The Insomniac OldVelos Compose

Oldvelos at the Mondello 24 Hour Endurance Cycle

(Those of you that are Van Morrison fans may be familiar with his album ‘Poetic Champions Compose’ and the track ‘Queen of the Slipstream’ – I will say no more!)

‘Let’s have a bet on the Mondello 24 Hour race!’ suggested Ger McCarthy before the ordeal commenced.  He elaborated ‘Who thinks they can guess the total we will complete?  I will set the benchmark by saying 233 laps’ said the wily Kerryman.  What did I get myself and these other innocent volunteers in to? I have known Ger long enough to know that somehow he would enter some sort of competition into what was going to be a very challenging weekend. Ger had already been opining about the ‘benefits’ of talking to other teams about working together into the night.  He also may have mentioned that surely no one would notice the treachery of ‘changing horses’ during the night and turning his back on his beloved Benotto and mounting his Carbon fibre Giant in order to gain laps.

Here we were, on the eve of the Mondello 24 hour race, and already the competitiveness, that is inherent in every cyclist, was starting to emerge. At least we weren’t getting into that OldVelos thing about how faithful to the original our bikes were!  Anything to get the juices flowing, I suppose.  The rest of the team were not slow to show their competitive spirit.  For example; Peter ‘250 laps or die trying’ Meaney.  He had worked on the mathematics, lap distance, braking for the 15mph pit lane limit, change over times.  Unfortunately he had not measured the weight of his two beautiful Colnagos to include in his complex formulas. His comrade in crime Martina O’Brien (our Queen of the Slipstream!) did seem to have concerns about this but stayed studiously silent.

Others used more basic ‘rules of thumb’ to estimate the amount of laps we would complete. Our team mathematician Phil Cunningham took one look at the length of the wheelbase of his 1940’s Holdsworth Cyclone and queried the lap length.  Is it 2.1 miles? If so I will subtract the number I first thought of and I’ll guess 205 laps”. John Aherne and Tony Mulcahy (in true cyclist’s style) wouldn’t reveal the logic behind their complex equations; just threw in the numbers ‘227’ and ‘216’ respectively. Tony had maybe considered the wisdom of his decision to ride a 1937 Claud Butler single speed, while John was obviously feeling inspired by his ride’s pedigree – if you’re on Beryl Burton’s Reynolds 753 Ti Raleigh, that had to be good for a few extra laps.

I knew most of the team intimately (in the cycling sense!) as they had competed in the ‘OldVelos Pursuit of Man’ series of events.  I had carefully tabulated the facts and data regarding their performances in these competitions. This was done with a diligence that would give some pro teams the shivers.  For example, I even know Peter gets pins and needles in his lips if he’s really trying!  Not so though about our mystery guest John Slattery.  All I knew was he loved Italian bikes, went by the Strava handle of ‘Steed of Steel’ or suchlike and when we eventually met I saw that he was built like a whippet.  What would John do on my 1983 Bianchi? John didn’t care to bet; he’d do his talking on the track.  That leaves me, my known knowns and unknown knowns and a guess of 214 laps.  We’d soon see.

In our pre-race WhatsApp repartee I had posted a pic of a 1950’ s Le Mans race, where the drivers had to run to their cars and the avoid splatting their competitors.  ‘We should do a video of a flying start for Facebook’ I suggested to my still loyal team.  They politely declined.  However, little did I know that that is exactly what the organisers had in mind.  Once I heard it was so, I focused on that one single goal, and I knew I had an advantage.  I had fitted my two race bikes (and the trike – just in case like) with toe clip pedals and borrowed a pair of leather touring shoes.  No cleats or click clacking on the track for me, stealth would be my ally.

