Wednesday 19 June 2019

From saddle to the spotlight

a series of bad crashes may have pushed aaron buggle to quit his career in cycling for now, but he will always love the sport, writes alison o'riordan I just wanted to get to the end of the race in one piece

Alison O'Riordan

Growing up surrounded by cycling, it was inevitable Co Meath native Aaron Buggle would follow in the footsteps of his uncle, Paul Healion. Paul was one of Ireland's leading international amateur cyclists, dominating the discipline here for many years.

One of the most important things he passed on to his young nephew from Enfield was his passion for the saddle.

"I started cycling at the age of 16 when I got a loan of a bike off Paul. At the beginning, I would never have been able to keep up with him in hard training, but it wasn't too long until we trained together on a daily basis.

"Looking back, I was kind of like his little apprentice. Outside training, we would have chilled out together. He was my best friend in a weird way as he was much older but that really stood to my progression in the sport and life in general," reflects the 23-year-old.

"He gave training advice at the start, and nutritional advice such as learning to cook properly, but the most important thing was how to handle the mental side of being a full-time athlete and cyclist in particular.

When the popular 31-year-old athlete died in 2009 after his car crashed near Ardee, Co Louth, Aaron's world fell apart.

"I never experienced a loss like that before, I was devastated. A few weeks later, I was away training with the national team. They thought it would do me good to get away. This was the first time I figured in the Irish track team, which was exciting, but it was really weird for me and the other riders not having Paul there.

"It wasn't really until Paul passed away did I really start wanting to be a pro. Since then, and up until a few months ago, it was my main goal and focus.

"I had always thought I could make it to the top level of the sport. Following Paul's death, the drive and motivation I had from then on was unbelievable. I won the national time-trial championships six weeks after the fatality."

On the back of winning the national U-23 time trial in 2009 and again in 2010, Aaron left Ireland for France.

"I knew if it was a career I wanted on the bike, it would be impossible to achieve that staying in Ireland, so once the opportunity arose, I was gone."

In 2012, he signed a contract with the prestigious pro-cycling team Rapha Condor JLT.

"It was huge, I felt everything was coming together. I really needed that breakthrough. I can remember jumping down the hall when I got the news. Myself and Paul used to talk about Rapha Condor and how it would be a great move for me in my early career, so I'm sure he was pretty chuffed."

For six months, Aaron's training was even more intense than usual.

"I kind of always trained like a lunatic, but this was on another level. I'd wake up and jump on the bike for a 15-minute high-intensity tabata session, which was horrible, then have breakfast with plenty of coffee. Then a two-hour session of aerobic efforts and, after lunch, a two-hour anaerobic session such as sprints. I finished off with some plyometrics. Then it was stretching and eating well and off to sleep."

Feeling lonely at times, the young professional used to lock himself away from the outside world.

"This was partly my fault in a way, it probably doesn't have to be so lonely, but when training, I kept myself to myself and actually thrived on that. I avoided people like the plague in case of getting sick, kind of an oddball really when I look back at it."

In January of this year, Aaron went to Melbourne to train as part of a team for some big races – this was the beginning of the end for the young cyclist.

"I was in a good position, sitting slightly outside the guy in front of me. All I remember is him moving swiftly left and not having anywhere to go. I was travelling fast . . . then bang.

"The pain was unbelievably bad. I broke my elbow, got severe road rash where there was not a lot of skin left, and bad concussion. To make things worse, it was televised, with my parents watching from home."

While he recovered physically, it took a lot of time psychologically.

"I was told to take a month or six weeks off, but I was on the home trainer a week later. When I got back racing, I wasn't the same; every screech of the brakes and at every wet bend I was overly tense and nervous thinking about falling off. This was not like me.

"I wasn't thinking of winning like I normally was. I just wanted to get to the end of the race in one piece."

However, a goal to podium at An Rás, a gruelling, annual, eight-day, stage race around Ireland in May, kept him focused in training.

But this was not meant to be as he hit a traffic island during the race at a very fast pace.

"It was so similar to the crash in Australia, again I had no time to react. I suffered significant concussion and a 16-stitch wound to the face. I finished the stage but that was a mistake. I can't remember anything after the crash and it was still 50k to the finish."

Manchester in July was the straw that broke the camel's back.

"It was a tight circuit, I broke my pedal sprinting out of a bend and hit the barriers hard. I quickly pulled my bike out of the way of other riders. My head was spinning and a lot of emotion hit me. I said aloud 'I had enough'."

Within seconds of that crash, Aaron knew he was ready to quit the sport for good.

"I decided, lying on the ground in Manchester, literally seconds after the crash, when I knew I had a head injury.

"I will always be a cyclist, that won't change. I still go out on my bike and I'm actually sitting in my kit right now waiting on the rain to stop, but I feel the competitive side of things has been kind of knocked out of me. I have absolutely no regrets and, who knows, maybe I'll appear back on the cycling scene at some stage in the future."

Since the scars have healed, Aaron has started to model, and his career in front of the camera is taking off quickly. He speedily bagged himself a Dublin-based agent, Fraser Models and Actors Agency.

"I seem to fit the bill. I like fashion and I'm in the right kind of shape and height. I have always liked to dress well and especially not wear what everyone else is wearing.

"I'm nearly finished a television presenting course, so using that along with my knowledge of sport and cycling in particular, maybe I can find a little niche for myself in presenting."

Does he wish things had taken a different course on the bike?

"I did at one stage, but now, considering how happy I am, I'm starting to think maybe it was meant to unfold this way.

"I'll never turn my back on cycling completely, it has made me the person I am today."

Aaron Buggle is represented by Fraser Models and Actors.

Irish Independent

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