Kim Bielenberg: Across the Country in Low Gear - Day 1
'I got on my bike, started cycling and found myself being overtaken by a pair of power walkers'
Published 21/07/2014 | 00:00
It's been 40 years since Kim Bielenberg went on a cycle trip, but now he's off on a big adventure around the country, starting in the south-east, where he meets up with Wexford hurling star Lee Chin
When I announced one evening earlier this month that my next assignment would be to cycle around Ireland, my family just laughed.
I had never shown an inclination, or indeed the fitness levels required, to pedal down to the shops, let alone take a trip around the country.
But here I was, setting off on a madcap nationwide adventure on two wheels.The last time I had cycled over five miles was from Prosperous to the Dara Cinema in Naas, Co Kildare, in 1974 to see Gary Glitter's film, Remember Me This Way.
When I picked up my bike from Phoenix Park cycle hire in Dublin, I found the gears quite different to those on my 1970's Raleigh Chopper, and I texted a friend for advice on what all those numbers meant.
The shop's owner, Paul McQuaid, normally hires out bikes to daytrippers going for a gentle pedal around the Phoenix Park, and boasts a clientele that has included Beyonce. But he was happy to let me rent his bike to take it all around the country.
Despite strong reservations, I set off on my journey at 7.30am on a grey morning from the cosy Blue Door Bed and Breakfast in Wexford town.
The friendly B&B owner, Derrick Cooling, looked puzzled as to why anyone would want to put themselves through such an ordeal.
The big grey bike was parked overnight in the dining room, next to tables neatly laid out with jams and cereals for breakfast
It was a journey that would supposedly take me from county to county, or quite possibly no further than the brow of the first hill.
I would not normally dream of starting at such an ungodly hour as 7.30am, without even time to sample the full Irish. But, I was informed on the previous evening that the rising star of Wexford hurling, Lee Chin, would be at the Bannow and Ballymitty GAA Club at a kids' summer camp, and might be available to talk to me at 10.30am.
My contact then casually informed me that this rendezvous was 24 kilometres away from my B&B "on a bit of an up and down road". It was mostly up, as I struggled even to get out of Wexford town, which now seemed like a vast metropolis.
It struck me that bikes are not designed to be ridden up hills unless you are on powerful performance-enhancing drugs.
Soon, I found myself being overtaken - not just once, but twice - by a pair of power walkers. These are the women who stride purposefully at the edge of almost every country town.
Part of the problem with the hills is that I seemed to be carrying too much luggage on the bike in three panniers and a nap-sack.
For the next stage of the journey, I may have to dispense with the two pairs of work trousers, pyjamas and several collared shirts.
I will also cast aside my 1998 edition of the Rough Guide to Ireland, containing recommendations for interesting pubs, many of which are now closed.
I may have been puffing and wheezing, but it somehow felt easier once I was out in open country. I could walk up the hills.
As everybody had told me before this journey, you have more time to take in the countryside on a bike: the fields of ripening corn; blooming mombresia in the hedgerows; and glistening Silk Cut packets discarded along the road.
Exotic place names abound in South Wexford - you can take your pick of Bastardstown, Horetown, and Heavenstown.
A local historian told me that northern Wexford people are Gaels, while the southerners are Norman, with names like Devereux, Power and Hayes - and these Normans are more likely to have blond hair.
Initially, I was struggling to keep up with my three-hour schedule. But when I reached the top of the hill on the road past Forge Mountain, it all seemed worthwhile. I could see for miles around, beyond revolving wind turbines out to sea to the Saltee Islands, and across to Hook Head and its lighthouse.
Then it was a fast downhill glide into the village of Wellingtonbridge, the birthplace of Mick Wallace.
I blinked and I almost missed the Wallace department store, Wallace Costcutter, Wallace Supervalu and Wallace estate agents. I don't know if there was an undertaker in there as well.
At the nearby Bannow and Ballymitty GAA Club, a big group of kids was excited at the arrival of Lee Chin, an emerging star of Wexford hurling. "Lee Chin is here! Lee Chin is here!" they exclaimed, as the player moved among the throng, smiling.
There was a celebratory mood across Wexford when I visited, as the proud hurling county had overcome All-Ireland champions Clare on the previous Saturday.
Lee Chin, whose Malaysian father, Voon, runs the Chin Can Cook restaurant in Wexford, has endured racist taunts during his playing career, and indeed off the field. Typically, they would be terms like "Chinese bastard".
He told me: "Hopefully it has made a difference that I have spoken out about it. If others in my situation also speak, we can put a stop to it in this generation."
I suggested to the fit midfielder that he would be a suitable candidate to come off the bench and replace me cycling around the country.
He laughed and politely declined: "Cycling and hurling are completely different sports."
Then it's back on the bike and time to head for Waterford city.
Drained, sunburned and dehydrated, I wondered how I would possibly manage it. Happily, the Waterford bus came into view and I flagged it down, put the bike into the luggage hold, and on I went.