“The bicycles go by in twos and threes” Patrick Kavanagh
I don’t remember my very first bike. That is, I don’t remember when I was given it, any way I was only four years old at that time. It was a three wheeler, it had a compartment on the back that opened and could be used to carry things, I never remember carrying anything in it. Fortunately I have a picture of myself on board, taken in 1952, in Bikes were everything those days, all my relations cycled, not for summer time. I do remember many happy spins on that bike, you see we lived on a lane way in the depths of rural north county Dublin, Ballymadrough, Donabate, to be precise.
We used bikes not for recreation but of necessity. Family folk lore tells of a grand uncle who fought in the war of independence and cleverly concealed his sniper rifle in the crossbar of his High Nelly, using the saddle as a shoulder stock. My dad cycled to and from work, a farm labourer, on his bike, he carried his billycan swinging from the handle bars.
In later years he told me a story of his youth when he and his friends would cycle to football matches on a Sunday carrying their boots around their necks and in his case his accordion across his back. He played in an accordion band, a ceilidh band to be precise. On one occasion in the early hours of a Monday morning he and his friends were cycling home from Swords from Fingallians, after a match and ceilidh. When they reached Donabate they noticed one of their number, Tommy Fitz was missing, reluctantly they retraced their steps. Eventually on a quiet road they spotted Tommy, he had fallen asleep on the bike and ended, upright, in a briar ditch, still on the bike, but fast asleep.
Sometime then, in the mid nineteen fifties a tractor, an Alice Chalmers went out of control on our lane [it was a third of a mile long, but seemed like infinity to me] the driver came to our house, having crawled from under the machine. My mother was very anxious about him, and offered tea, quietly he asked me to go back to the tractor and recover a brown paper bag, and very important he insisted. I hared off on my bike and reached the scene of the accident, slid into the ditch and found the clinking parcel. On my triumphant return I was castigated by my mother for my dangerous behaviour. Needless to say what was in the bag were bottles of stout [Guinness] that was probably the only time the carrying compartment of my bike was used.
My first real bike was red and white, a girl’s bike, that is, it had no crossbar. It was bought in Mc Hugh Himself, right beside Amiens street railway station on Talbot street. Dad and I went together to pick it. That must have been the time I began to go to school in Donabate BNS. It was a two wheeler, I remember the day it arrived at my grandmothers, we collected it on the Sunday morning and by the time we were home I could handle it proficiently. Sadly I have no photos of that period, I must have worn out a few sets of tires though because I travelled to school for many years on that bike.
In the fifties and into the sixties we played a game called hoops. We used old wheel rims stripped of their spokes and without tires, these we hooped along the roads, roads comparatively free of traffic, at great pace using a short stick to give energy to the rim, and to control its direction. You had to be good, to make speed, without losing control. Also the weight of the rim was important, one never considered that weight when actually cycling a bike but hooping was altogether different, weight counted. I smile today when I think of alloy rims and cyclists watching each gram of weight.
When I went to school in Dublin to O’Connells CBS, I did not need a bike, so I largely abandoned cycling for a few years, just using whatever bike was available at weekends when I needed to get somewhere. Then I began work and the possibility of four wheeled transport loomed. Neither the work nor the transport lasted. I met my wife and she was a biker, a Yamaha rider, many times she carried me on the pillion.
While at college I had a wreck of a bike that just got me around, I had no need to care if it was stolen or not. Nobody would bother to steal such a machine. After college I went to work at Colaiste Cholim in Swords, the bike came back into my life. As a young married couple in the earlier seventies we just survived, a car was not on our agenda. Also we wanted to see more of Ireland, so we got two Falcon ten speed touring bikes, just after we acquired them we set off for a cycling holiday in Donegal. It took us five days to get there and on returning we were so fit we cycled from Slieve Liag to Donabate in two days, this was excellent timing, we used back roads when possible and carried all our gear for camping in our panniers. These two Falcons remained our means of transport for many years eventually they lay rusting in a shed here in Mayo when we moved here. My daughter reminds me that she was often a passenger on a special seat that we had on the back of Pauline’s bike.
I cannot remember the date of the first maracycle. Possibly it was 1985 I cycled in it from Dublin to Belfast and returned the following day. Two hundred miles, I had prepared well and was in good shape, the thing I remember most about the spin was the idea of a peloton, as a group of cyclists whizzed by me around Babriggan on the way up they called to me to join in and work with the group. I tagged on to the end and literally felt as if I was pulled along by the momentum of the group. Eventually I arrived at the head of the long pelaton and now I realised what hard work was. Staying in front and maintaining the pace for almost five minutes felt like hell. This was a great experience and I only did three sessions in front before we reached Dundalk. We stopped there and the pelaton lost its shape, riders wandering off to form new teams to work together, for the last part of the journey to Belfast. After all it was only a Maracycle, not a race.
In 1985, the family, now four of us began a spiritual journey in search of a new home, we had each in our own ways become disenchanted with the way the city was encroaching into rural Fingal. We found a peaceful place in county Mayo, on the edge of a valley called Glenhest. Here we set about running an adventure centre, everybody involved including Sinead who was only six or seven at the time, I have often wondered what effect that change wrought on Sinead and her older brother Alastair. They were certainly involved as we specialised in dealing with groups with a mental disability, those people loved to be with Alastair and Sinead. Indeed there are many pictures in the family album of happy groups hiking and biking from those days.
Hiking was the main activity that we engaged in. We did have a collection of rugged mountain bikes, Emmelles, they were called. I noticed one recently, in a friends place up in North Mayo, it still looked good.
So for a long ten years I never sat on a bike, often thought about it, looked at the latest developments, admired Le Tour and so on. Then in 2006, a surprise, Alastair and Sinead bought two new bikes for Pauline and I, I was immediately smitten, all my old feelings for the fun, the art, the endurance of cycling came rushing back.
Well…… twenty four gears, light weight wheels, high quality gear shifts, all this and more, no wonder I am again roaring down forestry tracks, or cycling across the forgotten roads of North Mayo. There is nothing like a really good bike, the right equipment, a clear sky, and a tail wind, to whet your appetite for adventure.