'I still enjoy the bike as much as ever'
In times of lockdown when many citizens are trying to stay physically and mentally healthy, Nicky Noonan’s story of a life filled with activity from school years to the present day may well serve as an inspiration.
Nicky is a founder member and current vice-president of the Edenderry-based Team905 cycling club, and he can always be relied upon when good advice is needed.
Nicky was born and brought up in Ballynacargy. He speaks affectionately of his 1950s childhood. “There were no structured sports for children then except the occasional sports day in the local village.
"Obviously, no screens or internet devices either. We didn’t have television so practically everything was outdoors and very healthy,” he recalled.
Nicky secured an ESB apprenticeship as an electrician and was assigned to Rhode Power Station in 1965 at just 15 years old.
“I had to look at a map to figure out exactly where Rhode was. My sisters drove me over for the first time and I recall being impressed looking up at the two towers but also with a feeling of slight apprehension.
"It seemed to me like a huge industrial building. From the start I remember being well looked after in digs by several families – the Jones, Grehans and McGlynns - during my early days in Rhode.”
The training period was five years with a three-month stint each year in Dublin in what was then College of Technology, Kevin Street. “To say the least, city life in the late sixties was an eye-opener for a lad from rural Westmeath!” recalled Nicky.
Following his apprenticeship, Nicky continued working in Rhode as an electrician and in 1973 met his future wife, Helen, who had recently arrived in the village to work as a primary school teacher.
He didn’t waste too much time popping the question and they were married in 1975. Their two children, Gerard (also a Team905 member) and Mary, are now both married and Nicky and Helen greatly enjoy the company of their six young grandchildren.
Nicky’s other sporting interests include motorsport, rugby, pitch and putt and darts. “The training for the darts was probably the most enjoyable!” he quipped.
His interest in cycling began in the 1980s when he was in his mid-30s. He was intrigued by the Sean McGuinness Memorial Race, which passed by his front door every year.
“It was my first time to see a bike race and the big bunch, the speed, the colour, the cars and the cavalcade were impressive.
"Professional cycling was also starting to appear on TV then and Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche were establishing themselves on the continent.”
At the launch of a local sponsored cycle in Mulvin’s pub around that time, he agreed, not only to support the event, but to actually take part, having not been on a bike since he was 13.
That decision, perhaps influenced by the late hour, was to provide Nicky with an active outlet for the next 36 years, and hopefully well into the future.
“I bought a bike in Ronan’s in Edenderry the next day and gradually worked up to the 25 miles for the event. The circuit was around the Rhode, Daingean, Edenderry loop, a trip I’ve become very used to since.”
Hooked on this new pursuit, he soon procured a better bike and joined the fledgling Edenderry CC, then being formed by Dr Philip Brady and members of the McGuinness family.
For the first half of the 1990s, he raced in the “big bunch” that had so interested him some years before.
“I took part in Category 4 races all around the country with huge enthusiasm and enjoyment, but unfortunately with little success.
"I still remember clearly, though, the adrenalin rush generated by the speed in a tightly packed bunch of up to 100 riders at full pelt, sometimes on very narrow roads.
"Edenderry CC ceased around 1996 and I spent a few years with Lakeside Wheelers in Mullingar enjoying several of their annual Mullingar, Galway, Mullingar spins of that time.”
In the early 2000s, group cycling returned to the roads of north Offaly when a few like-minded individuals, mainly from the Rhode Edenderry area, began meeting for steady Sunday morning spins of about 80 kilometres or so. Nicky was an enthusiastic member of this group.
“We were happy enough covering the distance at a steady pace until Kilkenny native Robbie Dunne, who had just moved to Edenderry, showed up.
"Robbie had been part of the Irish racing scene and he quickly injected a fair bit of pace into our Sunday spins,” said Nicky.
“Cycling wise, that was the best thing that ever happened to me as I was then in my mid-50s and probably felt I was getting old for fast paced cycling.
"Robbie’s arrival raised the bar for all of us involved at the time and thankfully we haven’t looked back since.”
