks of bikes on their roofs as they follow along the route.
All too soon, another car arrives, helpfully brandishing a sign reading Race End. The crowd laughs and starts to disperse.
Of course all this clashed with my allocated Long Slow Run, as per the Hal Higdon plan. But I figured a way to fit in the Giro and keep Hal happy. I’d arrived early to bag my car parking for the Giro and then ran three miles of the LSR.
That shortened the wait and kept me happy and warm as toast while waiting for my first Giro fix.
Afterwards, I travelled some of the Giro route along the coast and ran a very pleasant five miles around Skerries.
Delightful views of course added to the meditative pace. Here too, the Giro had left its mark as it tacked along the coast and on into Dublin city centre. Skerries had thrown a festival to celebrate the Italian invasion though, true to my missed-the-best-parties form, the festivities were well over by the time I arrived.
But my solo run more than compensated, as it was more tai-chi than taxing amidst the ethereal scenery of a Skerries cool summer evening.
With the sun glowering over banks of charcoal cloud, my slow shoe shuffle came to an end. Beside my car, a piece of Giro pink balloon, lay burst and tattered in the roadside puddle, a symbol of the passing of Giro day.
The Giro D’ Italia brought a glow to the east coast and a glow to many a heart and for many a different reason.
There is something in the freedom of the road: it brings out the dreamer in me.
Freshly cut grass, sunshine and birdsong have prompted the first annual outing of my bike from the rickety garden shed. Tyres pumped, WD40 sprayed, helmet dusted off and I am ready to go.
There is no better way to travel the countryside than a bicycle in low gear. There is the little matter of pedalling every now and again, but, in effect, you are an armchair traveller whizzing through a multisensory three dimensional film.
All around me an intensity of greens fly past, broken only by little delights: a red-doored cottage, a lichen-covered stone wall, or-my favourite- a ditch clustered with creamy primroses.
As always, I wonder about the stories the landscape holds. A mound in a field may well be Neolithic and its stones may hold tales from thousands of years. The land farmed then, is land farmed now, the cattle and sheep possible descendants from the livestock then. And the river, wending its way through the pasture as it has wended for all eternity varying its route only on the whim of Nature or the hand of man.
Along the roadside, the stone cottages tell of a time when the landlord ruled and the tenant farmer paid his rent with the toil of his entire family.
And the plain two storey farm dwelling set in among the fields tells of a family who may have farmed there for generations.
Some houses lie in ruins, bramble and ivy springing from their stones, and perhaps, a lilac or a currant bush telling of a time when the woman of the house tended the garden and kept the fire in the hearth ablaze.
Five miles done and already I am imagining a week like this. Just me, the bike, two panniers. I did it before. A week in Clare. I still recall the delight of whizzing along the coast, mountains or rock to my right and the never-ending swathe of wild Atlantic to my right.
There is the little matter of that being thirty years ago. But still…
Overhead the sandmartins swoop and dive. They are the first members of the swallow family to make it to our shores and a very sure sign that summer is on its way.
Two pied wagtails bicker on a bungalow gutter and a cat pounces into a hedge prompting a swift alarm call from a startled blackbird.
If I were running this route I would see all of this though the labour intensity of the run might colour the joy a little. But the running means I can cycle for longer too. Its a perfect partnership.
I wonder how much I could cycle every day. Forty miles? Fifty maybe? I’d like enough time to stop for a while and explore stone and plant and river. Enough time to picnic on a warm rock overlooking the sea, or amble into a café for some local fare.
I have no recollection of any of these details from thirty years ago. Only the Clare scenery remains embedded in my memory.
Thirty years on and, of course, I would blog about it. And take photographs. Already one pannier is filling with ipad and wire and cameras and lenses…
And the road rambles on. Occasionally, a two tonne ball of metal hurtles past leaving me shuddering in its wake. I have been that motorist speeding past the unsuspecting cyclist. I ruefully reflect on how biking can complement driving too: it takes doing one to understand the other.
The sun is sinking lower on the horizon now, and the sky teases with faintest peaches and buttery yellows. I am heading into dusk and miles from home.
