For my first birthday, my Father got me a ride on pedal tractor. It was way too big and I couldn’t even reach the pedals, or so I’m told. I was only one after all so my memory of events is a bit sketchy to say the least. My mother had her reservations about the fact that it was way too big for me but my father insisted that I would grow into it.
There was another issue, however, which was at the forefront of their thoughts. I was born with a ‘club foot ‘. This is a foot which is turned inwards and down. Mine was a very pronounced club foot which would require some serious surgery. A doctor when I was born had told them that I would have difficulty walking and possibly not be able to run or cycle a bike. So on that first birthday as they looked at me up on a tractor which was way too big the unspoken question was ‘ would I ever be able to pedal the thing , or anything else for that matter.
Luckily for me, my Father and Mother were determined to get my problem sorted and at the age of two I spent six weeks in Croom Hospital and underwent a radical operation for it’s time which straightened and realigned my left foot. Next came a daily regime of physio and stretching which went on for a number of years.
The toy tractor was always there as a carrot for me and a reminder for my parents of what I should be able to do. Eventually all of their persistence paid off and shortly after my third birthday I began to slowly turn the pedals of the tractor. From that day on I would spend hours each day sitting on my plastic Ford 4000 replica and get to grips with pedalling – one stroke at a time. My father was kept busy fixing my pride and joy , and even had to weld up a steel steering wheel as I was constantly breaking the plastic one.
My leg improved quickly with all of the pedalling exercise and now in adulthood it is hardly noticeable day to day, apart from a fouteen inch scar, a size nine left foot and a size eleven right foot and a left calf less than half the sized of my right one, but it never stops me cycling .
Then when I was six on a visit to a cousin I hopped up on her orange bike and began cycling down her back garden. To this day I can still vividly remember the sense of accomplishment of pedalling under my own steam with just two wheels to carry me along.
The following day my Father told me to hop into his blue Ford Capri and brought me into Cahir where he bought me my first bike. It was a chrome Huffy BMX with red anodised rims and was just about the coolest thing that I had ever seen. I now literally lived on this bike and began cycling the mile and a half to and from school by the time I was nine.
I got my first racing bike when I was fourteen. It was a Dawes Jaguar and it was as good as any Jaguar car to me. Within a few months I was racing and never looked back.
My parents would usually drive me to the races and even though he knew very little about cycling, my Father was just as enthusiastic as any of the other fathers, if not even more so. I remember the under fifteen all Ireland finals in Mondello where I was a spotty cranky teenager and was embarrassed to see him at the side of the track shouting at me to ‘ make the break ‘ and telling me that ‘ the break is on ‘. Ray won the race , his first of many National titles, and I was ninth but the main topic of conversation the following day in school as we sat beside each other was Ray informing me that ‘ the break is on !’.
Twenty years on and now that I am a father myself I appreciate the huge effort that my Father made to be a part of his teenage sons life and to take an interest in what interested me.
The only time that I saw him shed a tear was on the street in Blessington just after I won the final stage of the ESCA trials and had just assured my first excursion in an green Irish jersey. He was proud of what I had achieved but he was old school, not one to say it, but that day it got the better of him and his eyes did the talking for him, very briefly.
Like many father and sons we had our ups and downs but when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer eighteen weeks ago I was glad to be able to be there for him. It is amazing how focused news like this makes you and how priorities change and time becomes more and more valuable. He was anointed four weeks ago and I found myself sitting at his bedside asking for just one more good day. I got my wish and we had a couple of more good days. One Tuesday about three weeks ago we spent two hours sitting outside in the garden of Clogheen Hospital and I sat and listened as my Father fought for the breaths to say what he wanted to tell me. He gave me lots of advice of how to live the rest of my life and how important family, friends and people are above all else , even cycling. He told me how to improve my relationship with Ciara and how to look after my family. Much of what he told me began with the caveat of ‘ this isn’t what I did but this is what you should do ‘ and it was as though he had some kind of a supernatural clarity . As I wheeled him back indoors he looked up at me and said that he was ready to go. I brushed it off and told him not to be talking like that and that there was plenty more left in him . He just smiled weakly back at me.
On Wednesday week last I got a phone call to go out immediately to the hospice room in the hospital. As I walked in the door one of the nurses stopped me to prepare me for the deterioration in his condition from when I had seen him the evening before. I walked into the room and was still taken aback by how quickly the deteroriation had taken place . He was gasping for breath and once more I found myself at his side asking for him to be able to breath easier , one breath at a time. Within ten minutes of arriving, I looked on completely helpless as he drew his final breath and let go.
We went through the funeral pretty much in a daze. It’s now, a week later that I find myself leaving work wanting to turn left for Clogheen rather than to turn right for home that it really hits home that he is gone.
Tomorrow I’m going to get back out on the bike and go for a spin , one pedal stroke at a time !