on my own two wheels. back in the saddle at 60. malachi o'doherty. the black staff press softcover. 176pp £8.99

on my own two wheels

"My failing is in that I think the bicycle is for me when I should be living for the bicycle."

i doubt it only happens to me, but to many another vegetarian too, and it happended last week at my daughter's wedding. she's been a vegetarian since she was born, and though both mrs washingmachinepost and i have given her every opportunity to become a carnivore should she wish to be, she's steadfastly adhered to the meat-free way. it would never do for the bride to be stuck with a salad or macaroni cheese, so the bridal menu offered two vegetarian alternatives: nut roast or mushroom risotto. both of us opted for the nut roast of which we were served two thick slices accompanied by an appropriately viscous spicy tomato sauce.

those sat either side and across from us, took a peek at our portions and despite being carnivores themselves, announced that they would have happily been vegetarians for the day.

i am meat-free out of choice, i make no attempt to proselytise and rarely, if ever, bring up the subject in polite company. yet when dietary choice does become the topic of discussion, i fnd most meat eaters almost falling over themselves to apologise for their carniverousness. many will protest that they hardly ever eat red meat anymore and if push came to shove, could survive heartily as a vegetarian. these overly clamourous protestations are then somewhat undermined by the next question which is almost always 'so what do you eat?'

it is a situation that transfers well to any conversation regarding cycling. we all know folks who either live without a bicycle, or have a rusting hulk in the shed that hasn't turned a wheel in anger for many a long year. yet when sat on one of the new tall stools at debbie's coffee bar, dressed, as is my wont, in sportwool and lycra, someone invariably pipes up that they used to cycle a great deal in their youth, even though i have made no accusatory glances in their direction. again, methinks they oft protest too much. if cycling had been uppermost in their minds, we would have been riding together up uiskentuie strand instead of listening to excuses they and i both know they are straining to fabricate.

i started cycling when i was nine, had a paper round when i was twelve and cycled everyday of life up until i was seventeen. the college years were devoid of velocipedinal activity, but when working life commenced, i again acquired a bicycle and have not done without since. thus, as i approach sixty from mid distance, i am probably the fittest and healthiest i have ever been. not so, malachi o'doherty.

in common with many of those who find it necessary to explain that cycling was an intrinsic part of life in the early years, malachi o'doherty cycled in his younger years. dad was a cycle racer, a man who transferred his racing ability to that of commuter when working in belfast while his family lived further north. his father was not keen on young malachi owning or riding a bike because he said the roads of belfast and northern ireland were too dangerous. but in those years, it was all but impossible to keep kids off bicycles; they were as ubiquitous as the playstation appears to have become in modern days.

however in keeping with many an individual formerly dependent on two wheels, when prosperity and a busy work schedule begin to infiltrate daily life, the bicycle is left in the shed to rust, while public transport or the demon motor car take over. that's pretty much how malachi o'doherty found himself at the age of sixty, overweight and facing type two diabetes brought to fruition by his lack of exercise and calorie heavy diet.

"i was a sixty-year-old man who wanted to be young again. i wasn't going to try and win the tour de france. but i was going to try to do what i had been able to do at thirty. i was going to be a boy again, and, what the hell, i was going to be a fitter, trimmer and happier old man at the end of it."

were it possible to have been paid a pound for everyone who has expressed similar sentiments in the past year, i would have a whole shed full of colnagos. malachi o'doherty is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. by actually carrying out that which he portended, he lost over two stone and rediscovered cycling. he did not, however, rediscover cycling in sportwool and lycra, but more by means of pootling as he would have it. riding a bike as both a means of travelling from a to b for whatever purpose, but also for the joys both of cycling and becoming more aware of his surroundings. this he did both solo and occasionally in the company of a friend, but in most cases, dressed in civvies.

it's what the inestimable lord carlos of mercian would defiantly refer to as 'a man with a bicycle' rather than that of bona fide cyclist.

on my own two wheels leads us gently into malachi's background; where the bike fitted into early life, where it withdrew from that life, and what brought about its renaissance. once we are appraised of his born again status, the chapters astutely describe many of the outings undertaken; a travelogue if you will, but always accompanied by an appraisal of his ever-growing ability on the bicycle and how it was infiltrating both day to day life and his own psyche.

i have only briefly ridden a few of the roads of northern ireland many of which instilled a similar quietude to those of islay, a mere 24 miles further north across the water. o'doherty's style of writing calmly fulfils those norhtern irish miles, detailing stumbles, hurdles and joys without ever becoming excitable. in this sense it is a most equanimous and pastoral read, all the while inviting the unconverted to become the converted. there are, however, one or two glitches in the firmament that equate to finding after the advert break, that you're watching an entirely different programme. in chapter thirteen he heads out with two panniers on a rear rack, yet midway through i am greeted with a gap in the page then "On a gorgeous bright day in the niddle of November, i drove into Westport, with my bicycle strapped to the back of my car."

the previous sentence gave no indication that the narrative to which it was attached had ended so abruptly. and for a man of letters, one who has written a book that is a joy to read, where did the word 'triathaloners' spring from? i doubt the world itself truly exists (triathletes would be the more common usage), but if it does, would triathloners' not be a more likely spelling, given the nound from which it is derived?

that said, i figure any book more than worth the price of admission that can provide at least one phrase worth quoting. malachi o'doherty has succeeded in interspersing several into his narrative, convincingly and uncontrivedly. "the beauty of the bike is that it is purely mechanical and that it is, even so, a sufficient vehicle for a healthy human." whether this book will be bought and read by others in malachi's pre-bicycle situation is a moot point. there is always the likelihood that the majority of bicycle books are preaching to the converted. however, as testament to not leaving the bike alone when cars and relative financial security happen along, i doubt this book could be bettered. and for those approaching their autumn years, this volume ought to be available on prescription.

a worthy addition to the panoply of cycle literature.

"I have not recovered the level of fitness I had achieved cycling in my thirties... Not all of one's destiny is manageable through diet and exercise, but the answer to that is that when you are out on your bike,... you're enjoying yourself in the moment and not thinking about how long it lasts."

saturday 11th august 2012


top of page.