Earlier this month, reigning Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas nestled among the morphing array of colour, as the pack snaked its way out of Brussels.

Jockeying for position.  Safety first.

July marks one of sport’s landmark events.

During 21 scenic stages of gruelling climbs, hair-raising descents and sprints for the line, there is only ever one target.

Teams plot to deliver their leader into the ‘maillot juane’ as the peloton parades into Paris.

To have him standing, in yellow, on the winners’ podium on the Champs-Élysées, with the iconic Arc de Triomphe in the foreground.

In many corners of Ireland, cycling has become the new golf.

In a world of fit-bits and isotonic drinks, keeping trim is now the status symbol of choice.

For 87 year-old Dungiven man Seamus Doran, who was still pedalling to mass during Holy Week this year, cycling has always been more.  So much more.

Calling at his home, along the town’s main street, is like stepping into an Aladdin’s cave of local sport embroiled in personality.

Photos both on the wall and resting on the mantelpiece.  Biscuit boxes full to the throat with newspaper clippings and photos.

A bottomless pit of memories, accompanied by a friendly welcome, a boiling kettle and a plate of biscuits.

Seamus’ sporting interests included fishing at the nearby River Roe and like almost all young boys, playing Gaelic football where he represented both Dungiven and Banagher.

When the boots were hung up, the fishing rod came back out again.

The front room of his house was a hiving barber’s shop back in the day, which also doubled up as a shop, with sporting items hanging up in the window.

“I started keeping a wee bit of fishing tackle and a bit of sports stuff.  The sports shop was the smallest in Europe,” Seamus jokes.

“People would’ve called from all around because there wasn’t any sports shops at that time.  There were people who called in coming from Belfast and bought hurling sticks.

“Boys saw me going out on bikes and were asking me if I sold bike tubes, pumps or tyres.  I got in touch with a few bicycle firms in Belfast and got a few things.”

Seamus bought his first racing bike when he was just 17.

Cycling has took him around many a corner and on hearing him talk about it, the fond memories in the saddle came flooding back.

“There was a fella Leo Kealy, who lives in Limavady now and he was from Dernaflaw.  We cycled together.

“We would’ve started off after early mass on a Sunday and ended up in Buncrana or Portrush, or anywhere like that.”

Shortly after getting married to his late wife, Nancy who passed away last December, in 1960 he got a lend of his father Charlie’s bike and would have been darting around running errands on it.

Seamus then bought a bike from a neighbour and did ‘a bit of cycling’ for a couple of years before he eventually bought his first car in 1963.

“It was a wee Ford Anglia.  It was a big price…£150,” Seamus remembers.

Times have changed.  Nowadays, it wouldn’t buy a wheel for the new bikes on the ever-increasing club cycling circuit, never mind those snapped on by teams across France on ‘Le Tour’ this month.

For fitness, and with his football days behind him, Seamus was back on the saddle again.

“I took a notion of cycling a bit and it nearly killed me on the first run up the Glenshane.

“I hadn’t got as far as the quarry and said to myself ‘why the hell did I start this again’, my legs were aching.”

But as the weeks went by, the legs became accustomed to the bike once again.

Fitness and strength increased, with longer spins becoming more achievable, Seamus recalls.

He also remembers listening to the wise cracks being bellowed out to him, at a time when cycling was in the minority.

“I was going up the street and people were asking me ‘have you that thing taxed’ and ‘do you take any passengers’ and ‘your back wheel is going around’…that’s the sort of thing people were shouting out.”

For Seamus, it was only the beginning.

***

When the first club started in Limavady, in the early 1970s, Seamus joined. 

“Around that time, the doctors started talking in the paper about the need to get more exercise,” Doran remembers.  “There were a lot of heart attacks and there was a need for exercise.”

With the bright weather, bikes returned from their hiatus’ in sheds and on shelves across the country.”

“Cycling began to take off and it got big in the south (of Ireland) because of Sean Kelly and (Stephen) Roche and a few other boys.”

Times had changed.  After the war, cars were the transport method of choice.

“If you were saw out on a bike, it was a very second class method of transport and it died off.  They went everywhere in cars, it was like a status symbol.”

By the 1970s, cycling was back in vogue and people were using bikes to go to work.

When Seamus Doran began to get embroiled in the sport, it wasn’t about racing.

“I got involved in those long distance things.  I did the Maracycle five or six times.  My first time was in 1985, the year after it began.

“You went from Belfast to Dublin on the Friday and cycled back on the Saturday.  Some of the racing boys did it to see who would get into Dublin first and it would have been a race, or a training run for them.”

For everyone else, the trip was littered with stops, when required, with an official stop off in Dundalk for dinner.

Seamus’ last time was in 1994, the tenth anniversary, but when a car ploughed into a group of cyclists between Lisburn and Newry, the event came to an end.  The route was too dangerous.

The Maracycle wasn’t his first test of endurance.

“The first long run I done, was a run organised around the Inishowen 100. It was around 1978,” he pointed out.

Seamus was approached to cycle the event for charity, with funds going to help pay for a cancer treatment marching in Altnagelvin hospital.

