The Gorey 3-Day, the Gorey or as I had come to know it in recent days, the “what am I thinking?” race. There are a couple of races in Ireland that are steeped in so much history, it can be difficult to separate fact from myth, rider from legend. Stories of Goreys past were swapped over pints, on winter club spins, or, in these modern times, whatsapp groups. Who had won stages? Who had crashed in the neutralised rollout?

Scott Orwell Wheelers Team with our utterly peerless support team

My plan hadn't been to ride at all. I was hoping for a smooth transition back to open racing after an extended absence. When my name appeared in an email as one of the Orwell riders, I felt like something of a fraud. I was waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder in the queue for a nightclub to ask me to leave. Sorry bud, not in those shoes. Not tonight.

But no tap came, and on Saturday morning I loaded up the car, took a deep breath and once again asked myself “What am I thinking?” before driving the many green miles to Blessington.

It was over a year ago, after a season where I finally started to train properly and gradually saw some improvement, that my form began to fall dramatically. Probably just a winter virus, I assured myself, it'll be gone in a few weeks. After Christmas, a lump appeared in my neck, just above my collarbone. I would joke with people that it was just a bit of cancer in my neck, fully expecting it to be something completely benign. After all, I was still reasonably young and I planned to live forever. I went for some scans and while waiting for results, rode my first cyclocross nationals on the fantastic grounds of Tollymore park. My aim was to beat my friend Phil, but I fell short and rode in a few places behind him.

CX Nationals 2017 when I noticed my form start to decline

Things got slightly worse for me. My test results came back and I learned very quickly that there is a big difference between Hodgkin's Lymphoma and Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. It was some small relief to know that I had the more curable Hodgkin's kind. Yes, the “cancer in my neck” turned out to be cancer. In my neck and my chest.

“You will lose your hair and if this goes untreated, it is fatal. But do everything we tell you and if you have a good response to the drugs, you'll be fine. Some of the drugs carry a small risk of lung and heart damage, but we'll keep an eye on dosage”.

“What about my cycling?”
“I can recommend a good psychologist”

So that was it. I had nothing else to do except endure the treatments. There would be 12 in total, one treatment every 2 weeks. Maybe less if I was in the “high responders” and probably requiring more aggressive treatments if I was doubly unlucky to show little response to the tried and tested regimen of ABVD. Given how slow I responded to training and the fact I still hadn't won the lotto, I wasn't feeling great about my odds.

First treatment of ABVD to kick both our asses

The next few months were a bit of a blur. A proper blur, some people call it “chemo brain”, but the best way I can describe it to people is that I felt like I had a very bad hangover for 4 months. I did indeed lose most of my hair, it doesn't fall out in big dramatic clumps like the movies, but I would find more on my clothes or my pillow than usual. After a few weeks, I bit the bullet and shaved my head. It was kind of fun, we had a pizza party and my friend John shaved his head in sympathy. I also got pretty fat, which was the opposite of what I was hoping for having read Lance's book and it’s promise of a “cycling body transformation”. I could eat all around me, partly because people let me and partly because the drugs seemed to affect my appetite to the point where I never really felt full. Post-chemo McDonalds became the norm, my “Prescription M” coming home from St. Vincent's Hospital.

Bye Bye hair!

I tried to work, I tried to stick to my volunteer duties with Orwell Wheelers and most importantly, I tried to ride my bike. I'm not the most spiritual person in the world, but riding my bike has always been the closest to meditation I have been able to get. Even though my legs had turned to jelly and pedalling at less than 20 km/hr caused my heart to punch through my chest with every pedal stroke, I felt free of the disease. I felt like I had taken back some control of the body that I didn't recognise in the mirror anymore. Sure, I would get tired walking up a flight of stairs or have to sit down when brushing my teeth, but for a lot of it I was totally fine. The main risk was infection. Treatment for Lymphoma means you end up with very little immunity and even getting the common cold could turn into a very dangerous situation if you weren't careful.

Getting near the end

Halfway through the treatments I got good news from a PET scan. An “excellent response to treatment” meant that it would be cut from 12 to 8 treatments and on the 11th May I walked into St. Vincent's for the last time. Like every cyclist knows, I had crested one hill only to find another looming in the distance: the road to recovery was next.

Celebrating what is hopefully the end of treatments in May 2017

A season of cyclocross was my next step on the journey. I had gone from showing improvement in the 2016 season, to being completely anonymous in the middle of the B races. I found myself torn between the absolute elation of being able to race again, knowing that some of those faces I had seen in hospital would probably never get the same chance to return to a normal life, with the frustration of my ego being bashed around the place. One rider in Navan shouted at me “If you were any use you'd be up the front not riding for 50th place!” when I complained about his constant stalling on the course. He was right, I wasn't much use. But I was racing again and that was what mattered. That, and not stalling on every little lump.

Struggling, but back racing CX in October 2017

I rode the Nationals again. Phil was away and had to pull out last minute. I finished 3rd last and it probably looked ridiculous to everyone watching the race. Who is this guy? Why is he here to get lapped several times by Conroy and Moore. I found it incredibly hard and I was so far out of my depth, but when I crossed the line I wanted to throw my arms up in the air.

And now, here I was, riding the Gorey. Mayo the previous weekend. Clonard two weeks before. The last A3 races I had done were about 7 years ago and I had never finished one.

“What am I thinking?”

