5 am on a crisp June morning. The sun rises over the Comeragh mountains above the town of Clonmel in the south east of Ireland. A lone figure on a bicycle silhouetted by the rising orange sun leaves a mountain track headed towards the summit of the highest peak overlooking Crottys lake.
With the bicycle slung across his shoulders six foot six inch Johnny Ryan runs up the steep incline making light work of the harsh terrain underfoot. The Shimano spd boots on his feet are not ideal mountain climbing footwear, but small details like this never even register with a man who has endured much more discomfort than an unsuitable pair of shoes. His breathing quickens as the gradient steepens approaching the summit, but his pace never decreases.
The view from the top is always worth the effort. With a vista stretching out below for miles the view is comparable to that seen from one of the Ryanair planes flying overhead with their long contrails stretching out behind. The small green farm fields of counties Waterford, Tipperary and even parts of Kilkenny can be seen from this point, with a glimpse of the Irish sea off the coast of Dungarvan also slightly visible.
Ryan takes it all in for a minute or two whilst composing his breath before settling in to his Qigong routine. A daily practitioner of the ancient Chinese art of the Classical Yang style of Taijiquan he finds the clear fresh mountain air perfect fuel for the deep slow breaths necessary to feel the full benefit of his efforts.
Fifteen minutes pass and it is time to get on the move again. Five hundred vertical feet below the perfectly clear glassy surface of the lake begins to reflect some of the rising suns rays. A wild sheep trail is barely visible due to the lack of growth on such a steep gradient. Without hesitation he clips into his Giant Anthem Advanced 27.5 dual suspension bike and launches himself down the slope.
The bike is ninety percent out of control for most of the two minutes of the adrenaline fueled decent, but there is never a sign of panic from the rider. Even though he wears a two hundred euro Giro helmet, Ryan understands that at this speed on such a steep gradient in such a remote location a crash could be very serious. Such an understanding of the danger involved does nothing to reduce his speed, and never has done in any aspect of his life.
A promising junior cyclist, at the age of nineteen Ryan left the comfort of home seeking fame and fortune on the continental cycling scene. With the goal of securing a contract with a Pro tour professional team, and getting to compete in the Tour de France. VC La Pomme in Marseille was the amateur club that he signed for following in the footsteps of many leading Irish amateurs before him.
Some good placings and a stage win in the Circuit des Mines looked to point in the right direction until a very bad crash on the rough gravel roads of the Tro bro Leon in Brittany spelled disaster. What initially looked like a broken collarbone turned out to be a shattered shoulder blade and left a lasting effect on his ability to carry the full weight of his upper body. Sprinting and climbing resulted in severe darts of pain.
Sheer determination and an inordinate ability to endure prolonged periods of pain saw a return to competition, but the results that had been hoped for never seemed to materialise. With an unlimited supply of amateur talent vying for a place on the team it was inevitable that the day would come when he would be called into the managers office for an unwanted dismissal.
That day came sooner than a fair chance to regain his form would have warranted and Ryan found himself wandering towards the waterfront in Marseille one Tuesday afternoon with a rucksack full of useless cycling gear and a heart full of shattered cycling dreams.
Sitting on a bench pondering what to do now that everything he had worked towards for over half of his twenty youthful years was now beyond reach, a huge sense of loss descended upon him. His life no longer had a purpose. What would, could or should he do next ?
A tear began to form in the corner of his left eye just as a large camouflage rib motored in to a berth next to the harbor wall. A dozen men hard as concrete with steel in their eyes and green berets on their heads leapt from the boat. They automatically got in formation and marched towards 3 Toyota Land Cruisers which were parked nearby. Johnny Ryan felt a sense of curiosity looking over at the men from the French Foreign Legion.
He sat for another hour on that bench contemplating the similarity of a life spent suffering on a bike as a professional cyclist and a life spent suffering as part of an elite army unit. An hour later whilst allowing life’s impulses to guide him he found himself in a taxi heading for the suburb of Aubagne where the Foreign Legion recruitment headquarters was located, having first walked into a nearby Gendarme station and declaring that he wanted to enlist.
Five hours after being informed that his dream of becoming a professional cyclist was over he found himself sitting at a spartan steel desk in a spartan office signing a very short single page form with a French name totally different to what he had been known as for his twenty years, at the top of the page. He was told that he could not contact his family back in Ireland during his initial training period, but that a call would be made on his behalf if he so desired.
That evening his mother back in Clonmel received a curt phone call which informed her that her son was now a member of the French Foreign legion and would not be in contact for some time. What she was not told was the fact that one in ten Legionnaires never make it out alive.