Remembering John Shanahan (Part 1)

Remembering John Shanahan, being Gary Neff

Gary Neff had been John Shanahan’s tandem partner for a long time before I came along joined the party.  It’s tough enough taking over from a previous partner when that partner has left the relationship, or simply stopped riding. When the original relationship is still intact, the opportunity for odious comparisons of performance is a constant elephant in the room.  Such elephants are difficult enough in personalrelationships., but there’s just no room for one on a tandem which, of course, is what we’re talking about here.

When Gary and John had teamed up a few years before I came on the scene, Gary had told  John he could ‘add him to his list of pilots’.  He soon discovered that he was the list! By the time I joined ‘the list’ Gary and John were an old married couple, they even enjoyed an East Cork sobriquet ‘Shanagary’.

I had some tandem experience, but it was leisure tandeming, the ‘sure-why-not, what-could-possibly-go-wrong?’ sort of cycling.  Boarding the tandem at John’s house was easy as John’s kids, (John, Colin, Chris, Ross, Oisín or Clodagh) always had it ship-shape and ready to go.  Our first take-off went without a hitch, our first corner was seamlessly executed.  John knew to expect the speed ramps in his estate and they gave a good sense of just how long a tandem actually is, the thump of the rear wheel coming sometime after the front wheel has announced its presence.  All good so far. Coming to the T-junction onto the main road was my first ‘moment’. Could we make it on to the road without stopping? No!

Stopping John!” I shouted. This message should have been delivered some seconds earlier with the cool control of an airline pilot on the intercom, and not the panicked schoolboy squeak that had issued from Yours Truly.

Gary always slows down here.”  John’s tone was unaccusing, matter-of-minor-interest, no hint at all of a suggestion we maybe should have discussed a few protocols before we started.  Well.  Hardly any.  “Damn!” I thought to myself and I could hear Gary’s disapproving tone in my head, see him shaking his head ruefully in my mind’s eye.”

What happened next, out on the main road, would have been no surprise to Gary (or later to pilots’ Peter, Colin or Tom).  The tandem simply took off.  A surge of speed and torque generated from the rear seat saw the bike go from warm-up to warp speed like it was a sports car.  I reflected that it was just as well I’d been holding onto the handlebars!  Familiar landmarks fairly hurtled by – School-Shop-level-crossing…. And though I was technically in control of the vehicle I felt very much a passenger.  Finally John said “we’ll stop to get Lucozade and a bar at the petrol station. Gary says it’s good to hydrate”.

We decided to go on a route well known to John (and of course, Gary) and I’d been calling out landmarks to help John visualise the route. But even with his visual impairment, John knew we’d ended up on the Youghal bypass. Why? Because the tandem went from warp speed to snail’s pace.

The snail’s pace thing reflects the fact that the tandem can be an extremely ungainly beast and the effects of momentum, gained or lost, seem to be multiplied. Which is a long-winded way of saying they go downhill like a rocket but they’re a bitch to get up the hill

Gary says spinning is winning” wheezed John politely from behind. He was telling me we were over-geared. “Oh ok” I’ll shift a few back. We seemed to go slower, but if that’s what Gary does….

Do you fancy trying to get out of the saddle” asked John,

Ok” I said and up we got.  That’s when I learned there was more to riding tandem than just verbal communication. The bike felt like it was trying to tear itself out of my grip.  We wobbled more than a little.  It was unnerving to say the least.

Gary always put it down a gear if we’re going to stand-up”.

We crested the summit. With gravity and momentum now on our side, we fairly tore down the Youghal bypass.  John provided the horsepower, all I had to do was keep her between the ditches.  I watched the speedo edge inexorably towards the 60kph mark and sail on past it.  It felt great.  We were a steam train, John piling on the coals, me holding on tight, hoping we weren’t going to run out of rail.

At the bottom of the hill, John inquired about our max speed.

I think we hit 67” I said, my watering eyes wondering if in fact it was more.

Gary and I always hit 70 here.”

Circumnavigating Youghal, we had to negotiate more traffic.  My calls became more prolific.

Car up”.

Some rough stuff here, John,”

 “There’s a pull coming up”.

And finally …“Fancy a coffee?”.

We pulled in.

Now I got my first heads-up on the nitty-gritty of piloting a visually impaired person.  We dismounted in the middle of the forecourt and I took the bike over to the nearest wall to prop it up.  I turned around, expecting John to be hot on my heels.  But he hadn’t moved from where he had got off.

“Oh God” I thought, “You numbskull, Brendan! Johnfirst, then the bloody bike!  Bet Gary wouldn’t have done that.”

We headed in for coffee.

My shout” I said.  I was looking for some redemption from my obvious short-comings. We sat down to talk.  I felt I had some explaining to do.  But before I could get a word in,

Brendan, I can’t thank you enough for taking me out.  And it’s great for Gary that there’s someone else to share the load of ferrying me around”.

Suddenly I had a whole new slant on the privilege of piloting John Shanahan.  I was chuffed.  I was ‘in’.  In with John, being Gary Neff.

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