Prologue: From London to Kerry

by Pan Pan

*Location of Event: 25th Ras na mBan 2011 International Women’s Stage Race, Ring of Kerry, Co. Kerry, Ireland, body of land surrounded by Atlantic Ocean, 9° 45’ West of Meridian, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, Universe

*Dates of Events: 14th – 18th of September, 2011

*Your Correspondent: Pan Pan Fan, Team Mum Rider who will be “reporting” live from Co. Kerry

*Current Location: South Bank, London, United Kingdom on September 7, 2011 in a small bedroom in a shared flat.

*Purpose: setting theme, tone, and purpose of articles to follow

*Intended Audience: Mom and dad, Elise, Charlotte, Alice, Nik, Lydia, Sam

*Fantasized Audience: All of my best friends around the world, my middle school English teachers, the international cycling community at large, President Barack Obama

Disclaimer: All stories, characterizations, historical analogies, literary technique, and tone are expressions of yours truly and do not necessarily reflect that of the athletes named, the holy trinity (Matt, Lewin, Sam), the café, British Cycling, cycling in general, the Ras na mBan 2011

Disclaimer x 2: rated PG-13 for Use of Expletives which will be blocked out by “@#*#!!”

 * * * * *

 “L’Irelandaise or l’eccossaise Jo-anne Mac –Rae”

Jo-Anne MAC-Rae.  That’s what the other girls in France called her during the races.

Maybe it had to do with the “Mc” part of the name, or maybe it had to do with the fact few British cyclists – let alone female British cyclists – had made it to the continental scene during the days when she was a junior.  I know her as Jo, the little blue dot that would scream away at me down hair-pin descents in Kent.  We met this morning at 9:02 am at Café St. Germaine at the top of Crystal Palace to go for an easy three hour recovery ride: her tapering for the Ras, and me, recovering from spending a month in Beijing with smog and really good dumplings.  I brought up the angle I wanted to take in writing about the Ras, and we began talking about cycling in Ireland, cycling in England, women’s cycling, and we ended with a discussion on what coffee each of us wanted at the café post-ride.

In the back roads of Kent and along the farms whose sheep are now big and wooly, and while I was constantly distracted by tree branches, rocks, sand, horses, cars on the road, and the crowding clouds that signaled rain, Jo casually told me some stories about the development of cycling in England.  This ended up settling on stories about Ireland and the Irish racers.  Perhaps it was the Ras that was on both our minds, or perhaps it was that by the time Jo had gotten to France, there were two female Irish racers there already before any other British girls.  Whichever was the case, we kept talking about how back in France, Jo-Anne MAC-Rae was never English: she was either believed to be Irish or Scottish.

 * * * * *

If you remember, in 1987, Stephen Roche of Dublin, Ireland won both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.  Sean Kelly of Ireland won Paris-Nice seven years in a row beginning in 1982 (and still holds the record for number of wins), and while I’m not personally a fan of listing the accomplishments of professional cyclists, I couldn’t help but notice the results of both retired titans when I looked them up: they were masters of the Classics.  They were those old-school, tough, ride-in-the-rain and mud and grit type racers that thrived on bad race conditions.  They were Irish.  They made an unforgettable mark in Continental Europe before cycling became popularized the way we know it today in England.  Which led me to think: what environment must these cyclists have grown up and trained in?…and, What are they, my teammates racing the Ras, getting themselves into in the next few days?

 * * * * *

Why does anyone want to race a bike?  There’s a difference between riding a bike and racing a bike.  Riding a bike means the following: chances are, it’s sunny outside, warm, and you want to spend a few hours doing something active, usually with friends.  Racing a bike means the following: chances are, you live in some Northern country where it’s either raining or blizzarding through the winter, and you wake up every morning earlier than anyone else on your entire street or your entire block, and you “train”.  And this “training” involves some kind of 1.5-5 hour ordeal, not including the time it gets dressed, where you look at all sorts of numbers like heart rate, power, speed, cadence, which is basically to explain to you how slow or out-of-shape you are.  What’s worse, you start sounding like some kind of selfish, monotone tape recorder, “Sorry, I can’t come to your birthday party [or christening of your first-born, or wedding, or anniversary, or very important net-working professional event, and so on] because I have to [insert some cycling related event].”

