Liam Toland: Camaraderie at its finest as we get on our bikes for cancer

Paul Wallace’s 2016 Cross Atlantic Way left us all tired and emotional

At some point last Sunday on Slea Head that perennial question entered my head: is it Dingle, An Daingean or Daingean Uí Chúis? And where we will finally find refuge from the horror? The previous night it was found in O'Flaherty's pub back bar where we were served with much abuse from Gaelic football men still smarting from Kerry's Croke Park exit. And then by an All-Ireland minor medal winner, Tom O'Sullivan, behind the counter. That one of the visitors was 6ft 8in Mal O'Kelly only fuelled the fire. We repaired to the Skellig Hotel and licked our wounds before the 'short' opening day of the Paul Wallace 2016 Cross Atlantic Way.

As promised, having completed the Slea Head Loop in tough conditions, we diverted into the Dingle Whiskey Distillery where Uncle Joe and a tour of 40 awaited with open arms. So Paul Wallace, his brother David, Gordon D'Arcy, Mal O'Kelly, Mick O'Driscoll, Marcus Horan and myself climbed the stairs to be treated to far too much local produce.

But as we started to forget our aches and pains with some serious devilment growing, Uncle Joe brought one of his tour into the fold where she recounted her story of lung cancer. Rebecca, an American who suffered from cancer and is on tour along the Wild Atlantic Way, and old rugby players: two worlds collided in Dingle.

Joe was emotional, she was emotional and we were emotional so the only thing we could do was treat her to her first lineout lift. O’Kelly and O’Driscoll fired her high into the air. Bizarre? Brilliant!


Departing Dingle next morning with the Conor Pass and 165km ahead and just three hours sleep, I wondered of the Guinness Pro12 opening last weekend. Was their pre-season preparation anything like ours for the Conor Pass?

Hilariously, a point repeatedly noted on stage in Kilrush Community School by Fionbarr Walsh, the father of the most inspirational teenager Donal: "Amazing how the 'slow group' crossed successfully while the 'fast group' diverted through Annascaul." Little did he know that from Tralee to Listowel we averaged 30km up hill, 50km on the flat and 70km downhill – on Dingle Whiskey and three hours sleep. A respectable draw, Fionbarr?

While crossing the ferry from Tarbert to Killimer we chatted and again I wondered, what makes Professor John V Reynolds and his team in Trinity work so hard for a cure? What makes the Walsh family, along with so many other Irish families, battle so hard against cancer? Is it the rapportee or with rugby Legend Thomas Castaignède in mind, the bon ami? And what makes us get up on bicycles with no preparation?

I think it's a case that, as Luka Bloom noted in Lahinch on Monday night, "rugby camaraderie is very impressive". This was hugely tested when I arrived into the Salthill Hotel. After a long day through the beautiful Burren we eventually arrived into Galway. I collected my bedroom key which was marked Liam Toland, Thomas Castaignède and with aghast Michael Galway; sure what could go wrong? Who got the double bed?

Well, that evening the questions and answers on stage led by Today FM's Matt Cooper were about the funniest I've ever heard. Not one question was answered but the quality was immense and certainly upped when England's 2003 World Cup-winning Mike Tindall took the floor.

So much insight into what it takes to be an elite winner not to mention the rules and regulations of Christmas dinner; but only for those there!

That day myself and David Wallace were put back in our place by fiery Gwynn of the Uniphar Group (which was led by CEO Ger Rabbette) when she 'ordered' us not to pass. She had already beaten Gordon D'Arcy and was determined to add to her tally. Not so Lions and Welsh legend Shane Williams who arrived in Kilrush, Co Clare, having been bench-pressed by Paul Wallace, who was in great nick for an upcoming ironman. As we were going to bed very, very late in Galway we spotted him aboard his futuristic bike heading west from the hotel to Barna and beyond for a two-hour hit before the peloton departed for real at 9.30.

He wasn't the only sporting legend as Limerick great Ollie Moran joined, as did rugby's Niall Woods, Eric Elwood, Swedish rugby international Conor Murphy and many others. But the Cross Atlantic Way is about way more than sport stars; camaraderie for cancer was the key. Michael O'Boyle, the cool, calm and collected head of the posse, is only outshone by our motorbike outriders who manage 200- plus cyclists along the 'Way'.

They set out each day so we can ride to arrive. Coming down those high hills in the rain is frightening; the breaks of these racing bikes are barely existent in the wet and to witness the 1000cc motorbikes led by Larry Power slipping gently outside us to the next junction is a thing of beauty.

Remember like us, they and the logistic team, such as Ronnie and Rob from the PRL Group or Leanne Deere from Shannon Airport, are drawn from all walks of life. Gary Sheehan was on the bikes, Gary Burns and Anna Conaty and more on the bodies and Sorcha O'Boyle on backup.

Even Ger Mullally, the Garryowen FC man – or is it Shannon RFC? I can never remember – is a true gent!

Amongst the many, many kilometres of pain, I’ve never laughed as much with a bunch of people bonded pedalling forward regardless of the obstacles ahead. Camaraderie: a metaphor for life?

PS: Youtube search Castaignède; truly, truly wonderful. And by the way; Castaignède got the double bed with myself and Gaillimh in the singles!