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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 44

You can get sat navs for bicycles. I’ve never much seen the point of them for cars but each to their own. I was once driven to a concert in Leeds by someone who was over proud of their digital navigation device. Granted, I was impressed by him swinging up a few roads I never would have taken and parking on a piece of no-man’s land that the device announced as our destination. Credit where credit is due, we were right outside the Budenell Social Club in good time to listen to Sam Baker sing some of his excellent songs. I have nothing but respect for this. What I question is whether we had to have the bloody thing on from junction 26 of the M1 in order to find an enormous city at the top end of the same road.

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I’m not much for the music of artificial voices whether it is a satellite system, Professor Stephen Hawking or Ken Bruce. I don’t listen to radio two in the morning because I find it inane and repetitive. Being told to continue straight on every thirty seconds for the best part of an hour was much the same experience. I suppose, like mobile phones, they are old hat now and don’t have to be used by borderline inadequates to bolster their perceived social status.

I rather like getting lost. My chest infection meant that I had to give more than usual consideration to the destination, but the natural shape created by me and a bicycle is a meander. I’d come to see Ireland, not get a glance at the view from the side of a big road. But I found myself on a big road anyway. The N4. In England this would be a terrible mistake. In Ireland it works out rather pleasantly. There is a wide section on the kerbside of smooth carriageway for the sole use of the cyclist. I don’t think that was the intention, but it was the result. The line painters had given me my own private motorway. Smooth and free from danger. The road itself carried only about a fifth of the traffic you would get in the west of England; be it Devon, Gloucestershire or Cumbria. The views were magnificent, with mountains rising on either side of the road. It was uphill, sure, but only uphill enough to give strong legs a proper warming up.

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I was with the conundrum of having a chest infection that would make singing impossible and even a brisk walk unlikely, and yet I was still a strong cyclist, eating miles that two weeks earlier I had been struggling with. My legs looked like a professional cyclist’s legs. They had become shapely, strong and muscular in the first week and then, over the next week they simply became strong, thin and elegant.

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The mystery of recent Tour de Frances was being answered. In the eighties and nineties you had to have legs like a rhino to get up the mountains, and now, we have riders like Bradley Wiggins and the Schleck brothers who were climbing cols with legs like pipe cleaners. I’d suspected something in the supplements, but here was I, fuelled with black pudding, bacon and a fried slice, carving up hills I couldn’t have managed at snail’s pace with bigger calves. And I was flying up these hills without the engine of my lungs.

There is no great mystery about the illness. I had a lung infection. Back home I was put on strong antibiotics and several courses of steroids. The cure took a long time. My doctor, cognisant of the fact I’d been a long term smoker until a few years ago, and aware of the schlocking I’d given my vascular system, said they were knackered and would take some time to recover. The mystery is partly solved by the levels of fitness I had reached before infection set in. The lungs may have only been working partially but they were working very efficiently. There was an awful lot more oxygen circulating than I had any right to expect.

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Cycling is an amazing exercise. I couldn’t have jogged a mile yet I could cycle for eight or ten hours a day so long as I kept in the mid range.

The uphill lasted ten miles. I’ve always found that once I’ve done ten miles the rest of the day is relatively easy. Anything over ten miles is perfectly respectable so you can stop where you want to  and say, “Well, I’ve done thirteen miles. That’s enough for today.” You find when you are cycling that you can very easily become addicted to covering distance. Not is a maniacal way, but you get the groove. The same thing happens when you strike up the guitars with the right company. You may only have intended to sing a couple of songs but you’re still belting out favourites two and three hours later.

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At the ten mile reach there is a big petrol station with a Mace mini mart attached. There’s a toilet, and they serve coffee. It was two hours since I finished breakfast; another Full Irish; and I was ready to celebrate the top of the climb. The view of the mountains had gone but a packet of Maryland Cookies seemed the order of the day. It is also on the corner of the little road I’d been looking for since I left Sligo. I had miles of rolling Irish countryside and a gentler road all the way to Carrick-on-Shannon. If I’d had a sat nav I could have saved myself five or six miles. I tend to think of it as gaining some miles I would otherwise have missed.

I put this to a man I met later in Roscommon and he said it was a glass half empty thing. I agreed with him because he was an amiable fellow and he was sure he was right. It’s not about an outlook on life, it’s about how you consider the journey. Is it the journey itself or is that just a means to the destination. I ride as I try to live. Enjoying the moment, the freedom and chosen-ness of it. The passing view, the people that you meet. I try not to repeat things and that is perhaps the main reason I felt I’d drunk enough from the bottle and the barrel. There really aren’t that many ways of being drunk. Cigarettes went because I finally wanted to be a non-smoker more than I wanted to be a smoker. I wanted the sensation of having clean lungs and gulping down litres of air. I’ll probably never experience that feeling. The legacy of my previous smoking is too strong. I was gulping down enough to keep me going.

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Suddenly I’m the only sound I can hear. Cows chew cud lazily in the same fields as sheep. I see my first hay stacks since the sixties. Swallows dance in the skies, the sun comes out and the world feels just about the way I want it to feel. There is a feel of the timelessness I had sought. You can find it in parts of England. I found it in Upper Wharfedale and the higher reaches of the Eden. I’ve encountered it in parts of rural Kent and Dorset. You find it in France and Northern Spain. This is why we walk and cycle and head to be renewed in the countryside.. Hardly a car passes. There is no rush on the pedals. The warm air and the smells of summer waft me across county borders; Sligo then Roscommon, then Leitrim, then Roscommon, then Leitrim again. I am almost completely happy.