Ian O’Riordan: The aloneness of the long-distance rider

Ghosts of cycling greats for company on a spin deep into the heart of the Garden of Ireland

The first climb over the Sally Gap loud-mouthing the arias of Il barbiere di Siviglia and then down along the already gorse-scented Glenmacnass where the earth is fast reawakening.

The first climb over the Sally Gap loud-mouthing the arias of Il barbiere di Siviglia and then down along the already gorse-scented Glenmacnass where the earth is fast reawakening.

 

The bitter sting and dust of the fabled pavé. The last Alpine switchback of the hors catégorie. The first climb over the Sally Gap loud-mouthing the arias of Il barbiere di Siviglia and then down along the already gorse-scented Glenmacnass where the earth is fast reawakening.

Every rider has their own idea of where the season begins. It used to be in small groups of two or three, never beyond Glencree until after the clocks spring forward, or before hurling derision at TS Eliot for being wrong about the cruellest month.

By Thursday afternoon, with the sun laughing in the back windows, this season unlike any other began with the first irresistible urge to go alone and properly deep into the Garden of Ireland.

There’s never been anything lonely about riding solo, only being misunderstood about it, same as Alan Sillitoe was with his 1959 novella The Loneliness of The Long-Distance Runner, a mere 40-page spread that still best captures the essence and purpose of why people run.

Because: “As soon as I take that first flying leap out onto the frosty grass of an early morning when even the birds haven’t the heart to whistle . . . it’s a treat, being a long-distance runner, out in the world by yourself with not a soul to make you bad-tempered . . . sometimes I think that I’ve never been so free as during that couple of hours when I’m trotting up the path out of the gates . . . .”

It’s this aloneness, not loneliness, which Sillitoe suitably celebrates, and being a long-distance rider is the same, only aided by an element and economy of cycling that helps reduce any perceptible distance and takes the solo into a different realm. That’s still best captured in The Rider by Tim Krabbé which, like On the Road and The Great Gatsby, sits somewhere beside my bed and is read in a slow and continuous loop.

It was written in 1978 and to the last word it’s the perfect paean to all the pain and pleasure of the road and the bike. From the opening paragraph, where Krabbé looks at the non-riders around him – “the emptiness of those lives shocks me” – it is by turns of the page subjectively arrogant and despairingly real.

Because: “The greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is nature’s payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering. Velvet pillows, safari parks, sunglasses; people have become woolly mice. Instead of expressing their gratitude for the rain by getting wet, people walk around with umbrellas.”

Cycling on the open road like this doesn’t just bring you closer to these elements, it brings you within them. The soundtrack was on repeat since the night before, and the annual primer that is Breaking Away, pulled out from the DVD archives for its strictly rationed one-viewing-per-season.

Wicklow at any time is blessed with still original stretches of the Military Road, which since the wake of the 1798 Rebellion has been running the 58km from Rathfarnham in Dublin to Aughavannagh, quickly leaving the city and everything else behind in silent miniature. Approached from west Glencree at Aurora, on the right of the road there’s a smaller granite boulder, half-carved, with the inscription: Liam Horner, Olympic Cyclist, “the last prime”.

Yellow jersey

Horner is the rider who trained around these same roads and in 1967, while still working as a carpenter, became the first amateur to win a major race outside of Ireland with his victory in the Manx International – and “the last prime” gets me every time. Horner also rode in both the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, and died in tragic circumstances, in 2003, following an accident at work.

Once over the flat roof of Wicklow and down into Laragh, the road is now within touching distance of Glenmalure, and the first annual salute to Shay Elliot, this one marked on the left by another granite boulder with the inscription: In Memory of Shay Elliott, International Racing Cyclist, erected by his family and friends, Bray Wheelers Club, 1971.

That was the year he died, aged 36, the first Irish cyclist to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. Although born in Dublin, Elliott is most associated with this part of Wicklow, one of his favourite training routes being this climb up between Cullentragh and Kirikee mountains, then down into Drumgoff, into the heart of Glenmalure. He’d often ride over it solo, back and forth, in quick succession, in all weather.

Elliott single-handedly blazed the trail for Irish professional cyclists, breaking down a series of barriers to make it into the peloton, the French sporting press describing him as “soaked with class”.

He retired early, in 1967, the first English-speaking rider to wear the leader’s jersey in all three major tours – the Giro (1960), the Vuelta (1962), and the Tour (1963). Two weeks after his father’s funeral, in May 1971, he was found dead in the small apartment above his business on Prince’s Street, a gunshot wound to the chest fatally rupturing his heart and liver.

Shadows are already falling on the way back and there’s a lone rider ahead of me who appears like an image of Fausto Coppi. There’s a book about that too called Fallen Angel, the 2009 biography by William Fotheringham, with a chapter entitled “A Man Alone”, un uomo solo, coined by an Italian journalist after Coppi rode 192km alone to win the 17th stage through the Alps and secure the 1949 Giro d’Italia, before later that summer completing a first Giro-Tour double.  

Coppi, the original Il Campionissimo, also remains that perfect image for the pleasures and suffering of cycling. Two years after his double, his older brother Serse, and team-mate at Bianchi, died after crashing off his bike. In 1960, at age 40, Coppi died after catching malaria on a hunting tour in Burkina Faso, and was later voted the most popular Italian sportsman of the 20th century.

I once told Daniel Day-Lewis that he could play the perfect Coppi. We’d just cycled some distance over these same roads, and he told me that role was well past him by now, but that someday somebody had to play the part. I rode on alone thinking about Coppi and Italy and the need to keep that safe distance. And from now on keeping that distance to the stationary bicycle, in light of the Government’s latest measure to contain Covid-19. Every rider must know this is where the season ends for now.

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