From Dublin, Wicklow, Donegal and the boys of old Kildare
Some came from a land beyond the sea
From Boston and New York
But the boys who beat the Black and Tans
Were the boys from the County Cork.
I'm riding through County Cork this morning. My uncle Johnny's land.
|Uncle Johnny was my Cork connection.|
John 'Uncle Johnny' Jeffers showed up one October day at our Boston family home, back in 1970. He wasn't really my uncle, although we called him that. A cousin to my grandmother, close enough. A few times back in those years, uncle Johnny came and stayed with us quite awhile, with his 'own ones'. He used to go back and forth between Ireland and Boston a lot, never could decide which country he belonged to or wanted to stay in. Pensioned from the postal service I recall. Sometimes he'd visit us, sometimes relatives in Everett. We gladly squeezed him into our tiny house, without question.
As I ride this morning through the flat headwinds toward Cork city, I'm thinking a lot about him.
He was a Gaelic speaker who had the totally cool lilting Cork brogue. After school, sometimes he used to go walk with me and our dog to the local corner drug store. We'd sit at the formica counter, he'd buy me a chocolate milk shake. I'd drink, he'd smoke. The smart-ass soda fountain girls, and psychadleic hippies who hung around the counter couldn't quite figure him out, but they knew better than to give him any shite. He was simple, quiet, and had a great sense of humor. He'd predict my brother and I would be boxers, and set up matches in the parlor just to wind up our ma. And he'd get the dog all riled up and barking, just for the sheer mad fun of it.
My uncle Johnny also was an IRA soldier. Way back in the teens or twenties, not sure exactly when. I do know he left home as a teen to join up, and that he ran around in the Cork hills fighting the Black and Tans. I recall a story he told us of trying to lift the boots off a dead one to replace his old tattered ones that were falling apart. Only when he pulled, the whole leg came off...
Like most real soldiers though he wouldn't talk about that stuff though, although I do recall were some hushed late evening rememberences of the terrible times at the kitchen table with my ma and grandma over tea and toast, when they thought we kids had gone to up bed.
His home town of Macroom was very close to Béal na mBláth where Michael Collins was killed. Later after uncle Johnny passed away, and when we learned a little more Irish history, my brother and I always used to wonder where he was on that infamous day, and which side Uncle Johnny fought on when all that stuff went down. Perhaps it's best that we don't know...
The rain and cold snaps me back to present. I look around. It's a very different Cork now Johnny. My sepia toned nostalic cork, peat and tweed image is dealt a concrete-and -glass 21st century euro reality slap. From my fast moving vantage point, Cork could be Munich, or Maastricht. My imagined nostaligia has been rendered quite silly by the real environs of modern Ireland's second city.
|Today it's Election day in Ireland. Vote for me. |
If elected I promise to make it stop raining. And free Jaffa cakes for all.
Right now we're cycling on the main motorway to the city, being led by motorcade through the Jack Lynch tunnel. For Boston readers, that's like riding in a bunch through the Sumner Tunnel during the morning commute. Such is the power of the Ras in Ireland: Nobody's ever cycled through the Jack Lynch tunnel before, I'm told. The ability to avoid an inner city traverse of Cork by following the same route the Ras will take through this tunnel is key to our hopes of making it to Carrick on Suir before the Ras arrives. We all want to experience the climb the boys are saying is one of Ireland's toughest: Seskin Hill.
At the front, the Cork boys, Niall and one of our guides named Mick, are really pouring it on behind the Garda escort. Riding as if the fate of the county depends on it. And thanks to the perfect pace of the cycling-savvy Garda who's leading us, we're basically motorpacing. Niall and Mick are really flying. Over 25mph, sometimes faster. I see Micks shoulders up there, bobbing. They stay on the front a long, long time.
Down and up the far side of the tunnel, those at the back are flat out now fighting hard to stay on the group at it climbs to a rotary. It's a line out. And for about 20 minutes or so, we're flying past and around Cork city, still on divided highway.
Speedwork session over, we're out on the Wexford road, heading south along the coast toward Dungarvan, and soon back to our two by two, up and over paceline. As the ever astute Aaron predicted, the headwind is extreme, massive. Turns on the front are shorter now and conversations ceases and we collectively knuckle down. Ahead there's rain again. What else is new.
|Pressing up a climb and into the wind to Dungarvan.|
On the Cat 3 Grange climb before Dungarvan, one of our Race the Race newbies - a long lean, and powerful local guy - is setting a killer tempo. He's a 'one day' rider I'm told, not doing the entire Ras. Many of the full Ras riders in our group, with 500+ miles in tired legs, are getting gapped as the new guy turns the screw on the front. Feeling good and feisty, and taking a cue from the Paul McCormack peloton patron playbook, I go to the front and try to intimidate him to ease the pace a bit. I fly up along side no hands, in that old patented 'I know you think you're going hard, but to me this is really easy' bluff.
"Yo!! Go easy dude, you're killing these guys."
He looks at me and slowly, indigantly shakes his head.
"No. I'm not".
Oh well, I guess that's that then! (We shared a good laugh about it later.)
