Thursday 27 October 2016

Conquering a personal climb

Ian Richardson has endured more than his share of emotional and physical pain, writes John Greene

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

Ian Richardson: ‘If you’re trying to get away from something like depression or unhappiness or a body image problem, a sport like that helps’
Ian Richardson: ‘If you’re trying to get away from something like depression or unhappiness or a body image problem, a sport like that helps’

As he crossed the finish line on Strand Street in Skerries at the end of a gruelling eight days, he was overwhelmed with emotion. He wasn't really conscious of it at the time, but when he looks back now he can see it had been building all week. His journey to this street in this town in north county Dublin was a lot more than the 1,180 kilometres of the Rás. And so the tears came, in floods he recalls, but they were tears of joy.

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All the training, the setbacks and the struggles and now here he was, in just his third Rás, the top county rider in Ireland, a remarkable tenth overall in the General Classification; this was not just the pinnacle of his cycling career, it was more than that, and more than he could have expected. "It's the greatest reward I could ask for," says Ian Richardson.

It's four days since he stood on the podium in front of family, friends and fans of arguably the toughest of sports and he's had time to reflect. He is, he says, "out of the Rás bubble and back in the real world", and back training for a time trial this weekend.

The 27-year-old is doing a PhD at Trinity, centred on the genetics of tuberculosis in cattle. "I went back in on Monday," he says. "The legs weren't too bad so I went for a coffee spin in the morning and went into work then. It's nice to have that bit of privacy back."

On the first day of the race, he lined up at the start in Dunboyne with his friend and team-mate from the UCD cycling club, Eoin Morton. As the two most experienced riders in the team they had set clear goals: they each wanted a top 10 finish on a stage. Why not? Eoin had managed it a year earlier and Ian was in the form of his life. A few hours later, all had changed. The question you ask him is, when did it all change? It's not as straightforward an answer as you might think.

When did it all change for Ian Richardson?

Two weeks ago, near the Meath/Kildare border, things were heating up early on day one of the Rás. "In the first 10k or so I was up the front and I had a sense that the pro teams were hoping for a break to get away and that's what happened. About 15k into the race we hit a cross wind section and I just happened to be at the front of the race at the right time. The group split and 15 riders were virtually let away from the rest and every pro team was represented so there was no way it was going to be coming back. I knew if I hung onto that break I was going to be there to the finish. I finished 11th. I was top county rider; the next county rider finished four minutes after me."

The following day he went wheel to wheel with his nearest rival for the jersey, Seán McKenna, coming into Tipperary town.

Earlier in the stage he had proven something to himself on a Category Three climb by staying with the front group even though he admits he's not a "pure climber". He found for the first time that he had an extra gear. "Me and Seán sprinted it out for the county stage win, which I got about half a wheel length from him. That was the big turning point in the race. That was when I realised that I could possibly keep this jersey all the way through. That's when I realised that my legs were good enough to really do well for the rest of the week and ride a good GC."

Later in the week, he conquered another climb, this time a Category Two on the way into Ballinamore. "That was the biggest challenge of the week, getting over that, and I knew if I could get over that with the front group then no-one was taking the jersey off me."

The second last stage was a big one for him, not just because it would be his chance to pretty much guarantee the title, but because he would be riding into Drogheda, where he had gone to primary school. He would also be riding through areas where he would encounter friends and family.

"I was planning just to sit in the bunch but my main county rival tried to get up the road so I had to follow him and ended up in a chase group a couple of minutes from the main group coming into Drogheda and I was just there to watch him. But coming into Drogheda we were sprinting for tenth place, our group, with the front group just up ahead. The amount of support I had along the route was incredible. Just as I was coming near the Collon/Dunleer area I could hear people cheering me on; I was passing by houses of family friends and they were out cheering me on. Then there were banners on the way in, like from dad's local bike club the Slane Spinners, huge banners, and I got a humongous cheer on the podium in Drogheda.

"Knowing that I was going into Drogheda gave me a lift in itself, knowing that I was going to have a huge amount of support there pushed me on. But the support I had all week was incredible. I never expected that. Some of the professional riders were cheering me on a bit as well. The day coming into Ballinamore, coming over that Category Two climb, the yellow jersey [Lukas Postlberger] rode to the back of the bunch, saw me, gave me a smile and a pat on the back, and even the last day in Skerries he was talking to my dad and saying how happy he was to see me in the bunch every day. This is the guy who won the race, an absolute gentleman."

When did it all change for Ian Richardson?

His first Rás was in 2013, and ended with an horrific crash on day three. He felt he was riding comfortably on the wheel of Peter Hawkins, who was in the yellow jersey, when the British rider crashed, taking him with him. Hawkins broke his collar bone, and a chain ring pierced Richardson's arm. He lost a tendon in his thumb and had to get one grafted from his hand, forcing him out of the sport for a lengthy spell. He was in a cast for six months. When he checked later, they were doing about 50km per hour at the time. But there was no doubt in his mind: he would be back. There was more to come.

When did it all change for Ian Richardson?