It was encouraging to see a teammate that you were going to share the next 24 hours of pain with holding your bike on the other side of the track. The  awe-inspiring solo riders had to find holders, and I had Martina smiling at me across that strip of tarmac, that I would soon see many more times,  as race commentator Joanne Murphy did the countdown.  Once she said ‘go’ it was more like a colourful dash of bridesmaids for the bride’s bouquet than the running of the bulls.  Some were overeager, others were happy to remain single.  Me, I was out the gap like quicksilver.

Sometime after the race someone said to me, you should have just put your arms up when you crossed the start line.  Maybe so, because no sooner had I grabbed the most efficient wheel, I became so focussed on staying as close as I could I forgot to notice the approaching corner.  My race was nearly run.  Quickly correcting my error I lost the wheel and found myself like a passenger on a platform with the fast trains whizzing by and very few slow coaches for me.  It was time to survey my surroundings and take in what we were actually doing.

Twenty-fours hours on a bike between 8 team members sounds easy at first.  Sure it’s just three hours.  But we had committed to doing it on our vintage bikes and most of our team were only borrowing theirs.  Then, apart form the bikes, there were the logistics, the who’s and where’s, tents and chairs.  Thoughts turned to hour and half-hour turns, colourful timetables and accommodating suggestions. As the days disappeared the ‘what-if’s’ emerged.  If someone is sick?  Can seven race as eight? Can I arrive late? What are we going to eat? To their immense credit, the organising team in Mondello had thought of most of this, and moreover answered anything else we could throw at them. 

With twenty four hours to the start some of us left Cork for others to follow.  We arrived into a sea of a campervans and caravans,  marquees semi-erected and bike holders across car spaces.  Pit lights and door were being tested.  Some teams ambled along to look at set ups.  Carpets were being rolled out and bed mats inflated.  Ours was more rudimentary with just some vintage bikes on bike stands.  Then it rained, and everyone scarpered.  The practice lap at 10 pm heralded the first of the beer openings. 

“Sure we can do it tomorrow – No point in getting wet – Another Beer? – Remember the time – And then yer man said – Beer? – Janey it stopped raining – It’s past mid-night – Get your bikes – we’re going cycling – turn on your lights – turn off you lights – hello security man – practice lap, please? – go on ahead!”

The following morning the rest of the team arrived, and an actual official practice lap came to take place.  I was determined to take my 1957 Mercian trike out for a spin and try out the corners without demolishing half the peleton.  Between the race organiser and I we reckoned at 3am cyclists would be delirious enough without having to comprehend double back axles.  It was good to do though, as when I mounted my beloved Shay Elliott Helyett it felt like riding on carpet, albeit sixty years old and somewhat threadbare (as I was to find out later that night).

Back to the race, Martina had seen me off and I followed the wheels and some of the pace and tried to work out what constituted a fast lap.  I copped on team race numbers were prefixed with 8, 4 and 2 while the single and double digits were those who rode solo.  Some feat to even start, leave alone finish.  My final laps began at 12:51 and I reckoned I’d come in before I coughed up a lung.  Martina was next up, her pink Colnago stuck to the ground, because honestly, it’s a ton weight.  Martina was great, she set down 7-8 consistent laps and did the same on every hour.

Peter was out next – out fishing for compliments more like, flying around on that stunning Colnago, that if I recall right was stored in the downstairs bathroom, where the conditions were all right.

If I am right, Ger mac was next.  Classy rider Ger, he still has the poise of a Rás rider and knowing his boyhood heroes like De Vlaeminck and Moser were never seen smiling, he set his raceface to grimace and concentrated on keeping wheels and pace.  Ger had previously mentioned his Giant bike and its handy gear levers and clipless pedals, but now that he was racing it was tight toes strap, hands on the hoods and friction gear cycling.

