Transferring the demands of distance running to cycling is natural progression
Tolerance of pain is what marks outthe greats and willingness to suffer is the key to making the grade
Shay Elliot Memorial in the Wicklow Mountains with the yellow jersey he wore in his Tour de France stage victory. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The worst thing about owning an Alfa Romeo Spider is the occasionally irresistible urge to take the long way home. Especially this time of year.
Wednesday presented one of those occasions, an evening sent straight from heaven, the hood down, the gentle roar under the bonnet, over the richly empurpled Featherbeds sprinkled white with bog cotton, through the golden-fleeced gorse onto the Sallygap, into the sweet blooming ferns, like a jungle, only in miniature, down along the jasmine-scented Glenmacnass, deep into the miracle of growth that is the Garden of Ireland.
The second worst thing about owning an Alfa Romeo Spider is that it does occasionally stop to be admired. Especially when least expected. Thursday presented one of those occasions, still on the outskirts of town, and so onto the dropped handlebars of my racing bike, into the warm drizzling rain and back roads skirting Djouce, and again the irresistible urge to take the long way home, this time through Laragh towards the sheltering Glenmalure, the magnificent pink foxglove sprouting from the roadside, inspiring one last detour and a perfectly timed salute to Shay Elliott.
It could be just the softness of aging, or that every little thing is brilliantly illuminated by the rhapsody and rhythms of the pedal stroke, but now more than ever cycling comes easier than running ever did – and that’s probably because it is. The two-wheeled tour about to unwind in France over the next three weeks may claim to be toughest race on earth, and yet there is an element and economy of cycling which reduces any perceptible distance, and allows us all to think “I can do this”.
Jerry Kiernan got himself into all sorts of bother a while ago, and rightly so, when comparing the fitness of Gaelic footballers and hurlers with that of distance runners. There might be only one winner in that race to the top of the hill, but it was like comparing the fighting qualities of a shark and a lion.
The GAA attracts a different breed, a different realm of fitness: distance runners and cyclists, however, are cut from the same string of DNA, one which proliferates skin and bone, an enormous lung capacity, and willingness to embrace pain, the “majorly suffering” that Seán Kelly still comments on.
That Elliott became the first Irish cyclist to wear the yellow jersey, 50 years ago this week, was of no surprise to anyone who knew him.
The French cycling press identified him as “soaked with class”, and Elliott nurtured his instincts on the same stretches of the Wicklow Mountains that would later serve Stephen Roche even better again. What made his death so tragic, at age 36, in 1971, and almost certainly by his own hand, was that Elliott was still able to ride effortlessly over those hills, and cycling will always accommodate that.
Distance running demands a different intensity that so declines with age that it can only be more extreme in the first place. There was a time when some of us would follow a hard 12-mile tempo run with something easier later in the day; now even an easy 12-mile run is followed by the need to lie down for the rest of day.
This might also explain why so many distance runners actually take so easily to cycling, even when their prime wears off. Noel Berkeley, once the King of the Roads, as in road running, has become something of a King of the Mountains, on his road bike, as anyone who has ever challenged him on the stiff inclines outside of Midleton will know.
Keith Kelly, a man whose exceptional distance running potential was cut short by injury, rode himself to the top of the amateur American cycling ranks within one season, aided by a willingness to embrace pain that knew no bounds.
Indeed it’s this tolerance for pain, as much as talent, that often separates the great runners from the ordinary ones, and the same, it seems, goes for cycling.
“It’s like asking if you’d rather have a drill put through your ear or through your hand,” Shane Connaughton told me once, a man of famous cycling background, and now as familiar with the running scene.
The difference is that distance runners seem to transfer to cycling much easier than the other way round, not that it’s quite that straightforward.
The fact there aren’t any Kenyan or Ethiopian riders challenging for the polka dot jersey in the Alps and Pyrenees over the next three weeks is evidence that cycling isn’t just about slow-twitch muscle fibres and an unbearable lightness of being. Distance runners only require the soles of their feet, while cycling requires at least a minor financial investment still beyond the means of many. The fact there aren’t any Caribbean riders challenging Mark Cavendish for the green jersey is evidence too that cycling’s elite is a more select race.
What cycling will always afford is the folly of believing there is one last prime, no matter what age, and that it might somehow transfer back to distance running.
Armed by that pretence comes my final cycle of training for the Wicklow Hospice Foundation’s next fundraising venture, and the running of seven marathons, over seven successive days, starting next Sunday, July 7th, at 7.07am. Designed to accommodate all levels of fitness, running each or only one, in part or in full, only no such thing as the comfort of the dropped handlebars of a racing bike.
Join up at www.wicklowhospice.ie