It had been creeping up on him for a while. There had been the odd comment, from friends mostly. The weight had been piling on for years. The hours spent sitting on the couch playing computer games. "I hit a peak weight in January when I was 21, the month of my birthday. I weighed myself around that time and I was around 17 stone, and a lot of people commented to me around then that my backside was enormous! That was kind of my defining feature at the time, that I had a huge arse! People made comments and it was kind of jokingly but it did hit a nerve."

But something else had been creeping up on him too. Cycling. Looking back, a little over six years later, he can see that he was searching for a way out.

"Something had clicked in me and I really started to change my life. Being overweight, and not being happy with how you look, and not being happy with how your life is going, you either stay in that rut or something snaps in you and you instantly want to change yourself and that's what the feeling was. From there I lost a huge amount of weight over the summer and when I got back in September a lot of my college friends didn't recognise me, that's how drastic it was. I changed my diet a good bit, and I was training - I was probably over-training a bit because I was really determined to go at it." Through a friend of his sister, he found himself taking part in triathlons until someone suggested he appeared to have a talent for cycling.

"Cycling did kind of find me in some ways. I had an American girlfriend early in college whose brother was quite a good cyclist, I think he was fifth in the under 16 US national championships and when I went over there her dad and brother brought me out on a bike and we went along the mountains in Colorado and it was just incredible scenery in the summer. I liked the aesthetic of cycling and I just fell in love with it. I think it found me; it is a sport that finds you."

When did it all change for Ian Richardson?

It's December 2003, a month or so shy of his 16th birthday, and Ian Richardson is by the banks of the Boyne near his home in Slane. His mother Jane comes from a family steeped in shooting tradition, some having represented Ireland, and as a boy Ian trained Labradors with her. Which is what brought him on this day to a local shoot.

"I was there with her [his mother] for picking up birds with my dog and in the afternoon, after we had lunch, one of the guns went off by accident. I got the full blast in the legs. Most of the damage was on the right leg.

"I had plenty of time in the hospital to count up the number of pellets on the X-rays, I had around about 270 in my right leg and 30 in my left leg. The majority are still there. You can see a lot still near the surface and you can feel them through the skin. The scars are still visible. Luckily a major artery wasn't hit but the pain is still so vivid that the memories from that time are very, very vivid. Any memory before that feels soft and not as strong as everything after that. To go through that level of pain at a young age still haunts me, and if I accidentally end up around guns or if I'm going by a clay pigeon shoot out in north county Dublin and there's guns going off I get very uncomfortable. I get flashbacks even 11 years after.

"I got one look at my leg moments after it happened and I just remember seeing all these black holes and drips of blood coming out. My leg had swollen to three times its normal size. They had to take me on the back of a quad bike up to the top [of the hill] by the house where the shoot was before the ambulance could pick me up.

"I wasn't able to walk without crutches for four or five months. The main problem was sleep because I was in so much pain for so long that I couldn't sleep properly for a few months, even with painkillers and sleeping tablets I couldn't get to sleep. There was always pain for a number of years afterwards, maybe five or six years. Up until the point that I started training there was some form of pain there."

He says he didn't notice the change in himself but that his parents have told him it was "years before I was my normal self again".

The pain did not go until he took up cycling. "Up to that point I always had a pain in my leg from the gunshot wounds, mostly in my right leg; walking up stairs, or just walking in general I always had pain in my right leg and I was till training and running and swimming and cycling with that pain. But as the weeks went by, and the weeks turned into months, it started to die down and now I'm completely without pain. It was gone a year and a half after I started exercising and getting into triathlon."

Last Sunday was the culmination of an extraordinary journey. As he says himself, "It was really the pinnacle of all the years that I've gone through in training, and the struggles I've had as a teenager, and my struggles with happiness in my early 20s."

He knows endurance sports are often considered as something you do when you are running away from something. "You spend hours out by yourself, you have to think inwardly, and if you're trying to get away from something like depression or unhappiness or a body image problem, a sport like that helps. I found it did help me to get away, and through the pain of exercise wash it out of me. I found different parts of myself that I didn't know were there before."

And this week, as thousands of students prepare for State exams, it is appropriate to acknowledge the importance of balance in life. He knows that for so long he did not have that, and believes finding sport has been the making of him. "My level of confidence now compared to then is unmatched - it's like I'm a completely different person," he says.

And what has sport to do with that? "It's got everything to do with it. Getting into sport, getting healthier, being more comfortable with yourself - it has everything to do with that. It helps in every aspect of my life. I do a lot of presenting as part of my PhD work and I'm a lot more comfortable talking and standing up in front of people than I would have been six, seven years ago. I think it's under-rated, the level of confidence you can get from sport by attaining even small personal achievements. They don't have to be massive. Even just doing something that you set out to achieve and accomplishing that, that adds to your confidence the whole time."

Exercise is his anchor. Cycling is now his passion. He knows, at 27, he will not be a professional rider but he's at ease with that. "To ride the Rás the way I did and still maintain the level of work I'm doing in my studies, that's good enough, and if I can improve on the Rás next year, or even get a National Championship jersey at the time trial championship, that's the level I want to be at."

All has indeed changed.

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