10:51pm, Wednesday night, September 11th, 2002
(Average: 10.7 mph / Time: 5.37.34 / Distance: 60.8 miles / Odometer: 621.0 miles)
Well, the first September 11th since September 11th. The whole world might have been paying attention to the box, but I was fighting the bastard wind again. From the moment I pushed off it was at me hard. I was also feeling less than superman fit this morning, I didn’t seem to have any oomph at all. I think yesterday took it all out of me.
After a difficult hour of uppy-downy, meandering, windswept, fly-ridden roads I found myself totally lost. I think I’ve made up my mind about northern roads and there’s nothing to boast about, except maybe that there are lots of them. There are more roads here than people, but they have as many potholes, bad sides and miscellaneous bumps as anywhere south of the border.
Just at the point at which I felt most lost I came to an overpass above the M1 motorway. I could then place myself on the map and take a gander at what lay before me. I needed to get to Portadown to gain access to Craigavon and on out to Down and Antrim. It looked like a trip of about 15-20 miles on those meandering minor roads. I was wary of my reserves for the trip as I looked down at the nice broad hard shoulder that ran up the M1. It was going directly where I needed to go but of course I wasn’t allowed use it. Fuck it, I thought, I’d risk it for a biscuit. Decision made, I sped down the access ramp and began trudging up the motorway. It was the easiest and softest ride I’d have in the north. A clear, wind sheltered road with all the traffic safely five feet to my right, not whizzing past within two feet of me like it did on the A roads. Sometimes even closer. It can scare the living shit out of you if you’re concentrating hard on avoiding a ditch and a truck zips past right beside you and you’re suddenly fighting the blast of wind this creates, threatening to topple you onto the road. So the motorway was ironically the safest road I’ve been on in a long while.
About a mile away from the turn-off I needed to take a car pulled into the hard shoulder about 50 feet in front of me. Just as I was thinking ‘shit, I’m going to have to go around this idiot’, blue lights started to flash in it’s rear window and I realised I’d been rumbled by an unmarked cop car. As I approached I decided to play the ignorant tourist bit. No officer, I didn’t realise that bicycles weren’t allowed on the motorway, there was nothing to that effect on the signs. “Most people use their common sense” the cop said. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with a snarky copper. Or Peeler, as I now remembered they were called up here. Not to their faces, obviously. But in my head I had the better of him! ‘The signs down in Ireland say no bicycles. When I didn’t see one here I though it might be OK.’ It was a cheeky shot, but his attitude bothered me. And of course, mine was bothering him. ‘We’ll take you to the next off-ramp, keep up.’ he said and got back into his car. Then they took off up the hard shoulder, lights flashing, with me puffing away trying to keep up with them. I have to admit, the extra pressure and company saw the next 2 miles go up in dust.
The off-ramp led up over the M1 and onto another stretch of motorway that was in the process of being resurfaced. This work had caused the motorway to be reduced to one lane of traffic. Actually it was just the hard shoulder that was open while the lanes beside it were being worked on. The peelers stopped and waved me on ahead of them, and then gave a blast of their sirens to stop the oncoming traffic. At which point I then found myself leading a convoy up the M12 to Craigavon. There was me in front, trying to keep up a decent pace, my lungs burning with the effort, the squad car behind with it’s lights flashing and at least a mile of cars behind them. Mad, Ted!
At the top of the next off-ramp, a mile or so down the road, there was a roundabout and I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go. Then I heard a little blip of the siren behind me and I thankfully pulled the bike onto the verge. I was gasping for air and the sweat was running down my red face. As the cop car pulled up alongside me the guy at the passenger side was leaning his elbow out the window and smoking a fag. I must have been a nice diversion for them, and I wondered for a moment if I would turn up on one of those Police, Camera, Action! TV shows sometime. They gave me some directions to get me to Lurgan, wished me well and took off.
Soon after that I managed to find myself at the Rushmore shopping centre in Craigavon, where I treated myself to a McDonald’s. Thanks to my motorway detour and police escort I had probably saved myself a few hours cycling, so when I set off again I was looking forward to knocking another two counties out in short order, but was lost again in less than 5 minutes and found myself in some anonymous industrial estate beside the motorway that was like a demented post-modern labyrinth. To cut a long story short I wasted over an hour trying to get to the far side of Lurgan. It was frustrating because I knew I was close to pointing my wheels southward, and to be heading home. I was inside Antrim at this stage and I was desperately looking for something to indicate that. I turned around and crossed back into county Down and not finding any signs there either I stopped on yet another M1 overpass that would just have to represent both. It’s incredibly built up and busy around that area as all roads point towards Belfast. It’s no place for a bicycle. There were a few cycle lanes in the area but they weren’t any use to me for my purposes.
