I was in a road race a number of years ago up in Ithaca,New York and I lost contact with my group that I had raced with for 70 miles. It is tough when you bonk and get dropped and you have to finish by yourself, in the wind, out of gas, and between groups. You could wait for a group behind but sometimes you just grind it out and try to get to the finish. As I crossed the finish line, my friend Eric Durfee greeted me because he finished with the real fast guys ahead of me and he handed me some fig newtons which I cheerfully stuffed into my bonking system. It was at that point that I thought maybe I would take a break from road training and racing and just………….ride.
Fast forward and I was on an Aer Lingus flight to Ireland with Gerhard Meng and his folks from Gerhard’s Bicycle Odysseys. Gerhard is an affable character who has a lot of contacts in Europe and sponsors these really nice bicycle touring trips. His staff is very professional and Gerhard has been doing this since 1974. So we land in Shannon Airport and for me, it was a dream come true to finally arrive in Ireland the home of my ancestors. As I collected my things, we made our way to the hotel and I put my bike together and went outside to check things out when I came upon the first paddy that I met who said,” Ya need a chain and a lock for that bike there laddy. I will take you to the place to get it because I am a proud member of Alcoholics Anonymous and I know the folks who will not give you a hooking.” I was liking the characters of Ireland already.
Every day, we had a fabulous Irish breakfast in which the highlight was the soda bread and orange marmalade. I ate baskets of the stuff along with the great Irish breakfast. Gerhard and his staff were very well organized and gave us a map every day. All we had to do was pack our things, throw them in the van, and get to the town at the end of the map for dinner. The first night we stayed in Dromoland Castle- really cool and went into Blarney to the woolen mills to shop. Also the famous Blarney Stone is there which supposedly gives the gift of eloquence when you hang upside down and kiss the stone. I didn’t do it because our van driver said,” Pat – you don’t want to be kissing the stone………the locals relieve themselves on it.” That was enough for me and I moved on.
You ride on the left hand side of the road in the British Isles and it took some getting used to as I wound my way in the roundabouts in Cork. I almost killed myself a few times because I don’t like roundabouts anyhow but as I ventured south to the old Head of Kinsale, I got used to the drill. The roads are narrow and as you come around bends or down hills, you have to watch yourself. I hit the brakes one time as I came upon a shepherd and his flock but the good natured gentleman said,” Ah- twould have been a soft landin there sonny.” I spent days by myself on the country roads and as I made my way from night to night, the staff and the other folks on the trip would ask me about my daily adventures. I would be out from breakfast until just about the time when dinner was served. People trash the Irish cuisine but between the fabulous breakfasts every day and the different types of salmon and vegetables and potatoes you can eat, I have a wonderful respect for the Irish cuisine. It doesn’t hurt to wash it all down with perhaps the best source of soluble iron on the planet- Guiness Stoudt.
The west coast of Ireland is nothing short of spectacular and as you climb the hills and the mountains, you see the 40 shades of green contrasted against the blue waters of the Atlantic. It was perhaps the most dramatic scenery I would ever see and I have experienced the Rockies, the Alps, the Sierras and other dramatic landscapes but I don’t believe you can ever be ready for what lies before you as you cycle around every bend on the Ring of Kerry. The smell of the salt air, the fragrance of the blooming wild flowers coupled with the aroma of cow manure, will always be with me. In fact, when I returned to the US, they wanted to impound my bike because of all the bovine material on the bottom tube. But I talked U.S Customs out of it. See I didn’t have to kiss that stone.
The lakes of Killarney, the mountains, the Cliffs of Moher, are visual smorgasboards but the best part of Ireland besides the scenery are the people. As I rode along through the little towns and villages, people were more than anxious to talk to ” the Yank.” I was in a pub one night, sipping my Guiness when an older gentleman came up to me and said,” So where are you from Yank?” I said,” How do you know I am a Yank?” ” He said,” Not too many fellows in these parts wear shorts and running shoes.” We laughed and I bought him a pint- probably part of his strategy anyhow. Another lady kept me in her parlor after I asked her for some water. She served me scones and tea and brought out all her old pictures of when John Kennedy was visiting. We chatted until it was getting pretty dark and I had to make my way back.
I saw the Tour of Ireland in Bantry Bay which featured all the best amateur and professional cyclists from the continent and the strange thing was that the Russians all peed on the front wheel of their van. Apparently it was good luck for them in the race but I thought that would not be a good tradition to start up back in Pittsburgh. Bantry was interesting in that I got slightly overserved in a pub and walked home to the hotel in the dark past some pretty creepy Irish graveyards. I started to jog and then run thinking about all the wild stories my grandparents had told me about the Banshees. That is another story but I was happy to be back in the light of the hotel. Guiness is good for you- sometimes too good for you.
As I rode through the Dingle Peninsula on the west coast, I knew that my time had come to an end and as I got on the plane, I thought that I was leaving my home. I saw so many people that reminded me of all of my relatives and I could hear my mother’s voice in some of the expressions in my conversations with the Irish. They are a warm, funny, caring tribe and I am proud to have Irish blood in my very American veins. The rough roads, the castles, the lakes, the ocean, can all be seen at 15 miles an hour just like Gerhard advertises. Check him out at Gerhard’s Bicycle Oddysses P.O. Box 757 Portland,Oregon 97207-0757 503-223-2402. Go glide by a castle at 15 miles per hour. You will love it Thanks for reading. Sla’nte.