Cycling lesson number one: The Clifts wait for no-one

They may look like a funfair mirror version of the peleton, but Fabien’s new cycling friends take their racing seriously

Fabien McQuillan

Fabien McQuillan

Fabien McQuillan writes a weekly diary about getting to grips with his new life in rural Tyrone

Chris Froome, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey, is followed by Tejay van Garderen of the United States, far left, as they speed downhill during day 12 of the Tour de France
It's not quite the Tour de France, but The Clifts take their cycling seriously

The lighter evenings have brought brighter aspirations and thus the racer was turned upside down on the grass, cleaned, oiled and readied for its first spin of the year.

I love the Tour de France. It’s the world’s greatest sporting event as far as I’m concerned. The idea that all these riders race almost 200 kilometres every day for 21 days is absurd. They’re built like twigs, but strong as steel, and they crawl into their motorhomes to sleep like the damned – until they get up and do it all again.

And the speed. Hurtling 100kph downhill, hunched over silently, like a shiver of hammerhead sharks, the peloton waiting for no-one.

I pushed in high gear through the beautiful back roads of Tyrone and could just picture my athletic, symmetrical self to an observer. My goggles hid my eyes so I had a chiselled, stony expression as I whooshed into the village after a 25k run. I pulled up outside the café and noticed another couple of bikes parked up.

As I drank from my water bottle, I could see a bunch of fellas (and one woman) inside, laughing and drinking coffee, and when I went inside to use the loo one of them beckoned me over.

Women’s cycling is growing, as the Tour de France femmes kicks off (Will Matthews/PA)
“Craic.” The woman was smiling at me. “Craic and a bit of socialising. Get out of the hacienda for a while.”

“Fabien, isn’t it?” I didn’t recognise him. “I was in Fionnuala’s class at school, how’s it going?”

“Dead on.” The locals never give their name. “Are youse a cycling club?”

He laughed and told me to sit down and I discovered that they were The Clifts – a very pleasant bunch indeed. A motley crew, somewhat grotesque in their tight-fitting lycra, a “non-league” club is how they described themselves, with no big pressures and no big expectations.

“Craic.” The woman was smiling at me. “Craic and a bit of socialising. Get out of the hacienda for a while.” She was pretty, but manly in her ways. “Sure, what else would you be at?” Everyone laughed.

The AA said drivers need to be more aware of road users on two wheels
(Alamy Stock Photo)

What else indeed and when I mentioned it at the dinner table, Fionnuala was impressed. “The Clifts are psychos. You’ll not be long in getting fit there.”

I wondered was this the same chubby bunch that giggled their way through traybakes at the café. I was to meet them on Saturday morning in the village for a moderate 35k, and sure enough they were all there chortling and teasing and one fella letting noisy big farts rip and bragging about his hangover.

“You’re a dirty beast O’Hanlon,” the woman said. “A sewer just.” And everyone was in tears as we rolled out of the village, looking like the tour peloton in a funfair mirror.

But after half a kilometre the mood changed and they fell silent as the spead increased significantly. I was pleased to begin with: the feeling of the group so tightly bound and the noise of the bikes flashing past hedges was giving me an adrenalin rush; but soon my legs began to feel a bit baggy.

I lagged behind but no-one turned round to check, and it was only on a huge descent that I managed to catch up. But because I had allowed gravity to aid and abet, I was too fast as I joined the group and a speed wobble ensued.

I lost all control and the bike became my enemy for a few dramatic moments, bucking me left, right and left again, then head-over-heels into a ditch. I gathered myself up and thanked God above that I hadn’t broken any bones and looked around for the guys, but they weren’t there. Vanished.

I limped my bike into the village about an hour later and they were all sitting outside the café, laughing and teasing, and when they saw me, they cheered.

I lost all control and the bike became my enemy for a few dramatic moments, bucking me left, right and left again, head-over-heels into a ditch

“I fell off on that big hill,” I said indignantly. “Did none of you see?”

“Oh, we saw you,” the woman said grinning.

“And you didn’t think to stop?”

Her eyes darkened, and then a laugh. “Lesson number one: The Clifts wait for no-one.”