Monday, August 1, 2016

The Constant Cyclist



Last time I visited the Foyle Port in Derry, it was the day the Clipper Ships began to arrive. A sight to behold, these 70-foot vessels race around the world and finish their journey here every summer, strewn with colourful flags and greeted with much fanfare. It seemed only fitting that several weeks later I would greet another monumental arrival: the legendary cyclist Pamela Blalock. Since the start of July she'd been traveling around the coast of Ireland, clockwise, starting in Dublin and aiming for its northernmost point - Malin Head in County Donegal. Two thousand miles and 100,000 feet of climbing later, she had reached this goal ahead of schedule. I had intercepted her in Western Donegal some days prior, before the final stretch. And now I caught her again in Derry just after, as she paused for half a day to admire the walled city and debate between taking the train back to Dublin from Sligo versus continuing along the North Coast and just "doing the whole thing."

"Are you not even a little bit tired?!"

"Nah," she shrugs and giggles. "But I've been taking it pretty easy!"



Few people aside from Pamela Blalock could describe a cycling tour around Ireland (and one designed to maximise elevation gain, at that) as "taking it easy," and genuinely mean it.

Then again, few people have had the sort of time of it that she has, as of late. And if you've not been following her writing, perhaps her out-of-character haircut provides a clue. It was just over a year ago now, that Pamela's iconic long, thick braids fell victim to the necessary, but no less awful, treatment she has undergone for breast cancer ...the diagnosis for which came just as she started to recover from a shattered back, having been hit by a car a year prior.

In comparison to what she must have gone through over that time, I suppose touring around Ireland while feeling strong and healthy (the cancer is gone; the back is mostly healed) really does feel like "taking it easy." Nonetheless, it's a difficult thing to grasp.


I am not going to write about Pamela's illness here. It is her experience and you'd be better off reading her own account of it. But I do want to tell you about the first time we met, back in Boston in late 2011.

As with most interesting women, her reputation preceded her. Earlier in the year, I'd been told (or, more accurately, warned!) by several people, independently, about the infamous creature called Pamela Blalock. The hill climb racer. The randonneur. The tireless rider who cranked out 100K a day at a minimum. The woman whose routes were so hilly, they made hardened cyclists weep. To be drawn into joining her on rides, it seemed, was to risk being eaten alive. "Phew," I thought to myself back then, "good thing I've never come across her!"

I remember distinctly the horror I felt, at the realisation one day that the nice, girlish woman pedaling beside me, with her two long braids and her charming Southern accent, was this very same Pamela! We had met at a local cafe and agreed to go for a ride before we even properly introduced ourselves. It was only mid-ride, mid-pedal stroke, that I put two and two together. And now here we were, heading toward what looked suspicious like a hill ...What ever would become of me?!

Of course, it so happens that Pamela is probably the best cyclist a beginner can hope to encounter. The patience she has, the skill to teach without making you feel like she's teaching, the ability to match her companion's cadence and speed - are unparalleled to anyone else I have ridden with prior or since. And while I do understand where her tremendous reputation comes from (the woman likes hills, that much is true), it is, for the most part, hilariously exaggerated.

Still, as she toured what is now my home turf, I tried to pay her back by routing her on some beautiful (read: nasty) climbs in Donegal. To my utter delight, I finally almost - almost! - succeeded in making her lose her temper, as she climbed up to the Grianan of Aileach ringfort.


It would not be out of line to describe Pamela as single-minded. She identifies as a cyclist so thoroughly, it's impossible to imagine her as a separate entity from the bike. Indeed, whenever I picture her, in my mind's eye she is always on, or at least beside, a bicycle - almost merged with it really, like some magical hybrid creature from Greek mythology. Even when she sits in "civilian" clothes, drinking coffee, indoors, there is something of mermaid out of water about her, so inherently bike-like is her demeanor.

In a culture that values diversification of interests, the idea of single-mindedness has a negative connotation. It's as if the intensity it implies goes one step too far. But in some situations, such intensity can be life-saving. "Too intense" is just the right amount of intense to pull a person out of a black hole.

So, thank goodness for Pamela's single-mindedness. And for her Reputation, as well. Thinking back to that first time we met, I like to imagine any illness or other disaster that tries to besiege her having the exact same reaction: "Oh my god... it's that Pamela?!"{backs away slowly, then runs, runs!}.

That's right, buddy. Off you go. She will eat you alive, and spit you out, and continue on her merry way - straight up the steepest hills of Donegal, and beyond.


20 comments:

  1. A cafe that serves watermelon? I want to go there!

    Your friend looks beautiful, great portraits and narrative. Thanks!

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    1. Café Chez Lovely Bicycle : )
      I always stock watermelon, or grapes, and generally try to feed fruit to guests. Friends make fun of me for it!

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  2. I was catching up with a friend yesterday who was recovering from a freak climbing accident. Like Pamela she needs to be outdoors and the climbing community is a particularly intense and modest group of folks who do seemingly crazy and difficult things and then can't wait to do them again. We were talking about passions and what drives and feeds us and how tragic it would be to have an injury which made it impossible to continue with that passion (her injury is healing nicely and she's already back taking small steps). She never thought twice about letting this accident stop her, in fact she talked about the many ways it could have been worse and how blessed she was, and is….

    She's told me of so many she meets along the way who have just simply been kind and helpful and quietly presenting an example…..then she'd find out they've submitted Everest multiple times or free climbed the most unclimbable rocks and you'd never know it from talking with them. Oh, and by the way, this friend has solo cycled around the world and you'd never know it unless you'd ask a series of specific questions (so, do you own a bike? what kind of riding do you do? do you ever ride it to travel or explore? and finally one would get a 'yeah, I've done a few trips including one that took my around the world…it was life changing) ;)

    Which is to say, meeting people like Pamela is a gift and experiencing their humility and determination and passion is sustenance for the rest of us. I like gifts in my life, don't we all?