Stage 1: Blessington to Gorey

The pace was furious. Could you be dropped in the neutralised section? Stick with it, it will settle down. Ok, we're grand now, cruising.

The familiar squeal of carbon hitting brake blocks, the smell of rubber burning. The precursor to the cracks and screams of a pile up. It happened right in front of me but I managed to wheel through and get into a chasing group. We joined the bunch and I found myself in the front group up to 70km when my legs said “ok, we're packing it in, good luck!” and I sat up. The team car pulled up and I was told good job and to roll in with a lad behind me. The lad behind me quickly became the lad in front of me as he whizzed past, so I carried on. Straight, very straight.

Gorey seemed closer than I thought and my heart skipped a few beats when a woman pulled alongside me in her car and told me that I had missed the turn.

Panic set in and I went as fast as I could, which isn't very, all the way back to Craanford. I stopped at the Garda car and asked him was he part of the race. I didn't ask why neither he nor the marshal were standing out of their cars, directing the race. They are volunteers after all and I should have known the route better. I rode up past the finish line, recognising the expressions well on people's faces. I'd seen it plenty last year: “Poor divil”.

I rode the 24km loop on my own, panicking over the amount of time being lost. The broomwagon came up behind me and encouraged me onwards to the finish line. I was passing groups of riders on their warm down, getting the odd shout of encouragement or fist-pump. Push, push, push. My Orwell team mates were near the finish line and offered the last bit of encouragement needed to cross the line. Stephen was at the finish line to give me instructions, Jen gave me my coat and some food, while the team had waited around a very long time to cycle back with me. I felt embarrassed, but also privileged to be with such fantastic people.

Stage 2:Time Trial

After the disaster of the day before, I didn't need to worry about clawing back seconds in the TT, so I opted for a steady effort to save my legs for the afternoon. Short of Doc Brown turning up in a DeLorean, I wasn't going to claw back any time and even if I did, it would make no impact on GC.

Stage 3: Craanford Laps

I knew the course like the back of my hand now, every corner and every dip in the road had been a point where I had considered giving up the day before and turning around to head home. I was feeling better about myself, sure this racing lark is easy now. My second stage race of the year and I felt like a seasoned pro. When will the off-season come?

The start was at the monument as you came into the town. We managed to get a team photo courtesy of the ever generous Sean Rowe just before the start. We are all smiles in that photo, smiles that would be wiped away very quickly as we had to complete 4 laps of the 24km Craanford circuit.

Leading the pack in Gorey

My plan was simple: Keep near the front and move up every time we hit the Craanford hill. It didn't exactly go according to plan and I found myself in the middle of the bunch and having to make up ground on the climb in order to keep ahead of the splits. It worked until the 3rd lap when the race again blew to bits and I found myself riding with grupettos along the way, even managing to wind up in the cars briefly. If there is one thing that chemotherapy gave me, aside from beating a disease for me. And bashing me around in the process. Ok, one other thing it gave me is a mantra: no matter how bad you think you're feeling right now in a race, it doesn't compare to someone who is fighting for their life. So suck it up, chew those handlebars and suffer for a couple seconds longer! It normally works. Still, I wasn't in the main group and rode in the grupetto a chunk of time further down.

Paul Forristal, who was quickly passing into a legend of his own, had won the stage in a display of pure power. Paul had ridden into a break with some juniors and being a teacher, had decided that it was time for some extra classes over Easter and absolutely schooled them.  I don't think you will ever meet a more modest racer, he seemed completely embarrassed by all the attention but I think we were only too happy to bask in his reflected glory. We had weathered the worst of the Gorey, all that remained was the victory ride to Blessington, so a couple of us treated ourselves to a celebratory glass of wine that night.

Stage 4: Gorey to Blessington

I can honestly say that I have never been as cold on a bike as I was for that final stage. I opted for bare legs, believing that the heat of racing would be enough to keep the cold at bay. Oh, how wrong I was. Most of the race was spent towards the front of the bunch, wet and miserable. The kilometers seemed to stop ticking down at one point and the final 20km into Blessington felt like it would never end.

Most of the race was a drag up to Blessington at a steady pace, rarely matching the surges of the previous few days. Tired legs or objectives achieved, it was hard to tell from my passenger seating in the bunch. Although I hadn't seen too much racing over the weekend, I was absolutely delighted.

Callum launched a blistering attack and Paul went with him. Paul held it all the way to the finish line for his second stage win and a 4th overall on GC. Legendary status achieved.

Crossing the finish line - Gorey done & dusted!

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Is the Gorey really “the Gorey” or just another race? It's definitely something special, whether it's the organisation, the support from locals or just the camaraderie you build from spending a weekend suffering with some great club mates, I can't really tell. But it is something that I hope will continue for many years to come.

Did being sick last year change me for the better? I'm still trying to decide. I'm definitely a bit more focused and determined. I also want to give the bike as much time as it gave me while I was sick. It never complained that I was slower or making it look bad. Cycling helped me during those months as much as any other treatment, and I know that many people reading this will feel the same way. It's not always about results or beating personal bests. Or worrying that you are slower than you used to be.

Sometimes it's really just about the freedom of the wind on your back, the hills at your feet and a good friend at your side. Orwell Wheelers has also been very good to me. I've met a lot of friends there over the last 8 years and I met Breda through the club as well. I hope to be be in the club and riding my bike for many more years to come.

After the last chemo, celebrating in the sunshine with Breda