Stage 0.5: From the Kerry Airport to Sneem Hotel, Co. Kerry
I took a cab at 3:30am to Liverpool Street, where I hauled my twenty-three kilogram bike box from the taxi stand and into the station and then onto the bus to Stanstead. The bus left at 4:00 am, and the smell of some cheap hard alcohol mixed with an odd scent of cigar sent me vomiting for a good twenty minutes after I jumped (in the literal sense) off the bus at Stanstead. I don’t remember the flight very much. But I remember having my first Irish breakfast, along with my first stab at those soggy beans I had always said I hated (minus black pudding – too exotic for me), with Jo and Anna in the airport at Kerry. I then listened to over an hour of Sean Kelly commentary impersonations until we reached Sneem. It was good to be back with the girls.
Tonight in the Sneem Hotel, a four star run by Mr. Louis Moriarty in the middle of the quiet Sneem Village, I am listening to light jazz piano, sitting next to a fire with dimmed lights in the hotel bar.
Early September here, and the winds feel brisk but not biting, and they circulate in a mildly cool air that contains some distant memory of the passing summer. In the sunlight, you want to take off your jackets; in the shade, you put them back on. And as the evening invaded the dining hour, I sat looking out onto the water and darkening skies with Anna, Jo and Helen.
* * * * *
We have been here for two days now, and we have successfully made two friends: Mickey, a local bike mechanic, and Mister Red, the red setter. As usual, yours truly had several mechanical issues, which resulted in a few phone calls to retrieve the number of Mickey, who opened shop at 10:00 am at a house-turned-bike-shop down the road, across the bridge, and on the left down two blocks, you can’t miss it, you really can’t.
Yours truly and her wonderful companions – Anna and Jo – came to Mickey’s at 10:30am the next morning and was greeted by a door with an “Open” sign on it but no one inside. We made a few phone calls, “Oh, ya, Mickey’s from Killarney [insert footnote: a town about 15 miles away]. He’ll come in when he wants to come in. Until then, no use waiting. Maybe stop back in a bit.” A few minutes later, a man wearing an all black sweat-suit came through, unlocked the door, and stepped right in without saying a word to the three of us in our lycra, helmets, and carbon bikes.
“Are you Mickey?”
“So, I’ve come to see if you can help me…”
“Can I ask you to take a look at this?”
“Ya. Well why don’t ya just step in instead of standing out there.”
He took my bike without a word, and we walked through the bike space in the front, past his kitchen with the old wood-burner stove, through his dining and living rooms, and into the back room – a treasure chest of metal, old bike and boat parts, a few welding machines, and other tools I had never seen before. A few minutes later, my teammates followed.
With half of Team Mum in Mickey’s welding room, Mickey took a look at each of our bikes and fixed everything. He then sent us out with everything ready, and left us with, “There’s some gales out there. Pretty bad winds. It’s a hard course. Real drag back. But you’re gonna tell me you’re hard, huh?” We smiled. It was all we knew to do.
Our other new friend is Mister Red, a friend we met snoozing on the chair in the hotel next to a slow fire on our first day in Sneem (a day when the rains had unabashedly poured down and around us all day, from London to Kerry, giving Jo’s prediction an uncanny weight). Mister Red followed us back to our rooms, and we immediately all got along, playing a serious game of “retrieve the stick” during which Jo suffered a hard fall on the concrete and bruised her arm. She is now not allowed to play with the dog before the race.
Mister Red has an uncanny sense of when we are about to leave the hotel, following me into town as a tour guide this morning and then chasing our little car and spinning himself in circles out of excitement as we drove away (“Take me with you, please, take me there please please!”). Tonight, as we sit indoors watching the television without Mister Red’s presence, we each secretly miss him and hope he has not found better guests as the racers file in for the Ras na mBan.
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Introducing Helen McKay
Helen once told me about the time she rode from Cambridgeshire to Cambridge without telling anyone. She left on an old hybrid bike named Dobbin and rode without water, cell phone, inner tubes, map or food; She walked out the door with the bike and just started pedaling. When I asked her why she did it, she can’t really remember other than saying, “It’s something I felt I wanted to do.” It took her an hour and a half to ride fifteen miles. But I know it’s one of her favorite cycling memories; it was a day she re-met the bike for the first time.
