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Beth McCluskey interview: How day of terror revived cyclist’s career

Cyclist regained passion for competition after day in the Alps took a fateful twist

Beth McCluskey in action during the National Cyclo-cross championships, staged at Tollymore Forest Park, in the Mourne Mountains. Photograph: Gregg Germer / Steen Wear
Beth McCluskey in action during the National Cyclo-cross championships, staged at Tollymore Forest Park, in the Mourne Mountains. Photograph: Gregg Germer / Steen Wear
Beth McCluskey celebrates after winning the National Cyclo-cross championships, staged at Tollymore Forest Park, in the Mourne Mountains. Photograph: Gregg Germer / Steen Wear

There can’t be many more helpless feelings in the world than flying down the side of Alpe d’Huez on a mountain bike when a jeep suddenly appears on the road in front of you and there is absolutely no way of avoiding it.

For Beth McCluskey the amazing thing is that she can now happily recount that feeling: because instead of it ending her competitive cycling career, which it might easily have, what happened next actually revived it. It has also helped revive the winning feeling that came with being crowned National Cyclo-cross champion in the Mourne Mountains last Sunday.

They say every competitive athlete dies not once but twice. Firstly, when they retire from their chosen sport and secondly when they stop breathing. Only for McCluskey, retirement from competitive cycling initially felt like a new lease of life. Until flying down the side of Alpe d’Huez.

For the best part of a decade she’d been one of Ireland’s top mountain bike riders, winning two national titles, racing around the world and back again. At times it felt like she lived and breathed competitive cycling and then one day she woke up and realised she’d had enough.

“I suddenly found that all the motivation was gone,” she says. “My head just wasn’t in it anymore. It was like someone flicked the off switch. I tried to switch it back on but I couldn’t. There may have been some psychological reason for that. But I couldn’t get around it. I didn’t even want to get out of breath on the bike. I’d had enough after all the years of training.

Leisurely pace

“I just got tired of all the sacrifices and commitment, putting things on hold. I still loved the cycling. But I didn’t want to have to go out in the rain. Or get up at six in the morning. So I went back to just enjoying it, going on cycling trips at weekends for the pleasure, at a more leisurely pace. I wanted to keep fit, but without any competitive element.”

It was during one of these leisurely cycling trips to France, 18 months ago, that McCluskey came face-to-face with the jeep. Along with her partner Geoff, she was descending one of the fire roads off Alpe d’Huez, famous for its 21 steep switchbacks that often feature in the Tour de France. It’s a breathtaking mountain, coming up or down, although for McCluskey it very nearly stopped her breathing in the more literal sense.

“We were having a nice life on the bikes. We’d go over to the Alps every summer, do a good bit of cycling, but again it was all leisurely. An active holiday, really.

“It wasn’t the main switchback road. We were coming down the far side, on one of the fire roads, just about wide enough for one vehicle. I saw some dust from behind the trees, and knew straightaway something was coming. But there was nothing I could do. It was too late. I tried to throw myself off the bike. But I just knew I was going to collide. There was nowhere to go, the road was so narrow.

“My partner, Geoff, was about 50 metres behind me, so he saw it all unfold. I hit the jeep head-on, only it had stopped by then. So I rebounded and landed in front of it, lying on the road, and just could not move. I’d crashed loads of times before, and usually you get back on your feet fairly quick. But I couldn’t move a thing.

“I remember trying to wriggle my toes, then my fingers, and thinking at least they can still move. Because that’s what goes through your head . . . ‘I hope I’m not paralysed.’ But I knew it was still bad.”

Indeed it was: there was no way an ambulance could reach them in a hurry so instead she was airlifted to Grenoble Hospital. The doctors took one look at her and figured she’d broken at least a few bones, but were more concerned about internal injuries, sending her for a Cat scan to assess the damage.

“It was nearly all internal injuries. The abdomen took the brute force of the impact, so I had hematomas in my liver, spleen, pancreas. And my abdominal wall was just ripped. As soon as they realised my liver was not severely damaged they were happy enough. Although no one could believe I hadn’t actually broken a bone. I couldn’t believe it either.”

What almost certainly prevented more serious damage, possibly even paralysis, was that fact McCluskey had built up years of core-muscle strength. “I still think if anyone else had been in that accident they would have been killed,” she says, with still lasting relief.

