On a sunny morning last week, I stood on the footpath on the Mall in Clonmel and watched a large group of cyclists - 250 to 300 - pass by.
It was one of those charitable cycle runs which have become a feature of Irish life. A few cars, with blaring horns, preceded the cyclsits and an ambulance and a service vehicle brought up the rear. Gardai stood at street junctions to halt on-coming traffic. It was an organised and protected event. And it was a heart-warming spectacle on a sunny day. The cyclists rode as if in one cohesive unit; a like a calm stream with no protruding rocks or hidden currents. There were smiles on every face, as each cyclist obviously enjoyed the ride. The streeet at The Mall is wide and flat, but such was the mood that you felt they could be still smiling when they met the steep hills and the deep potholes.
The phalanx was colourful, a rainbow of expensive colours, and the most up-to-date gear. And the bicycles were spectacular. Their mega-buck chrome reflected the sunshine and as they purred along it seemed to me that they were light-years away from my own much loved and enduring Raleigh 3-speed which gave me a lifetime of happy cycling, and which, finally defeated by the traffic in Clonmel, I took some years ago to the recycling depot. (I am still mourning for it!)
The cyclists presented an image which would bring joy to the heart of a beleagured and much-abused HSE. They were trim, svelte, fit and in glowing good health. They were young and middle aged, including some Sean Kelly lookalikes, and a few had age-related grey hair protruding from underneath helmets. You could say all very-fit-human-life was there.
Now, if all of the forgoing sounds like purple prose, then that is what it unashamedly is. I am a besotted admirer of the bike. As a means of easy, cheap, enjoyable, noise-free, fume-free, environmentally-friendly transport, it has no equal. And maybe, someday, a student in search of a subject for a thesis, might explore its contribution to a social revolution. My farming grandmother, in recalling her girlhood, once said to me: “When you got a bike you could cycle on Sunday afternoons to the crossroads dance at Garnavilla and meet new boys”.
And given time, and if modern traffic didn’t mow you down, there is no place you couldn’t get to on a bike. Dervla Murphy of Lismore was given an an atlas and a bicyle as a Christmas present when she was twelve years old. She plotted a course on the map which involved just two sea crossings (Ireland-England and England-France)and then an overland cycle to India. And when she grew up, she did cycle to India and became a dedicated traveller by bike and on foot, and is now one of the great travel-writers of modern times.
But back to The Mall and that recent sunny morning. When the great ribbon of cyclsits had gone out of sight, I asked my friend if she thought any of them made ordinary journeys on their beautiful bikes to the post office, or to work in the morning, or to buy a newspaper at the local corner shop. “Don’t be daft!” she said. Didn’t I know that we Irish cannot be de-coupled from the love of our lives - our cars.
The bicyle - and the more high-tech and expensive the better - was just a recreational toy; a means of keeping fit; to be ridden only when wearing the most expensive gear, preferably en masse. So from The Mall in Clonmel, back to another location in another town - the square in Maastricht in The Netherlands and another sunny morning. I was sitting at an outdoor cafe in the central square sipping a cup of coffee and people-watching. Maastricht (can we ever forget?) is that handsome town which is forever associated with our Euro.
The square was a quiet place, reserved for cyclists and pedestrians, vehicular traffic was excluded. I watched scores of cyclists pass by. No one rode a high-tech, top-of-the-range, model. There were dozens of high nellies, solid roadsters, 3-speeds, and bikes that looked as if they had been constructed from bits and pieces of ancient wrecks, and which seemed to assume a certain status because of their obvious ingenuity - home-made models. No doubt, somewhere in that prosperous town, there were hundreds of the same sort of expensive, shining bicycles that filled The Mall in Clonmel, but these were reserved for the same sort of sporting, competitive activity. But the bikes in the square that morning were functional, useful machines, with no pretensions to speed or spectacle. They were everyday - a pleasant form of modest transport, a practical and healthy means of getting people from one place to another. And neither did I see any posh gear or rainbow-coloured lycra. People were wearing ordinary ordinary clothes, some business suits, casual wear, school uniforms. A granddaughter told me that it is not uncommon to see people cycling to a concert or to formal events wearing their party clothes.
an we in Ireland ever again return to the same Dutch practical use of the bicycle, even in our times of recession, a use that was once a necessary part of our lives? Or have we all so lost the run of ourselves that this pleasant means of transport is reserved for the exclusivity of the expensive, the geared, the make-believe and that we must all look like participants in the Tour de France?