Most of us have learned how to get on a bike at some point when we were younger. We either biked to school, to swim practice, with other kids in the neighborhood, or just for a spin around the block with our parents or brothers or sisters. For most of us, we have lodged in our memories Sunday afternoon bike rides with our family down the bike trail, bumping along at ten miles an hour and never for more than thirty minutes at a time. And we loved it. We loved the feeling of going fast and chasing and pedaling. We loved that we could be outdoors in the sun.
Then we reach some point in our lives – for most of us – when we stop biking with our brothers and sisters, with our parents, or with the kids down the street. The bike is put into that category of “childhood” games just left of things like Dominos and Hide-and-Seek, which we leave as we reach adolescence and adulthood. But for some of us, sometimes, we find this need to reach back to that era of our lives when we remember what it felt like to go fast on the open road. To reach back to a place where there was the open air in our faces, with us laughing at how free and silly we felt, chasing after one thing or another. We remember back to those afternoons with our parents or our siblings, and we associate riding during those days with a sense of “carefreeness”. In adulthood, we search for it. We crave that feeling. We’re nostalgic for it. We find it again in cycling, but this time, our bikes cost more, we go faster, we spend more time and money on it. And for some of us, we become absolute vigilantes about protecting our childhood sense of freedom and exhilaration, the sense we have unconsciously and irreversibly attached to a feeling of escape.
Another one of Helen’s favorite cycling memories is riding alone to Colchester from her parent’s home in Cambridgeshire. Again, with Dobbin the hybrid as her vessel, she set sail with a pair of trainers on and nothing else. Hours later, she found herself lost somewhere on the winding, unknown lanes between London and Brentwood as the rain started. Nameless towns ticked passed her one by one as she tried to find her way back. Her Nan called, and Helen, terrified of picking up and worrying her family about her self-inspired adventure, kept on pedaling. Four and a half hours later – no food, no water – she made her way back.
* * * * *
What is the modern day adventure? As the world has been discovered and globalized, as we can reach one another across the Atlantic through a few presses of an iphone or Mac PC, what does it mean to be an explorer when every land mass has been explored? Why do we need a sense of exploration in our lives? We, as people who have evolved to live in little boxes in big buildings (“flats”, “apartments”, or, “small 4ft by 5ft closet if you live in NYC”) and work in even smaller boxes in even bigger buildings (the all-dreaded “cubicle”), cannot have lost our spirit of adventure so easily. Its manifestation must come in some form, releasing the energy of the explorer in a muted, but desperate sense.
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The Epiphany Moment
Most cyclists – and in particular racing cyclists – talk about the “epiphany” moment. The epiphany moment is a rare space in time, and it usually happens alone, when you don’t have to focus on the wheel in front of you or when to take a smooth rotation to the front of the paceline [insert footnote: or as they call it here, the “chain gang”]. It’s a moment of clarity on the bike, and you feel all at once an exhilaration of both escape and involvement; that you are fully immersed in the world around you (through the silent woods, or along the lapping ocean, or against the backdrop of the sun’s escape from the mountains that hug the road tightly) but yet completely within yourself as well. It’s a feeling of sudden elation and quiet contemplation, and in that meditative state, the figurative light bulb flashes on, and all at once, you feel just OK with everything.
I’ve been reading Helen’s “top 10 cycling moments” that I asked her to prepare for me in mental preparation for the Ras. I would describe her best moments on the bike to all be those elusive, epiphany moments. Three of us – Anna, Jo and I – pre-rode stage 1 (36 mi loop) of the race on our second day in Kerry, a stage that starts in Sneem, winds itself upward through Kenmare along the pockets of salt water and up up up into and through Molls Gap, along Carriag na Gaoithe and then back to Sneem with the tail end of a hurricane’s headwind (70 mph!).