At least I was finally heading south and it was still reasonably early. The time saved with my shortcut had been balanced out by the aimless wanderings and I was no better off, but no worse off either. There was still hope for the day to turn out well. And true to form I managed to get as far as Banbridge by 4pm. It was hilly terrain along the way and I had to walk a few.
The way got a bit lighter as I approached Newry, the road was taking a definite downward bent, with a particularly nice roll down into Newry itself, which I reached just before 6pm. I was making good time, but I was pretty worn out and getting a bit chilly so I stopped to rethink my route for the last push of the day. My original route to take in Monaghan went via Crossmaglen, a place I particularly wanted to see, so often had I heard it mentioned on the news down the years, but with the terrain around here the way looked a little long and unnecessary. So I decided to head for a place called Forkhill, just inside the border, deep in the bandit country of south Armagh. From there I’d get to Monaghan on the south side of the border.
I had to push the bike for about half an hour to get out of Newry. Jesus, that hill went on forever and if it wasn’t for the promise of the downhills on the back of it I wouldn’t have been able to carry on. And on that downhill section the sight of Slieve Gullion was like a mighty beacon drawing me southward, so tall and steep did it look. There are lots of military installations on top of the peaks in the area. So many that it was only very occasionally that I found myself out of sight of one of them. This is the one area of the north that that military presence has been so obvious. And not a little intimidating.
When I reached Forkhill I went into the Slieve Gullion Inn which is a lovely cosy wee country inn, with a low roof, lots of wood panelling and nice brass do-da’s everywhere. I stayed there for two pints, gabbing with an old geezer who used to be a road sweeper in Dublin, and the even older geezer who ran the pub with his wife. The two old lads were a hoot, constantly slagging each other. “Was that jumper a Christmas present, Billy, or did you loose a bet?”. I was enjoying the chat and the cosy atmosphere in the pub when through the window I could suddenly see a squad of soldiers moving up the hill beside the pub. They weren’t marching in file, but sneaking up along the stone walls with weapons drawn. It was such an inappropriate sight to my eyes that I didn’t know what to say. “They’ll be taking down the registration number of your bicycle there” Billy said as he came around from behind the bar, walked over to the window and closed the blinds on them. “Take photo’s of anything you want around here,” he said, “but don’t point your camera at the barracks. Not if you want to keep your camera.” The barracks he was talking about was on top of a hill about a mile away. They could see me, the guys said, and make no mistakes, they were watching and had probably been watching me all the way through the area. It was a difficult thing to consider, but Forkhill had seen it’s fair share of the Troubles, from murders and bombings to sniper attacks and ambushes.
When I left the pub they guided me to a patch of ground beside a football pitch where I put up my tent just as it was getting dark. There’s a picnic table beside me so I was able to sit and cook my dinner there and eat it without crouching down at the door of my tent. As I ate it there in the dark by the light of my headlamp there were what sounded like two or three military choppers circling the area. Flying dark and low. As I was cleaning up and getting ready to climb into the tent with a cuppa, three figures appeared out of the dark and nearly scared the shit out of me. I think two of them were paratroopers, because they wore red berets. The other one was an enourmous red headed RUC man. He said nothing, just looked at me like he wanted to tear me a new arsehole. Just one of the troopers spoke, and he was very polite. Politely insistent. He asked me my business and for some ID. As it happens, I never thought to bring any ID with me, and all I have is my bank card and the sponsorship card, which were in the tent. I went in to get them, rustling around in my handlebar bag for a while, and as I crawled back out of the tent, the door of which was facing away from the troopers, I only then noticed that I was actually surrounded. There were three or four more para’s hiding behind trees at that side of the tent and as I crept out the door I looked into the eyes of one who had a rifle pointed right at me. That was a bit of a shock, but obviously he had no idea what I was going to come out of the tent with. It’s a different world up here.
Once they had determined that I didn’t pose a threat I could sense the tension leave the situation. After the official business was out of the way they then stayed chatting to me for a few minutes. They were curious about the cycle and handed each other the sponsorship card and asked me about how I was doing. They were nice lads, really. Very curious to know what I ate, how long I rode every day etc. All the right questions. They thought my time was impressive. “That’s some going for 11 days. Fair play t’yeh” said the first guy, the one who’d questioned me. That made me smile. “Fuck off”, I said “I’ve seen the training you lads have to go through on telly. If I’ve impressed you lads then you’ve just made my day.” And with that they left me to myself and disappeared back into the night. I can still hear choppers circling around above, but I think I’ll still sleep no matter what. It’s really weird to think that I’m camping wild but I’m far from being at one with nature. Who knows how many eyes are on my tent.
I should have asked them for directions. I want to get over into the Republic as quick as possible tomorrow. Once I get my detour to Monaghan out of the way I’m making like a rocket for Dublin. Home! Bed! Bath! Ya-hoo!!!