Comedian PJ Gallagher has rediscovered his passion for cycling – and even set up his own club – after an operation left him tucking into Toblerones for solace
Having been lured to road cycling by a friend as a way off getting fit for his fledgling motorbike racing career, comedian PJ Gallagher has fallen in love with the sport, racking up the kilometres and even starting up his own cycling club this year.
"I kind of underestimated how fit you have to be for motorcycling," says the affable Dub as he sips a coffee in a hotel in Trim after a 160k trek through the Royal County on the An Post Tour of Meath leisure cycle.
"A friend of mine, Mark Kelly, took me out for a few cycles and now I cycle more than I ride motorbikes. Cycling just gets under your skin. I love it. Now I only ride a motorbike when I'm racing."
Although he doesn't cycle competitively, he spends a fair amount of time in the saddle and has completed an impressive array of charity rides or 'sportives' around the country.
"We do loads of these sportives," he says, as some of the event's 4,500 participants stream across the finish line outside. "I like watching lads racing, but I'm not into going racing myself, so these are perfect for me. They're social events and basically it's an excuse for a coffee at the end of it. One of the joys I get out of it is that I'm not racing. I can have that craic and not be competitive. You can just immerse yourself in it, go out with mates, have fun and feel like a kid again on a bike."
Having ridden the Meath event last year with friends, the gang enjoyed themselves so much they decided to try and set up their own club in Clontarf this year. With a non-competitive vibe and regular 'coffee spins' included in their weekly calendar, Clontarf Cycling Club already has 113 members, much to the amazement of PJ and Co.
"This is kind of an anniversary spin for us. We said we'd try and start our own club after getting such a great buzz out of it last year, but we didn't expect it to take off the way it did," he admits. "We were hoping we'd get maybe 15 or 20 lads on a good weekend and we'd be delighted. But it's gone really well and now there's 50-plus out on a good weekend and 30-plus on a bad weekend."
Although he is busy writing a new show and continues to gig up and down the country, PJ stays in shape by making time for the bike, in its various guises, during his weekly schedule.
"Mondays, I go to the gym," he says. "Joey Boland from the Dublin hurlers pushes me until I'm screaming. On Tuesday, I do nothing, but on Wednesday, if I can, I get out on the mountain bike – even if it's just a few hours.
"On Thursday night, we have our social spin, which is around 30k up around Howth, where we'll have a coffee and leg it home. I often say that in Clontarf CC, the CC is for Coffee Club. There's not a coffee shop in north Co Dublin that doesn't hate us coming in. Forty lads all paying for cappuccinos separately, out of plastic bags."
Weekends see the group venture out around north Co Dublin or take on one of the many sportives on Cycling Ireland's leisure calendar.
"Generally we do over 100k around different places in north Co Dublin. Up around the Naul, the Nag's Head and those places, but we change it as much as we can. We went to the southside last week, which was very scary."
Although he admits he has now become a fully fledged MAMIL (Middle Aged Man in Lycra), PJ has yet to take a razor to his legs in an effort to mimic the top pros.
"I haven't the nerve for that," he laughs. "You need to be a racer to shave your legs. If you're a racer and you don't shave your legs, you're an eejit, and if you're a fellah who's just out for a spin and you do shave your legs, you're an eejit as well."
He ponders for a second before bursting out laughing. "I might shave one of them!"
Although today's spin was relatively pleasant, with bright sunshine for most of the day and plenty of food and drink stops along the way, even on a bad day it doesn't take much to put a smile on the Naked Camera star's face and it's easy to see where he gets the inspiration for some of his comedic characters.
"We did one of our Thursday social spins two or three nights ago," he laughs, "the night of the thunderstorms! I got to the bottom of Howth Hill and it started pelting down. And the thunder and lightning was mental! I stopped off in a chipper on the way home because I was feeling sorry for myself and this genius in front of me goes up to the counter and goes. 'Can I phone in a delivery?' Your man behind the counter goes. 'But you're here?' 'Yeah,' says your man. 'I'm going with it. I'm not walking home in that sh*te!' It was the cleverest thing. He put a smile on my face after a horrible spin."
Although today's 160k spin saw him spend more than six hours in the saddle, it's not the longest cycle he's done. "My longest spin was an accident," he laughs. "I did the Cycle Against Suicide the first day. I think it was 100k from Dublin to Gorey. I got to Gorey and I went: 'Alright, what's the craic with getting a lift home?' And they went 'There is no lift home.' At the time I was going, 'Right, just jump on the bike and get it done.' So I had to cycle back on my own. It was just over 200k."
With ambitions to ascend the iconic Tour de France climbs of Alpe d'Huez and Mont Ventoux to understand better what the riders are going through the next time he watches the race on TV, he has already had a taste of their fatigue when the dreaded hunger knock – the cyclist's version of the marathon runner's 'wall' – caught up with him.
"I got it once," he admits. "I thought I was dizzy because I ate something wrong for my breakfast or something. I just realised I wasn't able to control the bike. My legs weren't working. It's not like getting tired. It's a totally different feeling. I stopped the bike and realised I couldn't get my leg over the crossbar. I was like, 'Jesus Christ what's going on?' I did the usual, just sat around and ate food. Then I'd turn the legs three or four times and cruise the rest of the way home. I was only in Donabate but it was a horrible oul' trip. Just when I got home, the food kicked in and I didn't feel so bad."
Having suffered an ankle injury riding BMX as a teenager, an operation to fix it only made matters worse. But while PJ sometimes has problems walking, the injury doesn't affect him on two wheels.
"It was just a niggle for years, but I got it looked at in 2009 and now I can't walk straight anymore. In the morning, I can't put weight on my right leg. It takes about 10 minutes to get moving. So, if you've got a little niggle, just leave it," he laughs. "Niggles don't need fixing. You just make them worse."
Thanks to recent incentives such as the Bike to Work scheme, Gallagher is just one of the thousands of people with old sports injuries taking up cycling due to its non-impact nature and obvious health benefits.
"At one stage, after the surgeries, I'd spent nine months not moving at all," he recalls. "So I was pretty overweight. I wasn't too happy with myself. When you're not moving, you're depressed and you're eating crap. I was stuffing my face with duty-free Toblerones that other comedians were bringing me back from gigs. I just let myself go a bit, so getting back on the bike was a whole new lease of life.
"The answer to all these things is exercise. Not surgery. I should have just kept exercising. I've another operation to go through now to try and fix the ankle, so if that doesn't work, I'll be getting a peg leg and a parrot and I'll be cycling around here with an eye patch next year."
As our chat concludes, the first of his clubmates enters the coffee shop where PJ gleefully informs him of the fact that not only did he miss the rain shower that obviously soaked his mate, but he has been finished for an hour already.
Referring to the fact that PJ got lost on his last sportive a week earlier, the reply could have come straight from the mouth of PJ's most famous alter-ego, Jake Stevens.
"You probably followed the arrows did ya?"