“I said ‘I might as well so something’, I am out cycling anyway.  We started in Moville and went out around Malin town to Malin Head.”

It continued around the breath-taking views, yet unforgiving climbs, of Kinnagoe Bay and around by Moville and Greencastle.

Another of Seamus’ litany of routes was the Lagan to Foyle challenge, a 160 mile trek – all in the one day.

“It started in Derry from the Lisnagelvin Leisure Centre, down the Crescent Link and on to Limavady.  There was a brave climb through Ringsend to Garvagh.”

The route kept tucked to the ‘old roads’ towards Belfast, taking in Knockloughrim, Randalstown before heading towards Mallusk and down Shore Road.

“We got tea, buns and sandwiches and then we set off on the way back,” Seamus added.

“When we were coming up the Crescent Link, on the way home, none of us were doing any sprinting,” Seamus joked, as he pondering through his memory bank.

“We could’ve went on and done another few mile, it was all about pacing yourself.”

On the topic of tough cycles, another sprung to mind, back in the 1950s while still playing football with Banagher.

After a Sunday game at Templemoyle, where Banagher played their games, Doran headed off for Derry and picked up Leo Kealey on his way north.

After a pit stop for tea at his aunt’s on the Strand Road, they headed to Bridgend before turning and heading back for Dungiven.

It was a journey they nearly didn’t complete.  With the system running empty and the hunger pangs taking over, every mile was a mini mental battle.

“There were no shops to stop and get something to eat,” Doran recalls.  “By the time we got to the Foreglen, we were nearly ready to fall off the bicycles.”

Never mind pedalling, it was even a struggle to free wheel but Seamus had an idea,

Magdalene Donaghy had always called at their house in Dungiven for a chat and a cuppa on her bus trips in from Foreglen to do the shopping.

It was time to return the favour.  Fuel was needed for the final leg of their trip back from Derry.

“We called to see if she can give us a bit of a griddle scone because we couldn’t make down home.”

The house was full with people getting ready for a dance at the Castle and their two visitors gratefully scoffed down what seemed an endless supply of tea and scones.

“As sure as God, we nearly caused a famine in the Foreglen, we ate that much.  I was never as glad to see food in all my life.  Big griddle scones and them buttered.

“Then, when I started up cycling (again) in 1969, I always made sure I had enough food with me.  I learned my lesson.  It is an awful thing when you take hungry and you are out on a long run.”

This month when the pro-cyclists are battling their way across the terrain of France, buttered scones won’t be there fuel of choice but, as Seamus explains, they also need to plan accordingly.  One second two late and they too could be chugging along on empty.

“The boys get fed from a bag out of a car and if boys miss a feed station, they might have to go another 25 miles and the energy can run low and they can lose time.”

Cycling has always been kind to Seamus.  No cycle stands out more than the rest.

“I enjoyed a lot of cycling,” he concluded.

Aside from the sports’ shop, athletes and the cycling, he was the local barber.

A well-known and pivotal member of the local community.

***

Seamus Doran’s father Charlie had a barbers’ shop in Derry’s Waterside in the early 1900s before emigrating to New York after the first World War.

“The older brother Archie went to America in 1919 and my father went a year later and got a job in the overhead railway.”

A third brother Paddy, was also a barber.

On his day off, Charlie worked with a County Down man to keep his hand in with the barbering and after returning to Ireland, he set up the barbers’ shop in Dungiven.

“He started me serving my time before my 12th birthday.  With soldiers being forced to withdraw out of Dunkirk, they brought them to Northern Ireland and built garrison for training.

“They started to build air drones in Eglinton and Limavady.  They had them in Toomebridge and Nutts Corner, so there was plenty of work and plenty of money.”

Seamus recalls cutting an American officer’s hair one day.  In old money, a hair cut would’ve cost a shilling.

“He paid my father and said ‘this tip is for you kid’ …. and he gave me two shillings.  With rationing there was more money than there was stuff to buy.”

Before the war, work was scarce but it changed afterwards with a building boom

“When the war finished, there were bombs in Belfast and Derry….and there was work in England building up the places that got destroyed during the war.  There were boys coming out of Ireland, north and south, - out of a face - working in England.”

Up until ‘seven or eight’ years go, Seamus was still cutting hair.

“There are all these funny hair-cuts now,” he jokes.  “A baldy side and an edge left around it.  Christ, if I had done that when I was serving my time, you would’ve been hunted out of the country.”

Barber.  Cyclist.  Pillar of the community.

Seamus was a fountain of knowledge of the upcoming Tour de France.  Speaking days before the' Grant Départ', he recited Chris Froome’s injury forcing him out of the sports’ showpiece event.

Based on years of his own cycling experience, he surmises the effect the searing heat will have on the riders.

He also spoke of Geraint Thomas’ minor fall the recent Tour of Switzerland.

“I think he only got a scratch, he will be probably be the favourite again,” Doran concluded.

He will be tuning in to follow the journey to Paris.

Seamus Doran, Dungiven’s man on the bike.

Pic: Mary K Burke

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