It’s December 1993, I’m sitting at the back of a primary school classroom in Rathfarnham in South County, Dublin. The teacher leaves the room and has been gone a long time. We start to become unruly. As we brazenly leave our seats and abandon our copy books and avoid a barrage of paper airplanes, the teacher reappears, but she’s not alone. Most of the other teachers in the school troop in behind her, along with the TV trolly on which stands possibly the only piece of electronic equipment in the building.
None of the teachers comment on the fact that we were all clearly involved in a paper fight when they arrived. Focus is much more on getting the misbehaving television back in line. After a prolonged period of muttering and remote control mashing, the static fuzz being displayed snaps to a picture of two old men sitting at a desk.
We’re told to be silent, that we’re about to witness something momentous, as we view the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds and British Prime Minister, John Major, both sign what became known as the Downing Street Declaration. I’m not really paying attention as they both say words that I don’t understand.
When the formalities on the screen are over, the teacher follows that up with more words about how this signals an end to ‘The Troubles’ we have all heard so much about.
The TV rolls back out the door and the 10 minute interlude in my nine-year-old life has ended.
More than 20 years later, and myself and my Dad have driven up from Dublin and arrived in East Belfast for the start of the 2014 Giro d’Italia. No British army on the border, nobody checking papers, no border at all actually. One of the biggest incidents in the peace process for years has occurred just this week. The president of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, was arrested and questioned about the 1972 murder of Jean McConville. But the incident passed, although the crime remains unsolved. Focus now turns to the relatively unimportant matter of the opening stage of the Giro, a 22km team time trial along the streets of Belfast.
The walk up the Newtownards road to our chosen vantage point for the day revealed a curious mix of Giro tributes and pink-coloured street parties interspersed amongst the famous murals depicting the political and religious divisions that had bisected the country.
An anonymous wall just before the turnoff for Stormont castle, providing a view about a mile long down the Newtownards Road, was where we based ourselves. The weather was still fine as the first team came past. The Colombians, widely expected to perform poorly against the clock, but utterly impressive nonetheless as they whooshed past with the deep rumble provided by whirring disc wheels in perfect synchronisation.
They were quickly followed by Orica-GreenEdge. At those speeds, it’s surely impossible to the naked eye to tell whether a team is travelling at 51 kilometres per hour or 52. But I swear, just from looking at them, you could tell the Australian team time trial specialists were obliterating the speed of the Colombians.
What a surreal moment: an Australian team chasing a Colombian team in an Italian race on the island of Ireland. And the sun was in the sky – it was actually sunny. I had taken my jacket off and cursed the fact that I hadn’t brought sunglasses. What was going on? This wasn’t the Ireland I knew, this wasn’t the Ireland I grew up in.
But bang on time, the clouds turned sinister and the heavens opened. Orica-GreenEdge were home and hosed and nobody would come close to beating them now. They probably wouldn’t have anyway.
We sat there on the nondescript concrete wall, getting pissed on, absolutely soaked. This was more like it. This was the Ireland I knew. The Ireland I love and the Ireland I hate. But there’s beauty in that resentment. I’ve grown to cherish how much we are allowed to detest our own weather. But we’d miss it if it was gone. Or maybe we wouldn’t. But my God, we’d complain about it either way.
We watch the final team pass, we declare the day a success and we start to walk back down the Newtownards Road when we stop to peak through a pub window. The pub itself has been booked out for a private Giro party, full of important looking people wearing important looking suits. There’s a television in the corner showing replays of the team time trial we’ve just witnessed.
Our relationship has changed now, myself and that old television on wheels. We’re both older and are now very different shapes, but there’s still one of us that doesn’t care much for what’s going on – this time it’s the television that doesn’t give a shite. This time I do care what’s on the screen. I want heads to stop moving so I can see exactly what’s happened. A crash. Riders are sprawled across the road. The camera fixates on a single rider. Although it’s hard to tell from this distance, I know who it is before the caption appears.
During times of lawlessness and times of unrest, during times of peace and times of war, there is one law that remains constant. One law that the world will adhere to forever and a day: Murphy’s law. One of the biggest bike races in the world comes to Ireland, there is one Irish rider in the race who can actually consider trying to win the thing overall. And on the first day, Murphy said, ‘let there be crashing’, and there was crashing. One crash, one rider and it had to be Daniel Martin. The only rider of the 198 that raced today who won’t make it to Stage 2.
Myself and my Dad stand outside the window in the middle of East Belfast, an area particularly rife with the history that Albert Reynolds and John Major took steps to steer in a new direction that day in ‘93. We stand there taking the Lord’s name in vain. Repeated cries of “Jaysus!” and “Christ-all-fucking-mighty” come out of our mouths as we watch another replay of that manhole that came out of nowhere, and we curse what might have been. But nobody cares about religion right now. The only religion right now is cycling.
We engage in circular conversation where we conclude that it’s only a bike race and it could have been worse. But then more ‘what-ifs’ follow. Before we conclude once more that it is only a bike race.
There are two things that Ireland excels at: shite weather and heart-breaking sporting moments, we’ve had enough of both for one day. We trudge forlornly down to the finish line and back to the car and begin the return trip to Dublin. It’s stopped raining now, although the mood remains damp. It is only a bike race though, isn’t it?
This feature first appeared as part of the Velocast podcast. 127 writes for Irish Peloton.