So with your man at the front, we fly through Dungarvan. Kids on the street heckle us for the first time all week. Traffic here is a little sketchy too. We're glad to get through this town.
We turn north toward Carrick on Suir. Entering Sean Kelly country.
The surrounding landscape resembles Vermont, only with more cows and sheep. It's hilly, green and rural, but also pretty well developed compared to the wild west and Kerry. I see a lot of new buildings, and what look like massive newly built homes. The rain starts again. We're all climbing gradually inland, but everyone is keeping their powder dry for the big finale up Seskin Hill.
We finally descend a wet switchback road into Carrick on Suir. It's a road out of town you'd expect to find in France or Switzerland, pretty long and steep. At the bottom, on the edge of the town, we we're stopped by the Garda and race marshalls in vests. At first we think we're being stopped, that we won't get a crack at the climb. Then we're asked if we want to ride Seskin Hill.
While 40 voices roar 'yea', two guys opt to go straight to the bus. My two professionals mates: Alan and Paul. Both know the climb well, but more important they also know there's no prize money at the top. They wisely opt for dry clothes, sambos and hot tea at the bus parked at the SuperValu in the center of Carrick. You've got to understand that both Alan and Paul have won the Christmas Hamper race in Carrick on Suir in their distictive careers, so Seskin Hill represents no magic to them.
Pro's Lesson 4: Never suffer needlessly unless there's money in it for you.
I, however, was never a pro, but as America's Number One Sean Kelly Supporter ™ I came all this way to ride up Sean's home climb, and by God I've got to do it. It's not even a question.
|Number one! Sean Kelly Square, Carrick on Suir, Ireland.|
John James 'Sean' Kelly cast a considerable if distant influence over me only a handful of years after Uncle Johnny left for Ireland for the last time. At 16 I'd started bicycle racing, but most of the races an apsiring teen with ambition but no connections or cash could ride locally back then were non-USCF 'citizens' races. There were lots of them. Mass start, open roads, anyone and everyone in. They were wild point to point free for alls in open traffic, but they also had really great prizes. Cash. TV sets. Air conditioners. Way better stuff than offered in the sanctioned races.
Of course, some of the savvy local USCF riders would enter to grab some 'easy' swag, but under assumed names, of course. You'd read the Newburyport Times on an August Monday, and the winner of the local Elks club bike race would be 'Scott Van Impe', follwed by 'Ron DeVlaeminck'. Nobody had a clue. Organizers, officials, nobody. We'd all laugh our asses off.
The older guys took me aside at the shop one day. I was being 'made' in their little wieler-Mafia. "Eddy, if you want to ride these races, you need an assumed name so the USCF doesn't suspend your license." Dilemma. What name? I'm pondering this while reading Velonews. The stage results for the 1977 Dauphine Libere. Hey look, there's a guy from Ireland riding...here, a bit down the GC list. 'Sean Kelly.' Hmmm....
|In my house, Kelly is King.|
So for years after, while I tried to make a go of cycling myself, it's no surprise I followed Sean's career religiously, devouring every bit of news I could about my wieleridol in those limited information, pre-internet days. I experienced incredible joy and satisfaction following his climb to world's number one.
In my house, Kelly was, and is, king. Literally. Fast forward almost 18 years later, and the real 'King Kelly' himself is crashing in my spare bedroom, trying to grab a few hours sleep before he and Paul fly to Atlanta for the 'Sean Kelly Tour' promotional event we'd organized. Teammates from CCB later start calling my spare bedroom the "Sean Kelly Suite"...
So Seskin Hill begins. The front guys sprint off, they're pulling away, really going at it. Shite, it's really steep now. I climb by a few big guys. Surely I must be about half done now. Nope, I'm wrong, there's the 1k to go sign. Yikes, still such a long way to go. A steep ramp up to a left hand turn around a retaining wall. Spectators tell us it eases after that "Just get to that turn and you're home." Christ, I hope so!
After the turn it goes back to a ridable grade up a straight ramp, still about 10% or so though. But then the killer finale. The last 500 meters is just a serpentine agony. Super steep, around a turn. Every 50 meters feels like an eternity. Aaron comes dancing by me, out of the saddle. I'm stuck seated, just barely getting the pedals around. Fighting 100%, but just not winning.
|Just Mt. Leinster tomorrow? Bah, how hard can it be Alan?|
Seskin Hill is savage. A great climb!
That night in Waterford, we start to feel like the end is in sight. Tomorrow is just one more big climb of Mt. Leinster. After what we've come through, I'm feeling like that will be no problem.
I'm a little relaxed, want to hear some music. Paul wisely hits the sack, he's still recovering from his cold. Alan and I hold court at the bar with the boys. I want to buy Brian a Bulmers, he's been doing so much for us all this week.
We share a few pints with another Johnny, this one an Irish masters racer who's an ex-all Ireland Handball champion, and a dead ringer for Shay Elliott on the bike. Johnny flew up Seskin Hill today.
Another Bulmers for Brian. Another Pint for Alan and I.
Approaching 11:30 we suddenly realize the hotel pub is turning into something resembling a Mallorcan holiday cruise, full of blue hair and oldies crooning. Our cue to get to bed.