No such issues for Tony Mulcahy.  Tony ‘s choice of gears were the point of much pre-race discussion.  Tony is to power meters what I am to Strava, we just can’t  do without each other. Tony’s power outputs are legendary in east Cork.  All through the race-season Tony was whopping out watts and the only time he gave out was when we told him to remove his TT bars for a bit of fairness.  Now not only had he no TT bars, his leather saddle was made well before they fattened bullocks and he had no gears (Tony later claimed he had no brakes either).  Nonetheless we feared the 80” gear (46×15) was just not going to match his torque.  Much as I tried, I could not convince Tony of the merits of 50teeth or 8 more inches.  Tony, a former race driver, knows more about Mondello that I ever would, stuck to his guns and powered around behind, between and indeed in front of many groups. 

Up now was John Aherne.  Mighty man John.  ‘I’ve been thinking’ said John, about the time Tony was half-way through his hour pedalling away on a  46, “I might just try that 53 chainring”.  As the clock struck 4:52 the ring was changed over and John was ready for the changeover.  John is riding a very special bike – about which I will later write – but suffice to say that 7 time world champion and for 50 years undefeated long distance champion, Beryl Burton, would have smiled down on John’s fastest laps as would Brian Finlay, to whose family we send our thanks for having the use of Beryl’s bike.

Then came Phil Cunningham.  When collecting the 1940’s Holdsworth Phil had noticed a Sean Kelly  Splendor Jersey on the wall and regaled me of tales of Paul Jesson, Kelly’s former teammate and Phil’s former schoolmate.  Phil knows his racing, spending half his amateur cycling career on or talking about the cobles of Flanders and Roubaix.    This possibly explains why Phil was the first and possibly only rider to experience a speed wobble on the smooth asphalt of Mondello motor racing track.  There were no wobbles in Phil’s speed as he lapped and lapped and lapped.

Then came John Slattery, the last of our crew.  John said ‘hi’ to Phil, and then bid him adieu.  John does do his talking on the track as his lap times proved.  Only that he was wearing a normal bike helmet with a full face one I’m sure he’d be known as Stig.  He let his guard slip later in the night, his white top turned to bright pink with the Mercier woolly jersey showing us there was more to John than just good splits.

With 8 such riders, colourful and game, this blog could get longer than it should.   By the time we had to have our lights switched on the rain came.  We had our own lights too, some high and some low.

The lows were – darkness fell earlier than expected, so in fact a light requirement was introduced earlier in the race which lost John Aherne another flying lap.  My poor choice of gearing on the TJ Flying Gate (50×17) where I had to get out of the saddle to make it against the devilish headwind cost us a few laps.  I lost all rhythm, all speed, and any reputation I had for racing gearing. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again and returned to the Helyett and some nice laps at 3am, only to feel too much tarmac under my seat at 3.40am.  Reinflating my tyre with the pump I had insisted on bringing as well as a fellow rider checking I was ok was both a low and a high.  I dashed back to the tent to reawaken the Flying Gate.   That was a blow, and after my hour I returned to the campervan and little saddened that that was my lot.  We had just the one mix-up at change-over, but that’s a lesson learnt and understandable in the lashing rain at 6am. 

The highs were the team, such a great team of different riders and abilities.  There are 8 parts to a chainlink, each playing their individual parts and that’s what we all achieved. Each one of us had a story of someone asking us about the bikes.  And each one of us had a story about someone else we had seen.  Riders undertaking the challenge for challenges sake and riders taking on the challenge for charity.  Riders riding flat-out and riders on flat bars.  Riders with abilities that surpassed just cycling. Riders with support teams, mothers and fathers, and some with none.  Teams who shared pit lanes and teams that shared tea, teams that needed shelter and teams that sheltered.  Organisers who went the extra mile and an organiser who rode for miles and miles – shout out Oisín Ó Briain, but to each one of you in Mondello.  Thank you.

Thank You

Finally, we were received with great humour, and some incredulity, by everyone we met. The bikes proved themselves (even if my back tyre didn’t!), not only for reliability, but also in speed, because remember that bet? 203 laps, 18mph average and ninth in the 8 rider team category and I think 23rd overall.  Well done all.

The OldVelos thank ‘©Mondello 24 Hour’ for the permission to use some of their images.

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