A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 52
No sooner had I pedalled to the end of the road than I realised that the bad feeling wasn’t just from having eaten too much. Tour cyclists talk readily of having a bad day. Sometimes it’s hard for them to identify why their legs won’t move them as fast, and as far, as the day before; and sometimes the answer is obvious. The presence of a keen and diligent team of doping inspectors used to have a marked effect on a number of well known names in the peloton. They often failed to come back to their usual form until the testers packed their bags. Often it is simply that the riders are poorly.
I’m unconvinced of the benefits of being super fit. Top athletes seem to spend an awful lot of time away from being able to perform. Illness seems to hit them harder than the rest of us. I’d got myself trimmed of fat and lean of sinew. I had power bursting from my shoulders and was drinking more air into my lungs than a pearl diver. And then I caught a chill or a bug and it made me at least twice as poorly as such bugs made me feel back in the days when I was a smoker.
I’ve always been reasonably fit. There are enough international athletes with a packet of Benson and Hedges tucked away in their suitcase to make the link between smoking and professional sport a troublesome one. Ilie Nastase was a heavy smoker in his prime. But, he was a tennis player. They trade on making everyone believe that you have to be incredibly fit to play the sport, at that level, while actually averaging somewhere in the region of one mile per hour over the match. They will readily accede that they barely travel any distance but will claim that they are constantly changing between being stationary and sprinting flat out, and this take enormous amounts of energy. Tennis players don’t often sprint, but they do often walk, stand around bouncing balls for periods of time or asking a ball-boy to get them a towel so they can wipe their brow like some eighteenth century aesthete. They spend even longer sitting down drinking cola and eating bananas. Tennis challenges snooker, golf and darts as a sport to play if you don’t like sport. Those sports also have their fair share of smokers.
To further make my point, tennis players suffer less from illness than track and field athletes. Golfers are so fit that 60 year old Tom Watson can come within an unlucky chip shot of winning the most prestigious trophy in the game as recently as 2009… the era of the gym. Watson is a smoker.
Cyclists are nothing other than fit. Even dopers were fit. In fact, dopers were arguably the fittest of the lot. Tennis players’ hearts beat at between 60 and 90 beats a minute for most of a five set match. This goes up to between 120 and 150 on contested points. Heartbeats rarely go above this on the court. In the last twenty miles of a sprinters stage of a cycle race, competitors heart beats rarely drop below 170 beats per minutes. Cyclists will spend more time in what is known as “the red zone” in a single race than tennis players will spend in a season.
Enough of hobby horsing. I’m a cyclist who keeps well in the Roger Taylor/ Mark Cox pit-a-pat heartbeat zone. But I’ve had a heart episode and am advised not to push things too far. I like to spuddle along country lanes going just fast enough to get there by teatime. If I’m going slowly then wherever “there” is, can be moved.
Today I’m struggling though. Every pedal stroke is a chore. I hardly seem to be travelling. I’m sweating the oily stuff that needs a little viral help to flow. I seem to have been going for ages and the odometer is saying less than five miles. I don’t even know where I’m heading. Each time I see a road sign it points equal distances to Athlone, which I’ve heard of, and Ballinasloe, which I haven’t. The road signs point in different directions to the two towns, but the next sign will have them equidistant.
To make matters worse, it begins to rain.
On a normal day I’d describe the land as undulating. Today it is like an assault course with a vertical brick wall of climbing at the end of every down slope. The rain gets heavier and I feel three kinds of rotten.
I keep to the quietest roads but the choice of the two towns remains open but the distances on the mileposts don’t appear to be getting smaller. Eventually I allow the rule of always choosing the smaller road where the path forks to choose Ballinasloe as my destination. It’s fate and fate is against me.
Athlone is a city with three theatres, a cathedral, shopping centres, The River Shannon at its most majestic, a castle and was the proposed capital for a united Ireland as recently as the 1970s. It has a bit of a reputation for the old drugs but you don’t tend to have too many problems with dirty needles and inter gang warfare as you cycle in and out of town. Ballinasloe has a horse fair that was once regarded as the biggest gathering in Europe. But that is in October. In August, it becomes the second town with a famous horse fair to disappoint me so far on this journey.
The first problem is an almighty cloud burst as I pedal into town. The second problem is that it just isn’t very attractive. The third was finding the town centre itself. The fourth was finding anything worth finding once I’d found it and the fifth was needing a pee.
I look everywhere for some obvious convenience and eventually find one down by the river (The River Suck). It’s quite a substantial block. I walk all the way round it and find every door locked. Two workmen are labouring nearby in high visibility jackets and hard hats.
“How do I get in?” I ask.
They look at me as though I was an idiot. “You need a card.” says the bigger one as if telling a three year old how to fasten a button.
“Can I not use it without a card?” I ask.
“Have you a swipe card?” asks the other in a more helpful tone.
“You need a swipe card.”
“So, if I haven’t got a swipe card, I can’t pee?” I’m a little dumbfounded.
In the centre there are three streets that would suit someone looking to enjoy a pint and a wager, but not someone looking for a friendly tea or a tasty light snack.
In a travel agents a little man tells me that there are no ferries from Cork (not true) and that the £70 he will charge me for a passenger and a motorbike (“They will have to count it as a motorbike you see as they don’t have a category for a bicycle.” I don’t bother arguing that they don’t have a category for a bicycle because they don’t usually charge for them.) is something of a bargain, (also not true). The one thing he does tell me that turns out to be true is that it is 144 miles from Ballinasloe to Wexford. I’ll need at least three days for that. If not four.