WHEN they would cycle a lap of Lough Fea, Dermot O’Kane and Damian Brown would talk about what it would be like to climb Col du Tourmalet.
How the burn in the legs must feel as they haul themselves 2,115 metres from sea level, past Le Géant du Tourmalet, the sculpture depicting a heavy-breathing cyclist. It has formed part of the Tour de France route for most of the century since it was first crossed in 1910.
It was Damian that first got Dermot out on a bike after he packed in the football for a while.
The two of them did a Sportif run a few years ago.
Student overtook teacher and next thing they’re halfway up a hill and to his left, Damian is struggling to push his bike up it.
“I put my hand over to help bring him up the hill. He turned round: ‘DJ, get your f***ing hand off me. I’ll get there.’”
He got there.
Damian Brown was a force of nature. A worker, a father, a husband, a son. An obstinate truth seeker.
If he were here it would hurt him today to see the latest obstruction of justice for his murdered father Sean.
After 26 years of delay, the PSNI told his inquest earlier this week they hadn’t had enough time to gather the requested material.
The authorities crawl towards the Tories’ proposed Troubles amnesty as if it’s their own last ascent away from the police force’s murky past.
Damian wasn’t able to finish that race, as hard as he tried to. And he never got up Col du Tourmalet.
One of the last jobs he did for Dermot in his Bellaghy bar and restaurant, The Taphouse, was to put together a portable bar on wheels. They got a summer hatch for it and were able to use it during Covid.
“Damian being Damian, wouldn’t take money high nor low down for it. I mind going home to the wife one night and saying that man wouldn’t take money, I’m gonna book us a trip to France to do a couple of them climbs.”
From his diagnosis with a brain tumour to passing away in the summer of 2021, Damian Brown got 11 weeks.
Dermot O’Kane flies to France on Thursday morning.
There, he joins a group of 25 amateur cyclists who will take on the entire Tour de France.
O’Kane will be the only cyclist from Northern Ireland on the trip, selected from over 400.
They’ll ride out on each stage seven days before the professionals do it, meaning they’ll be mid-Tour when the real thing begins.
For almost a year, he hasn’t looked at a bite in his own restaurant.
The Tour de France doesn’t allow for messing about.
All in they will cover 3,500km in 21 days.
It is all to raise money for Cure Leukaemia. The aim is to hit £1m between the group of 25 cyclists, starting with a £30,000 contribution from each individual.
The strong business community around Bellaghy has made that part of it easier than it would ordinarily be.
They’ve proven that point plenty. When a day was held in Damian Brown’s memory last year, they lifted just shy of £80,000.
“The English find that hard to believe. If they were going to ask somebody for £1,000, they’d need to do a ten-page PowerPoint presentation.
“Bellaghy is extremely tight-knit. It’s like a family. Not everybody will like each other but when there’s something to be done, people row in, they almost see it as their duty. Very few places are the same.”
He’s been a full year physically preparing. Last weekend, he went with Portglenone man Eugene Clarke and took on the Wicklow 200.
It’s exactly as it says on the tin, 200km with 12,000 feet of climbing built in. Dermot shaved half an hour off his time there in 2018.
“Eugene rang me yesterday, and we were both in bits.”
France will be that multiplied by 21. It will be gruelling.
There have been regular warm weather training camps. A 312km race in Mallorca in April, six years after his last attempt, another bit shaved off the time there too.
Not a scrap of food out of his own restaurant in 12 months, trying to find the balance between trimming down, retaining his power and yet making it as easy as possible to get through events that will require him to consume between 5,000 and 7,000 calories a day when he’s there.
“When you’re sitting at the foot of a climb and you know you’ve an hour’s suffering to do up it, every pound weight makes a difference.
“Take two litres of milk is 4lb. Imagine strapping two litres of milk to your back and going up a climb for an hour, it’d be a lot easier without it.”
Stages five and six will comprise 300km through the heart of the Pyrenees, four straight hours each day.
At around 4pm on July 7, they will ride through the small village of Bagnères-de-Bigorre and find themselves at the foot of Col du Tourmalet.
For every second of the eight-minute ascent, he’ll wish he had been built for cycling.
“When you’re built for playing Gaelic football and not seven-stone-nothin’ built for cycling up mountains, that’s where you need the extra bit of, I suppose, ignorance.”
There Dermot O’Kane will recall that Sportif and the ignorance that got him and Damian both up the last climb.
He’ll get there.