“I came to re-appreciate that cycling is a truly beautiful sport with a rich, textured and colourful past”
By Anthony Walsh, BL
I have had a couple of injury-hit seasons. They have taken a physical and mental toll and prompted friends and family to ask: ‘Why do you still ride’? During the extended convalescence after my latest crash in the Rás, I started asking myself the same question.
I think I may have lost sight of why I love cycling. Apart from the broken bones, the constant travel of the last few years, racing abroad and living out of a suitcase, missed birthdays and broken promises, my passion for a sport I once loved had become dulled.
During my convalescence I took some time to reflect on my lifelong dynamic and complex relationship with the bike. I remembered why I used to love cycling. I remembered my first bike and the sense of freedom it instilled. It was an escape, it brought me places that were too far to walk and not accessible by bus. I loved that first bike for its utilitarian beauty, function over style. It was a vehicle: a vehicle that enabled me to build lifelong friendships and summer-long romances. In retrospect, what I loved about the first bike was what it represented – freedom and opportunity.
Casting my mind back to my college days the bike transformed my commuting experience. Traffic jams, bus fares and frustration were replaced with a sense of calmness. The bike was my reprieve. A window between study, work and college debauchery through which I could abscond for an hour at a time.
The bike saved me money and instilled great mental clarity. It was liberation from the mundane. Riding past the gym I would get a smug elitist feeling as I watched cars slalom through rush-hour traffic to join a queue for a parking space to go ‘work out’. I wasn’t ‘working out’ and yet I was getting all the associated health benefits. And there was nothing laborious about my task.
My cycling passion evolved and the bike morphed – it transformed from a vehicle to a tool. A burgeoning career as an aspiring cyclist loomed. I applied myself studiously to my new task – becoming a student of the sport. I learnt the history: Coppi, Merx, Kelly – the more I learnt the more absorbed I became.
I came to re-appreciate that cycling is truly a beautiful sport with a rich, textured and colourful past. I absorbed information and surrounded myself with good riders, but the thirst for knowledge also took me to new pastures. Learning the science of the power meter and human physiology, and marrying those concepts with centuries of tradition, brought a new dimension to my understanding of the sport.
As I sit on a bus surrounded by strangers, and six hours into a twelve-hour journey from Toronto’s suburbs to Chicago for a series of criteriums, I realise that the love I once had for the bike is all but gone. This isn’t fun anymore. This is a job. Cycling has lost its magic for me. I cast my mind back to those cars queuing to go ‘work-out’ in the gym and now I identified with them. I feel a sense of obligation, of routine, of chore.
All these are the antithesis I why I fell in love with the sport. How had the dream gone so badly awry? I am sure that when I am grey and old, with time clouding my recollection, I will look back fondly on these moments: a time when I travelled the world and raced my bike against some of the world’s best. Right now I can’t see past the drudgery that is the reality for an aspiring racer – travel, race, eat, sleep, and then travel some more. The love has gotten lost in a cloud of wattage, intervals and routine. I’m counting down the days till this season is over.
The crash and subsequent down time has afforded me a period of introspection. I was thinking about walking away from cycling, getting a ‘real job’. I thought long and hard. I resolved not to rush into a decision while injured. I wasn’t ruling out a comeback but in my heart-of-hearts I thought I was done. Chapter closed – move on.Getting back on the saddle for the first time during my recover, I wasn’t expecting any great comeback-story: it was a way to give me some closure, to be able to say that I didn’t quit because of an injury.
I rode for hour after hour, day after day. No power meter, no performance targets, no upcoming races. I rode just to ride – for its intrinsic value. I remembered the good times: the friendships, the laughs, the stories, my fond time at University College Dublin and the races we won. I began to feel at one with the bike again – a feeling I hadn’t experienced in years. The temperature had dropped just enough to contrast my white breath against the black tarmacadam of Howth Hill. I noticed my heartbeat was in synch with my pedal stroke as I climbed.
Glancing up from the handlebars I gazed out across Dublin Bay and watched the sun set behind the Wicklow Mountains – my favourite view in the world. With every pedal stoke I began to remember why I loved cycling.
I am not sure what the next chapter in this dynamic relationship will hold. However, I think I may be falling in love with the bike all over again.