In all my pre ride prep, I had failed to attach a light to the front of my bike. I pedal faster.
What else would I need to think of for a longer road trip? Punctures. Could I fix one? Nope. Chain breaks? Snookered there too.
By now the faster pedalling and the fear of becoming roadkill were beginning to take their toll. The gears-never a strong point on my horse of a bike-juddered uncertainly and threatened to dislodge the chain as I hit an uphill swoop. Even the passing acres of glorious rapeseed yellows were losing their appeal.
I wondered about the Teens in my supposed week long absence. Sure, their independent living skills are coming along. But what if-and I had heard other parents’ tales of horror-what if their skills extended to opening beer cans and having what Teen Son tells me is called a ‘Gaff Party’? And what if the house were thrashed? Or someone died?
I am exhausted by it all and I already have fears that two panniers will not accommodate my worldly needs for one week. Maybe I should just be happy with what I have enjoyed this day.
Sixteen miles done. Cross training sorted. And I am home.
Pleased with myself I wrestle off my helmet and Teen Boy looks out from behind his laptop.
People like these are my heroes.
Meet Tom Rylance, age 76…
…and his rival Jim McKellar aged 77
I caught up with these guys last week on a sports channel showing highlights of this year`s Windsor Triathlon.
There were two distances in this triathlon: Sprint with its 750 swim, 20 k bike ride and 5km run and Olympic with its 1.5 km swim, 40 km bike ride and 10 km run. Both gentlemen competed in the Olympic event. Of course.
Down the Thames
Isn`t triathlon just lovely to watch on TV? And Windsor Tri looked great. Shoals of swimmers took to the River Thames. Soon it was a heaving mass of angled arms and thrashing legs. For the most part, the TV crew followed the elite athletes.
Transition Area One
As they came from the water and worked their way through transition one area, it was thrilling to see them make the necessary adjustments as efficiently as possible. Caps and goggles off, helmet on, bike unclipped and soon, they`re running barefoot with their bikes to the Stage two start, before wedging their feet into their runners which have already been hooked on to the bike`s pedals.
And then they`re off…
Emma Pallant, to the right of this pic, went on to win the Women`s Tri
The elite look sleek in their tri gear. All lean and tanned, they glide along with apparent ease.
But it`s the real people I am looking out for. The less sleek, the more breathless, the slow ones dragging up the rear. People like me. People I won`t even show pics of here as I was too embarrassed to reveal my own finish line pic just a few months ago. Glasshouses and stones and all that.
The TV crew doesn`t disappoint, though. It even interviews a couple of them, all smiling and joking but hoping too to score their own personal victories on the day.
And then we see some real winners: Tom and Jim.
The camera crew catches up with them in the running section of the tri. The Windsor running section is tough as it involves looping around the same section three times and that included a hill. We catch up with Jim on one of those hills and he stops for a brief chat before giving the camera crew the thumbs up and a huge grin. He is a delightful guy and plainly enjoying himself.
I love when I see guys like Jim and Tom still taking part in these mass sporting events. I am frequently overtaken by many men like them, after all! It`s a huge thumbs up for the health benefits of exercise. And for learning, and exercise being for life.
In a world that encourages a highly competitive environment in sport and in lauding the handful who can push the boundaries in what the human body can achieve, the rest of the human race are consigned to being armchair sports participants. And the armchair is literally killing them.
Jim and Tom took to the podium together at the end of their epic tri. Tom had beaten Jim into second place. But, with all the interest shown in the running and triathlons in the past few years, I`ll bet there will be more competition in these categories in years to come.
And where were the women? Where indeed. It something I have noticed when out running. The older men are there and probably have had a lifetime of sport and exercise behind them. The older women are very rare birds indeed. That`s changing slowly though it would suit me very well to have just one or two people competing in my age category in years to come!
I am looking forward to taking my place on the podium one day. I don`t even need to win, sure, third out of three would be grand. But I`d love to keep fit enough and well enough to participate in races.
And in this, I am inspired by my heroes who keep on keeping on.