Chances are your friend/fiancé/spouse/co-worker will say, “Ya, but you were gone last weekend for the same [insert some cycling related event].”  And chances are you will have to respond about how you have some complex peaking program that involves three weeks of building with 5×10 min intervals at 250 watts and that includes some races which are absolutely critical in preparing you for some big event no one’s ever heard of, and absolutely NO #$**&!@-ing way are you going to eat that piece of cake because you are already two pounds overweight in February, are you seriously asking me that?!  Your friend/fiancé/spouse/co-worker will then look at you like you are psychotic.

Why does anyone spend hours alone in the winter, in the rain or in the snow or in some dark basement wallowing in your own pool of sweat to that same 80s remix which lasts you through a winter?  I don’t buy that whole masochism explanation.  If that were the case, I’d spend all winter standing outside barefoot in the snow and eating popsicles.  Instead, I spend 60% of my disposable income on a sport that makes me do the above described.

* * * * *

Most my teammates have prepared for this race by training in blocks of 6-8 weeks over the past few months, dieting carefully, and seeking hills around the London area.  I’ve prepared for this race by purchasing my second copy of James Joyce’s “Dubliners” (the other copy is the States), practicing turning on and off my tape-recorder (this $%&! is going to get real), and practicing my tolerance for Guinness.  Yours truly will not be racing the Ras (unless a certain Miss Moriarty is very good at guilt-tripping) but will be full-time writing, hopping in the back of some races to understand the terrain and perhaps catch a feel for the conditions of the day.

I’m going to be honest right now.  If you’re looking for a story about girls who are looking to turn professional next season or who are funded full-time to race, I’m sorry, but I’ll have to direct you to a few professional cycling magazines you can find in the magazine aisle of a book store.  I’m not saying some of these girls won’t turn pro or don’t have the intentions to or talent.  That’s not my message at all – my message is just that, while those distant, legendary almost movie-star like guys you saw on television were off doing le Tour de France or the Vuelta or the Giro, there were normal, every day cyclists training hard and balancing a life that included cycling, a full-time job, and a family.  These are girls whose stories each race are just those: real stories.

My goal is to write about real people and a real place, about people I can relate to and understand.  I’m going to write about the deep-pitted feelings in their stomach when they zip their jerseys up at the start, about that hairline moment when they decide whether to hang on to that breakaway or let it go, about the feelings of self-satisfaction, disappointment and sacrifice.  Mostly, I hope to show you how their stories could be like your story.  Because here’s the truth: while every race has a winner and two other podium spots which will be written about and reported, there’s so many other stories that happen in between all that…beyond that.  Every bike race is a narrative, and everyone has a personal reason for why they do what they do.  I want to find the stories that are unwritten and untold.

* * * * *

Jo and I moved from our discussion of cycling to a discussion about my experience working in China the past month.  I told her about uncontrollable roads, crowded buses, and amazing noodles.  We rode past the corn stalks that grew taller than the hedgerow – the first time all year I’ve noticed it.  The sky began to cloud over, and the wind picked up.  We hit Starhill (my Kent nemesis), and I hung on through the cross-wind and the climb, listening to Jo talk about her predictions for the race.  Something she said struck me while we crested over the hill:

“… but on the bike I think the Irish have just got a reputation for being hard, I think that’s what it is.  I mean you think of it pissing down with sh*t on the ground and a howling gale and the Irish will just eat it up…That’s how I’m picturing this race…A howling cross wind on some f@&king cliff edge of a hill in the pissing rain.

As the winds picked up and the sky threatened rain for the third time that morning, I wasn’t so sure England was much different.  We’ll see.

From London, yours truly and until Sunday,

Pan Pan Fan

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