Colette Sheridan how he broke the rut.


Touring cyclist Emmet Ryan tells of his healthy pursuit of cycling

Teacher Emmet Ryan felt trapped, over-worked and under-appreciated in his London job. He tells Colette Sheridan how he broke the rut.

Touring cyclist Emmet Ryan tells of his healthy pursuit of cycling

One dark damp winter evening in London, Emmet Ryan, fed up with his teaching job in a tough area in the east of the city, decided to do something about his long-held fantasy to ditch his secure job and cycle around Ireland.

Ryan, a Cork man, was tired of London, but not of life — contrary to Samuel Johnson’s observation to Boswell that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

Ryan, aged 37, recently published his first book, ‘Tour de Ireland,’ which is a mixture of travel writing, the sport and hobby of cycling, with interesting nuggets of history thrown in as well as accounts of the people he met on his 16-day cycle around Ireland.

He covered 1,914km undertaken during the 2012 Tour de France. It was a liberating experience for Ryan who is currently working on a book about his cycle and walk along the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain.

Ryan, who hopes to get a teaching job in his native country this year, felt trapped, over-worked and under-appreciated in his London job.

He stuck it out for over eight years. “It was a great experience but it was something I couldn’t sustain any longer. I was working 60 hours a week. The level of paper work in the job is ridiculous.

"I was teaching Shakespeare which was very difficult as some of the children didn’t even speak English. About 40% of teachers in the UK quit their jobs within a few years. We weren’t trusted as teachers to get on with our jobs.

"There’s always the parent-over-your-shoulder scenario. Cycling around Ireland seemed like the complete opposite to what I was doing.

"I wasn’t very happy in my life. I wanted freedom and escapism, just to get on my bike and go. I made it happen and had a great time.”

Ryan refers to a homesick WB Yeats being in London’s Fleet Street where a little water fountain in a shop window reminded the poet of Lough Gill in Sligo and inspired ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’

“Leaving London was my moment of arising and going. When I decided to quit my job, no one tried to talk me out of it because I described my daily routine which nobody would want. There’s a lot of Irish teachers in the UK who are genuinely suffering and very stressed.

"The system doesn’t trust teachers. We’re lucky that in Ireland, there is a better attitude towards education and teachers are treated with a lot of respect.”

In cycling around Ireland, Ryan wanted to demonstrate that such an adventure can be done in a holiday timeframe. “It’s an alternative to sitting on your arse in Spain and getting scalded. It’s a cultural holiday, it’s adventurous and it’s escapist, but it’s healthy escapism. It’s not going to the pubs for two weeks in Spain.”

Ryan started his cycle from Cork, heading west. He ended up returning to the city and challenging himself to cycle up Patrick’s Hill in celebration of his achievement.

“I did anything from 50km to 160km in a day. If you’re not a big touring cyclist, you can manage 50km a day. It isn’t actually that much when you start in the morning and have all day to do it.”

Ryan opted for a racing bike, preferring it to a touring bike. “A lot of touring bikes have panniers for carrying your tent and sleeping bag. But I’m not that kind of touring cyclist.

"I’m what you’d call a credit card tourist. I worked hard on the bike all day and rewarded myself with a bath and a shower and a proper bed in a B&B or hotel, rather than a sleeping bag.”

Reasonably fit, Ryan got into the rhythm of daily cycles, making notes for his planned book and communing with nature. Was he ever lonely on the trip?

“A landlady in a B&B asked me that. I didn’t find it lonely being out on the roads on the bike. But in the evening time, when I was eating on my own, I found that a little bit challenging. I did engage with people in pubs and restaurants so it wasn’t too lonely.

"I don’t mind my own company. What I would say is that staying in B&Bs is much better for interacting with people compared to hotels which can be big corporate places that are less personal.”

The book, which meanders along at a pleasant pace, is interjected with Ryan’s regular stop-offs for chocolate or apple tart and cream in pubs.

Burning anything up to 5,000 calories a day, Ryan says he could afford to indulge himself with sweet energy-boosting food. Not a drop of alcohol passed his lips on his mammoth cycle.

“I don’t drink nowadays. I didn’t have to give it up but I stopped enjoying it. When I was in London, because I wasn’t happy in my job, I was self-medicating with drink at the weekends.

"That started to run into the week and it was having an effect on me. I made a choice about drink. In our culture, it’s all about pints at the weekend.

"My escapism is positive escapism, the healthy pursuit of cycling.”

Ryan describes cycling as “the new golf. It’s a sociable leisure activity where you lose a few pounds and chat to people while you’re doing it. It’s cheaper than joining a golf club.

"I’ve been a cycling fan since the 80s, following people like Stephen Roche. I thought about cycling competitively when I was young but I didn’t have the discipline for it.

"I love the sport. I would describe myself as a touring cyclist and a fan.”

The doping scandals involving the likes of Lance Armstrong are a source of “mixed emotions” for Ryan.

“When someone is caught doping, I’m disgusted that it still exists in the sport. But then again, I’m also very pleased that the tests are working and that people are getting caught.

"Cycling has a very bad reputation but that’s only because the problem is being confronted. I think there are other sports out there that are just as bad but we just don’t know about it. Where there’s big money in a sport, there’s going to be doping.”

Ryan is a member of a cycling club made up of people that frequent the Corner House pub on Cork’s Coburg Street.

“It’s very informal. There are a few lads from there that I go for a spin with on a Sunday morning. We go all around County Cork.

"We don’t take it very seriously. There’s no racing involved. We do it for the craic. I do a bit of running as well.”

When Ryan reached Dublin and was temporarily lost, he describes in his book a kind of epiphany that he experienced.

“I was spinning in a whirlwind of circles and I had a feeling that something was changing too. I was changing. Though I was physically going round in circles, I knew from this trip that I’d never be afraid to take on a challenge again.

"I felt that I’d no longer do things in my life that didn’t fulfil me. I wouldn’t repeat things and expect different results. And I’d no longer just talk about doing things; I would actually do them.

"I knew instinctively that in this place I was breaking the rut – the cycle of going around in circles. From now, I’d move forward instead.”

Tour de Ireland by Emmet Ryan is available from independent bookstores at €11.99 and from Amazon at €7.99.

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