WHEN Peter O’Connell’s first action as the new editor of The Clare Champion was to send me to Ballyvaughan to cycle 60km early on a Saturday morning, I feared for our future professional relationship. I don’t do mornings, particularly on bank holiday weekends.
There were extenuating circumstances, as this was no ordinary cycle. It was a cycle led off by none other than the legendary Seán Kelly. Suddenly, I was interested.
My brothers and I grew up through the era of the twin cycling supernovas. Kelly and Stephen Roche divided the spoils between them seemingly at will through the ’80s. While Roche won the big one, the Tour de France and got to meet Charlie Haughey on the Champs Élysées, in our house, it was the quiet man from Carrick who was the big hero.
Although he started with the reputation of just being a sprinter, he became a consummate all-rounder, able to lead a breakaway or power up a mountain pass. The results speak for themselves: Vuelta a Espana, Giro di Lombardia, Milan-San Remo, Paris–Roubaix, Liege–Bastogne–Liege and seven victories in-a-row in the Paris–Nice event.
My cycling story isn’t quite so impressive. I haven’t done much on a bike since buying a new racer last year and promptly hurting my back. I’d been on the new bike only about half a dozen times before arriving at Ballyvaughan on Saturday and I still wasn’t used to the gears or my shoes, which were now firmly attached to the pedals in approved racer style.
Mercifully, the weather wasn’t that hot. In fact, it was quite cold as forty or so of us set off from the pier to tackle the climb up to Poulnabrone. Psychologically, it was best to get this out of the way first and I was surprised how well my legs held up. As we passed Aillwee Cave and I still wasn’t flattened, I began to think I could actually complete the cycle.
Shortly after Poulnabrone, I fell in beside Seán Kelly and we had a chat. He told me he’s a regular at the Tour de Burren and, in fact, it was he who encouraged his then sponsors, An Post, to concentrate on sportives like this, instead of races, in order to attract more entrants.
His plan for the tour later this month is to lead off as many events as he can, cycle with the group for a while and then return to cycle with the next group. He rides about 80km typically on events like these.
At Lemenagh, we turned towards Kilfenora and on to Lisdoonvarna, another long slog. I was fairly happy once we reached the Spa town, as I figured we had the back broken by now but I was brought sharply down to earth when Ballyvaughan was signposted as 31km away. I felt like turning back at this point.
I felt even more like going home when just after Ballinalacken Castle on a treacherous downhill stretch, a bike skidded right in front of me and the rider went down. I couldn’t brake hard in case the same thing happened to me.
I had bikes to my right and I felt it would be frowned on to plough into my fallen comrade. There was a nice grassy ditch to my left, so I steered for that and came to a gentle halt. Then, I forgot to remove my shoes from the pedals and I slowly fell to the road in a pratfall worthy of Charlie Chaplin.
I knew straight away that my hand was hurt but I didn’t realise until I was back in Ballyvaughan that my knee was also badly gashed. To come off a bike so stupidly was bad enough but to do it in front of Seán Kelly was mortifying.
By Fanore, I was beginning to flag but there was always someone around to give an encouraging word or a shove in the back to get me going again.
I got a second wind once I glimpsed Ballyvaughan in the distance but I was never so glad to see Monks, where breakfast was waiting for us.
The Tour de Burren, organised by Burren Cycling Club, takes place on Saturday, June 16, with circuits from 14km to 135km, so there’s something to suit any cyclist.
Motoring editor - The Clare Champion
Former Chairman and voting member of Irish Motoring Writers' Association