Like most cyclists , I have taken part in a good number of charity cycles . Most have been one day spins around somewhere in Ireland but back in 1993 I did the ‘Florida 500 ‘ with the National Council for the Blind .
I got involved through a friend who is blind called Stefan Grace . He is a real entertainer and life and soul of the party so the training regime differed quite a bit from what I was used to . In the beginning I had put together a training program for us both on the tandem which would see us being comfortable doing 60 and 70 mile stages during the event . However this program quickly went out of the window . Most training spins would begin with the aim of doing 40 to 50 miles . However usually by the time we got to Newcastle , 5 miles from Stefan’s house we would have to stop for a fag break . Then sitting outside of McCarras shop both drinking lucozade and eating mars bars whilst Stefan also had a fag we would chat away to whoever was passing by . Stefan is well known in the area and everyone always has a few words for him so these ‘quick’ breaks would often last for anything up to two hours . At this stage we would just head back towards Stefan’s house again with sometimes three and a half hours training time only covering eleven miles .
Whilst this was the complete opposite to any sort of training that I would have been doing beforehand , it did introduce me to a much more sociable side of cycling , or maybe just rural life in general .
Other training spins involved calling in to any visually impaired people living in the area . Stefan knew them all and they were all delighted to have him call in to visit . Any frustration at the lack of ‘serious training’ which I may have felt from time to time was quickly dispelled by how upbeat and happy go lucky these people were .
Cycling with Stefan also made me appreciate my own life a lot more . I remember one day as we were heading out from Ardfinnan towards Clogheen it was a really crisp bright spring morning . The knockmeldown mountains were on our left and were particularly clear . I could make out the cars as they headed up ‘The Vee’ and I asked Stefan if he could see anything at all . He said that he could just about make out that it was brighter on top and darker underneath . This was his only view of the mountain range behind his home which tourists flock from overseas to see . From that day on I have always made a conscious effort to take in my surroundings , especially when I’m out on the bike as we all have a habit of taking it all for granted .
Riding a tandem is a lot different to riding on your own and it takes quite a bit of practice to get the hang of it . At first I was green and used to just lash into the corners without letting Stefan know . This would be followed by Stefan leaning the opposite way , a few expletives and one or two visits to the shrubs and greenery of the ditches around Ardfinnan . But we did manage to get the hang of it and within a pretty short time he began to trust me more and more and eventually I would only have to call the odd particularly bad bend .
The one bogey which we always had was Knocklofty hill . We would go three miles out of our way in order to avoid going down it until one morning Stefan announced that he was feeling a bit adventurous and sure we might as well give it a lash . I had fitted a new computer to the bike and he wanted to see how fast we could go . We headed off , in the Clonmel road and were both unusually quiet as we approached the crest of the hill after just five miles . I asked him how he wanted to do this and the reply given was ‘ flat out and don’t spare the horses ‘ so that is exactly what we did .
We sprinted down the first part and managed to hit 40.5 mph on the speedo then it was heavy on the anchors and as we approached the ninety degree bend at the bottom of the hill. I was screaming at Stefan to lean right , which luckily he did . I had been down the hill hundreds of times on my own and knew exactly what line to take but with an extra thirteen stone behind you this all goes out of the window . Luckily there was no oncoming traffic so I cut the corner and just barely managed to keep us out of the ditch although we did go so close as to brush of some of the grass sticking out slightly . Stefan was behind me roaring with delight and when I told him that we did 40.5 mph he was even happier . He is a real thrill seeker and I must admit that there is no way that I would have the balls to ride down a steep hill at over 40 mph and not be able to see where I was going .
Stefan only lost his sight in his mid twenties and so he was able to experience many things which other VIP’S (visually impaired people) could not . He once told me that the thing he missed most was driving his Ford Capri . When his sight began to deteriorate he bought a speedboat so that he would be able to get the sensation of speed . He sings in a band and plays guitar and even writes some of his own compositions .That is in between raising a large family and a few geese , ducks and hens .
To go on the trip to Florida I had to raise 3000 euros which was done by selling a large number of tickets and asking everywhere for some sponsorship . This part was much harder than the cycling part but I got there in the end .
The trip entailed cycling 500 miles around Florida in ten days so the average mileage was fine , although there was the odd day when fifty became seventy . The cycling arm of the NCBI is known as The Blazing Saddles and Stefan composed their anthem called ‘If you follow the blazing saddles’ . Just as big Eamon Duffey was getting us all on the road leaving the official start in Orlando Stefan pulls out the mouth organ and gets everyone to join in on the chorus of ‘ if you follow the blazing saddles’ . The outrider cops on their big police Harleys didn’t know what to make of us all but they did seem to get a good kick out of it .
The trip was fantastic and really well organised although there will always be the odd hiccup along the way . One day ourselves and two other tandems containing Joe Bollard and Gerry Lennon got lost on the way to St. Agustine . We did eventually find our way back on course , thanks to the help of a friendly couple in their purple camaro outside a seven eleven and eventually made our way to the hotel . We were greeted with a chorus of jibes about the blind leading the blind etc. but it was all a good craic .
Usually the tandems do not finish with the lead group and tend to be closer to the rear rather than the front of the pack . However the day into Daytona Stefan decided that he wanted to be up there on the day . Whether it was the thought of the beachside hotel or the trip to the racetrack he was motivated and there was no stopping him . We took shorter than normal food stops and kept the head down all day , even in the soaring temperatures and managed to sprint over the final bridge in order to stay with the leading group of riders on the day. We were both exhausted when we got to the hotel but I really had to admire Stefan’s will and determination , especially considering the training regime, or lack of it, leading up to the trip .
The following day he was really satisfied with the previous days efforts and as we rode up a tough hill I found myself under quite a bit of pressure . From behind me I heard the question ‘ Are we going up or down a hill ?’ and as I glanced over my shoulder I could see both of Stefans feet off of the pedals and a cigarette in his mouth . We were back to normal now !
The trip ended in Fort Lauderdale and I can remember sitting on the beach next to Stefan and Joe Duffy from RTE thinking that you wouldn’t be doing this on The Ras . Like any trip away there was a real sense of anti-climax when it was all over and we were headed home . The two weeks were so action packed , cycling on fantastic roads in beautiful weather by day and the craic each night resembling a Christmas party every night interspersed with some really good day trips left you with the feeling that there was more done in those two weeks than would be done for the rest of the year .
The bottom line though , was that although it was for a charity and it raised a lot of funds and brought those with the disability away on a fantastic adventure I couldn’t help feeling that I had gotten even more out of it myself. It really is the ultimate win-win situation . From the ‘training’ beforehand through to the trip itself it is really the VIP’s who make it special , and not the barristers or business people , because we are all the same on the bike , but the visually impaired people who are so upbeat and full of life .
Years later I feel that my own life has been all the better for doing this particular cycle for charity .