Musings of a Flying Scot – or how a dodgy Garmin almost helped me find religion

AN angel appeared to me at the side of a white gravel road in the middle of nowhere. She had long brown hair, spoke fluent English and helped dispense holy water into my depleted bottles.

“How far to the castle?”

“You must have missed the turn for the 135km: you are on the 205km – the castle is 15km back. You have probably another 25km this way into Gaiole.”

“How much is dirt road?”

“About half of it: the next bit is the worst and then the surface gets a bit better.”

Her bewildered father looked on – obviously concerned and confused – as she explained my situation. I thanked her profusely, bid her a fond farewell and hit the road again: the battery-depleted Garmin clicked 148km but I knew it had missed a bit when I forgot to turn it on again after a feed station.

A little further on another svelte, tanned figure passed me out.

“Salve” he said.

“Regina…Mater misericordiae”, I croaked.

He either had a bit of Latin or had seen Evita because he shouted “ad te clamamus” and we both laughed before he disappeared into the dust ahead of me.

Then came an Aussie. He crept up behind me unheard through the rustle of the trees as I cursed every washboard rut loudly; thinking that no-one would hear. He joined me and we both swore solidly for a while before he too pushed on ahead. It turned out he was another lost 135km man.

Suddenly, as the gloom was just beginning to descend, I turned on to tarmac. My elation was short-lived: I had climbed this hill to Radda the day before on a shorter spin and resolved never to see it again unless it was from the back window of a car. It was only 3km and I marvelled at the endurance and fitness of the cyclists who seemed to breeze past me in increasing numbers. Then I realised I was the only one without shaven legs and it reinforced my status as a didn’t-wannabe imposter – a veritable Declan Moffit on two wheels.

Riding a steel bike can conjure up strange images and ghostly thoughts. I wondered at my predecessors who had owned this Flying Scot. Were they living? Were they dead? How much did they sacrifice to own such a machine back in the day when money was so much tighter? Did they pay it off week by week? Did they endure such rides as this in much colder places like the Cairngorms or Glencoe or did they use it to cycle to work in the shipyards or the mines? Did the company’s Masonic founder David Rattray ever dream someone of my background would wheel it around the hills of Tuscany?

I climbed, slowly. I had no choice. I stopped at the side of the road when I saw Radda 1km and willed myself to go on, eventually rolling into the town with a couple of extremely welcome pushes from bystanders and straight towards a cafe. I flopped down inside and pointed to the thickest chocolate cake I could see and ordered a cappuccino. Then I had another round. Aside from my filthy appearance, I had a sense the lady owner couldn’t wait to get rid of me in case I expired on the spot – besides I was probably scaring off other customers.

I knew I had 15km or so to go now – most of it downhill. The Garmin had given up by this stage. Some chap stamped my card at the side of the road, looking quizzically at me: either I had missed a few checks along the way or I shouldn’t be there. I think closer scrutiny sorted that one out for him.

I had been on the bike for close on 12 hours. Mentally, I was back in Gaiole enjoying a beer. Instead, I was rolling into the dark and it was getting cold again. Just like the morning really when we were setting out. It seemed so long ago now.

Then, off came the arm-warmers and the gilet. It couldn’t have been more pleasant. Even after the second feed station when I knew what was in store I settled for a creditable 2-2 score draw away from home. I ground my way up the first two of the four hills euphoric. I even fancifully toyed with the notion that I would be strong enough to conquer the other two as well before humbly accepting pedestrian defeat.

And boy am I glad I did. As I sat at the top of the last hill waiting for my comrades, one poor chap was some 15m from making it when the pressure caused his chain to snap and his liathróidí took an almighty hammering. As I winced, I helped him to the side of the road as the redoubtable, freewheeling Brendan Hennessy crested. With chain splitter in hand, he went to the man’s aid but the lad was shaking uncontrollably with shock and was more of a hindrance than a help when it came to repair. Somehow, Brendan fixed the problem and the grateful cyclist managed to remount and off he went.

On the next climb, Brendan and I struck up a chorus of ‘I didn’t promise you a rose garden…along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometime’. But with our friend Gearoid in tow, it was far more pleasure than pain as we sidled towards the last stop circa 110km and the prospect of just 25km or so to go. Easy.

Then, for me, it all went horribly wrong. I lost the lads and I lost my way. And that had me in Radda with the prospect of another climb into La Villa before the long descent for the finish line. As I prayed then cursed and prayed and cursed then prayed and cursed some more, I then reached the final descent. And who should I meet coming in the opposite direction were the Dublin Fusiliers cheerily grinding their way home – even a wind at any orifice wouldn’t do them much good on this elevation I thought.

And there to greet me in the square were a bottle of wine, a very puzzled looking individual scratching his head at the too many stamps for the 135km but too few for the 205km. The lads were there with a beer in hand and a loud cheer – a relief as I worried they would wait for me at the castle I never arrived at.


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