In 2009, the present Team905 CC emerged from that group with Hugh O’Donoghue as chairman, Robbie Dunne as secretary and Brendan McAuliffe as treasurer.
“We varied our local Sunday spins with trips to the Slieve Blooms and in September 2011 embarked on a memorable trip to Alpe D’Huez in the French Alps," said Nicky.
"We were all shocked and saddened by the sudden death of our colleague and friend Pat Jones just eight months later. Pat was with us in France and, for several years before that, he and I enjoyed some great midweek spins being either semi-retired or between jobs at the time.
"He was great company on or off the bike and all would be grand between us unless the subject of politics came up!”
Since 2013 the club has hosted the Pat Jones Memorial Cycle in his honour. “It’s a great way to honour Pat and I generally help with photography or driving a safety car if I’m not cycling,” said Nicky of the event, postponed in 2020 and for 2021 because of Covid restrictions.
Having also served as treasurer, Nicky said he is “honoured” to be vice-president of Team905 and he is proud of how the club has built its membership from a handful in 2010 to more than 50 active members at present.
“Initially we cycled in one group, which can be difficult as the pace won’t suit all riders. With numbers increasing, we’ve organised A, B and C groups allowing new members to find their level more easily and enabling people to move groups depending on fitness levels.
"Also, we are moving from an almost all male, middle-aged membership to attracting a younger group, both male and female, which is certainly better.
"I would say to people thinking of taking up the sport – get a decent bike and safety gear, go for several spins solo and some with one or two club members or other cyclists for helpful advice.
"Cover a few hundred kilometres over a couple of months and then think of joining a club. Going straight into the club scene can be difficult when you’re starting off.”
In cycling, it can be difficult to manage both racing and leisure cyclists, but Nicky strongly believes that both disciplines can co-exist successfully.
“It is important that all groups are respected and catered for equally. It’s also naive to think that so called non-competitive cycling doesn’t involve a competitive element.
"It’s probably a vital part of most group spins. Attacking hills, digging deep on good sections of fast road and then easing up for a bit should be part of all cycling, as it improves fitness and greatly adds to the enjoyment.”
Talking to Nicky you get the impression of a man certainly enjoying life and grateful for his good health. What motivates him to stay active as the years roll on and what are his plans for post pandemic times?
“The pandemic restrictions have been tough, particularly as Team905 has members from four separate counties. Even when distance limits were lifted last year, we had to operate within county boundaries, making it impossible to have all our members together. I’m certainly hopeful that this will improve as 2021 goes on.
“I still enjoy the bike as much as ever. The club spins, the social interactions, the chat and the friendships are important. I’ve cycled all over Ireland, England and Wales, in the Alps, the Pyrenees, in Asturias in northern Spain and to the summit of Mount Teide in Tenerife.
"I can still haul myself up the Wicklow Gap or the Wolftrap in the Slieve Blooms. I particularly enjoy the spin down the Wolftrap into Kinnitty, the sweeping bends, using the full width of the road when it’s safe to do so. It’s a great feeling of speed and freedom and of just being alive.
"I’m still cycling between 8000 and 9000ms yearly and hope to continue for a while yet.
"The 140km Tour of Connemara and 160km Ring of Clare are great events that I’ve done for a few years and I intend to complete both again in 2022.
"I’ll be 72 at that stage, so I’m not sure how long that type of marathon event can continue for me but I’m confident of managing a few more anyway.
“Fifteen years ago, I thought I was getting old. Then Robbie Dunne gave me the shake-up I needed with a step up in pace, interval training and talk of maximum heart rates and thresholds.
"I didn’t get old then and haven’t since, although I do know that I have to be realistic.
“I don’t think I was ever an athlete, but I have really enjoyed 36 great years cycling as a main hobby or pastime and hopefully there’s a bit to come yet,” Nicky added.
Everyone in Team905 will agree that Nicky underestimates himself in that last sentence.
Listening to him speak with such enthusiasm about a sport that has given him so much enjoyment and such a healthy lifestyle can only be an inspiration to us all to keep the pedals turning.
- Hugh O’Donoghue