A few days later she was discharged, although that was only the beginning of a slow and painful recovery process at her home in Greystones, Co Wicklow. At that point the last thing on her mind was any return to competitive cycling, especially now that she was in her 40s: she simply wanted to move around without any pain, including during her work at DIT’s School of Biological Sciences. Any exercise – leisurely or otherwise – would be a bonus.

But then McCluskey had never known a life without exercise. In her earlier years she’d been a 1,500m runner on the track, also representing Ireland in cross country, and later in hill running. Around 2000, however, a series of leg injures took much of the enjoyment out of running, so she switched to cycling.

“I just wasn’t able to compete at the level I wanted to anymore. Having done some hill running, the idea of mountain biking and bit of adventure appealed to me. My brother was also a competitive cyclist, so he would have drawn me into the sport, taking me out on training spins.

“I remember my ninth ever mountain bike race was actually the World Championships. I was selected on the Irish team. I was still quite fit from the running, but it was certainly a big experience. I was way out the back in the race but also learnt loads. And it took off from there. I went straight in at the deep end and stayed there for a few years.”

Missed out

In 2003, she tried to qualify for the Athens Olympics with an Irish women’s road cycling team, although that didn’t work out; for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, McCluskey was one of three Irish women chasing qualification in mountain biking, competing in qualifying races around the world, although again she missed out. Meanwhile, she’d won her first National Mountain Bike title in 2007 (ending the remarkable 12-year streak of Tarja Owens), and won back the title again in 2009.

Not long after that she suddenly found her appetite for competitive cycling was gone. By July of 2014, the time of her accident, she in no way missed it either, although the fear of never getting back on the bike slowly brought the appetite back.

“I was terrified of not being able to do anything. So I just wanted to get back to some exercise, some gentle cycling. I started back step-by-step, setting little goals, and eventually I got there. I’d start with walking around the block, then go for an hour.”

For this she also credits her physiotherapist Nessa Smyth, who formerly worked with Athletics Ireland. “If it wasn’t for Nessa, I would never have got back on the bike. She was amazing. The first night I went to see her she spent three hours going through the injuries. There was a lot of hard work, a lot of tears, and every second week I was going into Nessa saying ‘this is never going to work . . .’ She would calm me down, and work her magic.”

She also recommended McCluskey get back on her bike as part of the recovery process, although she opted for the sturdier cyclo-cross bike, designed for cross-country racing, a little easier on the body than the road or mountain bike. Still the last thing on her mind was any return to competitive cycling.

“No way. That was never the plan. I just started back on some long cycles with friends at the weekends, who were training for this big race in the Dolomites.”

Not long after that her friend Michelle Geoghegan, also living in Greystones and who spent a few seasons racing professionally for Belgian and Dutch teams, asked her to join the Steen Wear team for last September’s Rás na mBan, a five-day tour and still the only women’s international stage race in Ireland.

“I don’t know why I said yes, but I did, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I got on quite well [she finished 10th best Irish rider] and kept at it from there. Still, every race I do now I ask myself how I ended up here. It was the same last Sunday.”

Last Sunday being the National Cyclo-cross championships in the Mourne Mountains. Despite it being her debut season in the discipline, and now aged 44, McCluskey produced a brilliant victory, winning by over a minute, despite crashing on the first lap.

Gears got stuck

“I came off the bike, went over on my ankle, and then my gears got stuck. But once I got back with the leaders I just kept going. In some ways, yes, I have got the competitive thing back. Only I’m not nearly as competitive as I used to be. I just enjoy it more than I ever did before. I think I was too serious about it before, and so lost that enjoyment.

“Now, I’m just thrilled to be a part of it again. I look at all the races differently, all the other riders that I meet, and enjoy the company.

“It’s amazing the amount of women who have taken up cyclo-cross this year, from all ages, 16 up to 55. The numbers really are soaring. I certainly don’t plan on going back into serious, mad competitive mode. And I’m still not 100 per cent since the accident. My left shoulder and right hip still give me some trouble, and they might never be right. But I can’t complain.

“I actually feel now I’m having much more fun, doing less training, yet possibly riding a well as I ever was, even when I was at my best. My motto now is ‘use it or lose it’. And Sunday was one my sweetest wins, absolutely, having retired, then having the accident.

“I possibly will go back to more mountain biking, maybe do the World Master Championships. I also feel I’ve got the healthy balance back. I lost that before. But after the accident, during the rehab, it just came back. It was like I remembered why we get involved in sport in the first place. Because we simply love it.”