As I was riding along N70 with Kenmare river – a river of salt water that feeds into the intersection of the Celtic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean – with the wind to my back for the only time during the entire ride, I thought of why Ireland looked so green. Alone and pedaling along a deserted road, you have time to listen to your thoughts (my teammates, far fitter than I had pedaled onwards, returning every few miles to pick me up), and my thoughts wandered to how the sun played games with the clouds, a sort of constant engagement of hide and seek. There are moments when the shafts of light reflect off the dancing steel water and the landscape so brilliantly, that the entire world looks like its shiny. The green is greener, the purple and pink of the fuscia more exotic, and the wild flowers of purple and yellow look like little splashes of paint on a canvas of grey rock and green foliage. And when the wind is to your back, you don’t listen for it. Instead, you fly.
Up through Molls Gap, a slow and steady climb through brush and grassland that cover the hills, you listen to the wind. There are moments – ones where you forget your own breathing – when the wind is excited, and you are no longer a separate entity from the road and the trees and the brush, but you are part of it. You become, once again, the organic thing that is part of the entire movement, and you engage with the wind, you converse and, sometimes when you’re feeling daring, you negotiate with her. You learn to respect her (stay in your saddle, tilt your handle bars slightly to the left when she tells you to, steady your pedal strokes and ease up on the gears, relax your upper body and loosen your grip), and slowly, slowly you both move up Molls Gap past the little sheep and goats whose voices you can no longer hear, and up far past the large foaming lakes below (the rough pockets between the mountains, signaling wetness of the landscape). There are moments there, as you are moving steadily when suddenly, the wind tells you to stop. You find yourself wedged on the road amongst a cliff to your left (look at that lake below!) and rock to your right (yellow and purple splashes on the sienna and grey), and you finally feel, “Well, I think everything’s going to be just OK.”
* * * * *
I’m not so sure we’re as evolved as we think we are. As inhabitants of large cities, we find ourselves suffocated by the little space we have. We crave adventure. We crave escape. We crave those things that make us hear the wind’s conversation again, those epiphany moments that tell us, “Hey, everything’s going to be just OK.”
Reporting from Sneem, Co. Kerry, Ireland September 12th, 2011
Pan Pan Fan
Stage 0.75: Preparation
Date: September 13, 2011
No matter how prepared you are, there will always be nerves before a stage race: it’s a multi-day event that contains so many variations that even the best and most prepared racers cannot predict the full turn of events. It’s one of the few things in life where you can botch something up one day, but if you’re still able to get on your bike again, make up for it the next day because things just happen in a stage race (that’s bike racing; that’s life). In a long stage race, the jersey can change hands day after day, and no one can really tell what will happen the next day: what the weather will do to people, who will crash, who will experience a mechanical, and who will find their legs and be able to search for that extra limit just that far deeper. It’s the excitement of the new and unexpected – along with the feeling of “can I even get back on that bike again” – that brings me to loving this event [insert footnote: yours truly will be racing, as it turns out].
Today, we had breakfast with the full Look Mum Ras team: Miss Louise Moriarty, having just completed Para-olympic Worlds in Denmark with a para-athlete, showed us around the circuit stage course. Our little group has been surprisingly calm (or if anyone is having an internal nervous breakdown, it’s certainly well-hidden). I blame it on the beauty of Kerry; we’re each so immersed with the surroundings and the potential other “fun” activities that are non-race related (“WOW, look at those kayaks!”, “Jacuzzi?”, “Do I look fat in this swim suit?”, “Um, my legs are HUGE!”, “Holy s$*#, there’s about six different types of desserts here, and I want them all!”) that it’s hard to stay panicked or dreadful or even feeling that type of pressure one gets when having put in a lot of preparation effort into something. We’ve had plenty of jokes, laughs, rehearsals for our MCHammer Dance (details to be explained much later); we’ve practiced “quiet time”, done stretches together, overeaten together (and complained about it: “Oh, it hurts. My head hurts. My stomach hurts. My legs hurt. No more tiramisu.”), and watched horror movies together (“Oh my god, I can’t sleep alone. Can I come sleep on your floor?”). For almost all of us, the goal is to be able to finish the stages regardless. As for the details, we’re unclear what will happen. It’s a five-day stage race, afterall.
I’ll report back after the first stage, which begins tomorrow at 5:00 pm.
From Sneem Hotel, Co. Kerry, Ireland, September 13, 2011
Yours truly, Pan Pan Fan