    Congratulations to Pamela for completing yet another adventure with such aplomb, especially after all she's been through the past two years. She's got such a lovely smile! You're fortunate to count here as a friend.

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  3. Pamela is a VIKING. Full stop.

    I know a couple of people a bit like her, I'd like to know more.

    Spindizzy

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  4. When I got the text message saying "Sorry for comparing you to a Clipper Ship" I thought back to my post about the last time we met in Ireland and I tried to describe the joy that Velouria showed as our train approached the platform. I never meant to offend, because it was beyond flattering to be welcomed with such exuberance. So I thought, uhoh.

    When I stopped for lunch a short while later, I pulled out my iPad and soon was flush with embarrassment at reading V's most gracious post. I only wish I could live up to her most kind words!

    I will also say that I cannot take credit for defeating my various ailments over the last three years. All the credit goes to my doctors, nurses, PTs, medical researchers and luck. Yes, I had the misfortune to get hit, but the incredible luck that because I was riding fixed, I was thrown from the bike as soon as the truck made contact with my rear wheel. While I didn't gracefully stick the landing, it is very likely, given the damage evident on the left of the bike, that my left leg would have been crushed and mangled. I only broke my back. And thanks to the wonderful surgeon, who had ridden along the same section of road a few hours prior, at the wonderful hospital, mere minutes from where I was hit, I was able to walk the next day. I also had the good fortune to have a deputy sheriff show up minutes after the collision, who kept me still and prevented further injury. I was lucky that medical procedures allow for hardware to be put in place to enable healing, while allowing some mobility.


    And while I had the misfortune of cancer, I had the good luck to get a curable one. 30 years ago, I would not have had such luck. My cancer was a particularly aggressive version, so aggressive that' researchers focused on finding a cure. I was lucky that the research was funded, and that dedicated researchers worked viligantly. I was lucky to have great doctors and nurses, my oncology nurse is a saint!


    And finally I consider it a stroke of good fortune that I did the ladies ride back in 2011 and met V. Our friendship is something I value greatly. While I was sad when she decided to move away, I took a note from my MIL's book and viewed it as having anew place to visit.


    It was such a pleasure to connect a couple of times on this trip. I'm smiling in the photos because V makes me smile. She also creates amazing routes to show off her new found home. We had planned to meet in Derry for lunch and she sent me a route fragment, saying that I must visit the ring fort. After winching my way up the climb, I stopped at the gate and a text pooped up saying the weather was clearing and hoping I wasn't too wet. No kidding, right as I climbed off the bike. I responded that I was drenched in sweat from climbing to the f'n ring fort. This apparently made her day. I had not realized that as she gave me various routes, that her goal was to break me! I surely would have cursed sooner!


    Any way this is my long winded way of saying thank you for the kindest words ever, and thank you for the hospitality and friendship. I can't wait for our next visit.


    Pamela

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    1. I was only trying to provide you with the finest quality miles, knowing that nothing less than 100 ft up per 10 miles across wold do!

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  5. This post warms my heavy heart.
    Nineteen years ago I was a quivering mass of emotions after I was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. But I pulled through, thanks to excellent doctors, a timely diagnosis and strong family support. Just last week, my brother, who was so pivotal to my own recovery, was diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer. His journey is much more daunting. It gives me great pleasure to see Pamela thriving in her recovery from cancer, not to mention that frightening accident. Keep the pedals turning. You are an inspiration.

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  6. Having followed this brave and interesting woman, as seen through your eyes, for several years, I appreciate this update. Well done Pamela.

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  7. Is Pamela Irish?
    Henry

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    1. Pamela is American, but her husband (John Bayley) is from Ireland. They are usually over at least once a year, and rode the start of her tour together.

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    2. Oh! I had not made the connection before, but is this the same couple whom Sheldon Brown married on the bike path?

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    3. Yes : ) He wasn't the one who married them. But he wrote about it.

      Marriage on the Bikeway

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  8. Thanks for your post - glad you all are having a great time. Say hello! to John and Pamela from Phil in Concord, MA.

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  9. Ah Lovely Bike - you say it so well. I'm sorry I had only a few minutes with you at Pamela's house one day. Thank you for using your writing to describe her as the woman, the pixie and the force she is. You both rank right up there. I'm glad Pamela posted a link to this.
    Tailwinds.

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    1. Thanks Rich, and hope we will have occasion to meet again!

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  10. As a longtime fan of The Blayleys I applaud your ability to capture the essence of Fixie Pixie, especially in those photos. May the road rise up to meet you!

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    1. Thanks. I tease and annoy my models till I get the expression I want : )

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  11. " "Too intense" is just the right amount of intense to pull a person out of a black hole. "

    Had to close the browser window after reading this the first time; it hit a little too close to home. I am made aware by family and friends that I have a tendency to take my interests too far. But that tendency has saved me many times from going to a very dark place. Thank you for not shying away from uncomfortable topics.

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    1. I don't think you're alone here.

      A grad school friend of mine who was heavily involved with a specific online forum (not bikes, but a similarly impassioned community), once did a research study and discovered that some overwhelming percentage of participants were either suffering from a serious illness or recovering from one, using the forum medicinally, as a sort of unwitting support network, as it were. I think the world of blogs has an element of that as well, even starting with Sheldon Brown's writing.

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