At the finish in Blarney, Adrian referred to them as Trail Angels or, more appropriately in this case, Irish Fairies. People who seem to magically appear in your hour of need, asking for no reward or return for their generosity. Accordingly, one of the most important things I will take away from my experience of cycling through this country is the kindness and generosity of its people.
As the man offering his help when my rear wheel had bust in Sixmilebridge said: ‘Time is more valuable than money’. However, that is another story.
It was around 5:30pm and I pulled in to the first petrol station I came across in Bantry, a sizeable town at the base of the Sheep’s Head peninsula. There was a bike parked outside, one I had not come across to this point, belonging to Gerald. I was keen to eat well, following the hideous state of my diet for the previous two days in particular, and the deli bar here was one of the best I had encountered. For 5 euros I got my superfood fix of bulgar wheat, beetroot, seeds and houmous, along with a coffee. As I ate (scoffed), Gerald and I spoke about our various crippling injuries and plans for the final 280 kilometers that lay between us and the finish in Blarney.
Gerald, I would learn, is a Filipino of Dublin residence and it took me a while to tune in to his pronouncements. I hadn’t encountered Gerald on the ride previously but knew from the tracker that he had somewhat erratic sleeping habits and had pulled at least one all-nighter already. His plan was to do the same tonight as he had to be home by Saturday (this being a Thursday). I had set off that morning with 500k remaining to the finish and had planned to ride around 300k that day, sleep, and ride the rest on Friday. However, the sun had been out that morning and I had really enjoyed the Bearra peninsula, with its lumpy, craggy landscape which glittered in the sunlight and the speedy, tailwind assisted return leg. The only letdown was 9 euros spent on a miserly portion of Hake and chips next to the Ballaghboy Cable Car, where there was little shelter from the wind and an American couple chose to sit disconcertingly close to me, seemingly trying to use me as a windshield. In line with the ‘no drafting’ principle, I nudged aside to allow them their share of the fierce wild Atlantic wind. As an aside, I had a further gripe with this fish & chip offering. They were served with peas. When I enquired whether they were mushy peas I was told no, they were garden peas. Surely the only peas suitable for such a purpose are of the mushy variety. Boo.
My response to Gerald’s all-nighter plans were that ‘I like the idea in theory’ but wanted to get to 300k for the day and take it from there. Yet my knees and Achilles, which were alternatively and jointly causing me great pain earlier in the week, had felt surprisingly good all day and I relished the challenge presented by that day’s climbing. A seed of thought had well and truly been sown.
The road out on the north side of the Sheep’s Head peninsula was called Goat’s Path, naturally. Whenever I looked down at my Garmin showing ‘Continue on Goat’s Path’ I kept misreading this as Goat’s Cheese Path. I like Goat’s Cheese. Gerald had left Bantry a few minutes before me and as the road rose towards Finn Mac Cool’s Seat he came back in to view. I threw an imaginary lasso and started the reel him in. After Kilcrohane was a 14k dog-leg section to the Sheep’s Head, a seemingly interminable drag into the wind with the gradient ever sharpening. I caught Gerald near the top, skillfully climbing the hill whilst devouring a slab of fruit cake, and we turned to begin the descent. I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but it was at some point during this stretch that I decided for certain that I would not be sleeping before the end. I had less than 250k to ride. That’s only a 200k ride, plus a little extra, I told myself convincingly. This was a race after all and if I were to sleep on the final night, I would lose valuable time and ground on those who chose to ride on. I felt good and I was committed.
Gerald left me behind on the descent as the typically poor road surface and seven days of abrasion to my undercarriage made sitting on the saddle rather uncomfortable at those speeds. I had noted that there were a number of villages along the south side of the peninsula. It was now approaching 8:30pm and I needed to find a shop, pub or other eatery to stock up for the night ahead. All I had left was a scone, some chocolate bars and the scraps of multiple packets of trail mix in the depths of my stem bag. Kilcrohane was quiet, as was the next village, so I pushed on toward Durrus at the base of the peninsula where surely there would be something open. The next settlement was Ahakista. I passed two pubs, one of which appeared to be of the gastropub type, and paused to check what lay ahead on my phone. As I studied the map, a couple strolled past. I enquired whether they knew the area well and if there was anywhere nearby which I could get something to eat. In a most kindly way their response was effectively, no. The pub I had just passed stopped serving at 8:30pm and the one in Durrus was not serving food at all beyond bar snacks. There was nowhere on my route ahead which would likely be open by the time I reached it that evening.
What I was not expecting was their subsequent offering. I was invited in to their home, 50 metres down the road, and eagerly bombarded with generosity. They provided me with sandwiches, biscuit bars, 3 bananas, brownies, a pint of milk and even put butter and jam in my scone. My attempt to pay them for all of this sustenance was flatly refused. I told them of my astonishment at the kindness of the people I had encountered. Here I was doing something essentially selfish, taking part in a cycling race for my own ‘enjoyment’, and these people were willing to go out of their way to assist me. Their pleasure, they said, was gained from the knowledge that they had helped me in my endeavors.
My only issue now was where to stash my evening’s rations. My frame bag was primarily used for food due to its ease of access, but this was now stuffed. The rest went in to my bulging rear pockets and stem bag, also handy for nibbling on the go. The couple seemed astonished at first to learn of my plans to ride through the night but took a keen interest as I told them about the race and the tracking system. I cannot recall their names but am eternally grateful for their selfless act of generosity. I cannot claim to have been in peril or compare my situation with people in real need. Without their help I simply could have slept out the night until the shops opened the next morning. I wasn’t going to starve. However, this principle of kindness and altruism to others is one I will try to keep with me in all circumstances.
I was now confident I had enough fuel to last me until the shops started to open the next morning. I gave my profuse thanks to the generous couple and resumed my journey into the fading light.