Remembering John Shanahan (Part II)
I guess the last thing the pony expected was Peter Meaney up his rear end. And if he’d had the time to look, he might have noticed that Peter would be swiftly followed by John, the two of them being joined at the butt, as it were, by John’s tandem. That piebald may have gulped. Can horses gulp? I don’t know. What do horses do when they suddenly realise their day is about to bottom out?
It was the Autumn of 2016 and the tandem twins had signed up early and earnestly to join the 2nd OldVelos Vintage Classic in Killarney. Oh! Those were simpler times! You signed on in the morning, shook hands, slapped a few backs, lined up and posed for photos, then squeezed into some vintage wool cycling gear, made when men were men and cyclists were itchy. Not knowing where you were going, or what might befall you along the way. Weather? Punctures? Piebald ponies? All in the average day of an OldVelos excursion into the unknown. The weather was lovely and that made us all nervous. The weather is usually God-awful for OldVelos events.
Our fast-pedalling, fast talking tandem duo, Pilot Peter and Stoker Shanahan would have been a novelty in the rag-taggle peleton of Reynolds steel bikes and well-worn wool costumes. John regaled anyone who’d listen about the speed of the tandem. Peter, his eyes saluting the skies, nodded resigned agreement as the tandem and the stories went along, their four legs spinning while the road allowed, celebrating the flat before the inevitable grind.
Grinds come quick in Killarney. Everyone knew the party would only last as far as Kate Kearney’s Cottage, that’s when everyone would stop talking. Everyone but John that is. For everyone else, gears and teeth ground in painful harmony. Grimaces, curses and seemed-a-good-idea-at-the-time type chat punctuated the slog to the first summit. From there, the Gap of Dunloe virgins got their first glimpse of what was really ahead and exactly how good-an-idea-this-is-not.
The wind was fairly whistling through the valley that day. The first-timers were pushed through at a pace that told them the fate that awaited them would arrive sooner than expected. The tandem duo led the posse, the irrepressible Shanahan thrashing the pedals and the pace from the back seat. Being blind never stopped John wanting to get there sooner, faster, and if at all possible, first. Any silences from his station only meant he was concocting a suitable yarn to accompany the ride. He’d have plenty of time to think of his next one.
So the tandem twosome pushed, pulled, heaved and hawed, gasped and ground, stretched, and strained, to bring that tandem to the last summit before the Black Valley. Walkers clapped and even cheered, more in wonderment than admiration at one machine driven by four legs. Some outriders audibly groaned as the tandem pushed past them up the hill. “Well done lads”; “nearly there”, “yer man at the back is doing nothing”. The usual drill. At the top they pulled in for Peter to refill the bottles and for John to stretch his legs.
“We flew up that one Peter, I’d say we were the fastest tandem by a good bit!”.
“I’d say you’re not far off there John.”
“Bikes going well too, isn’t it Peter?”.
All cyclists know its foolhardy to say things are going well, or worse, you’re feeling good. Peter pulled nervously at the brake levers, squeezed the tyres, looked around for some wood to knock on.
The tandem did indeed seem to be going well, perhaps because Peter was never a man to let brakes get in the way of slowing things down. The next section was going to test that policy. The descent ahead dived down, unnervingly disappearing from view at the first corner, but reappearing surprising quickly, smaller and thinner 200 feet below. The wind nipped at their ears and John suggested they should go. They clipped into the pedals. Further down the hill the piebald sniffed the same wind. There was … something…?
John gave his usual surge to remind the tandem who was in charge and Peter countered with a twitch of the bars to remind the stoker he was still the pilot. The usual course notes could be heard. “Corner to the right and a left fairly soon after it”. “Right again, braking”. “Steady”. “Ok, there’s a straight and then another corner”.
The words carried on the breeze as the tandem careered along, the speed being constantly wound up from behind. You could tell Peter was getting just a little anxious as he moved his grip from the top of the brake hoods to the security of the drops. From here he could get more purchase on the anchors, but John construed this move as an attempt to gain some aerodynamic advantage and a signal to up the speed. ‘Good man, Peter! Give her holly!’. John gave the cranks a good old hoosh and the braking distance to the next corner shortened dramatically.
Peter had to decide how to deal with the extra pace and lined the bike up for the corner as best he could. “Corner John!” he shouted trying to conceal any panic. It was then the piebald spied a particularly tasty patch of grass, put his thóin to the gaoith and the rest, as they say, is history.
John always said it wasn’t a pretty sight. But how would he have known? And Peter? Well Peter continues to poo-pooh the whole event.