As Roger Holmes, an inexperienced cyclist from Donegal, was making his third attempt at cycling up the first slopes of the Sierra Nevada he told himself that nothing was going to stand in his way, even if he had to ask for the help of strangers to finally get him up the slope that had defeated him the previous two days.
“I was going to make it,” he told IrishCentral.
“Even if that meant having to knock on a door where I had gotten tired and asking if I could spend the night and then going from that point over the next day, I was absolutely sure that I was going to do it and I've never been so driven in all my life.”
After a fall from an electric bike while not wearing a helmet two years ago left Holmes badly bashed up, it seems unlikely that Holmes ever imagined he’d undertake a Transatlantic cycle in the near future. But that’s exactly what he did - kicking off from San Francisco on June 14 and making the journey from west to east to New York. He passed through 13 states along the route before making his way back to Ireland to complete a cycle from Donegal to Dublin.
Although his previous fall had left Holmes with anxiety about getting back in the saddle, he was greatly assisted by members of his Donegal community, including a local cancer survivor who encouraged him to face his fear. This was the inspiration that the 43-year-old needed. He had to give back to a charity that had helped a man who had helped him in turn.
“I started thinking about a charity cycle and because he was a cancer survivor and had received help from the Irish Cancer Society, I thought it would close out the loop if I helped the charity that helped out the man that helped me, so that's how it started,” Holmes said.
“Then America came to mind right away. When you're doing road trips there's really nowhere else.”
As well as raising funds for the Irish Cancer Society during his journey on Peggy – a used bike he bought to complete the cycle that was given a new lease of life with a few spare parts from a friend – Holmes also hoped to raise awareness among men of the importance of a PSA test, which helps to monitor and pick up an early signs of prostate cancer.
“Cancer crosses the ocean,” Holmes said on meeting with IrishCentral in New York's Central Park, where he was catching up on a few miles he had missed throughout the route as a result of the intense heat of the desert.
“I was trying to promote this year the PSA test and trying to get men more proactive about prevention and early protection because women are great about this sort of stuff and men aren't, they don't talk about it.”
It was evident to Holmes how right he was about the worldwide effects of cancer based on the conversations he had with the people he met, especially a pair of twin sisters named Em and Liz (Emily and Elizabeth), who he prefers to refer to as the “Desert Angels.”
Holmes began his trek in California after only 200 miles of preparation for this epic undertaking. The Golden State may have been great practice for Holmes, but the challenge of Nevada, Utah and Colorado following California was great. He found that the intensity of the heat and the terrain itself had a major effect on his physical well-being as he battled his way through the Monarch Pass, which rises to 11,300 ft. The heat had such an effect on his body that there was a point at which Holmes was forced to climb from his bike and dig himself what he calls a “shallow grave” in the ground to allow himself to cool down.
“I figured out that this was 75 percent mental and 25 percent physical, and so my training was really on the mental side,” he admits, “and it's amazing how that stood to me because the fitness came … I decided that the mental side of it was way more important and that turned out to be the case.
“Mentally I was in a great place to do this. Just by focusing on a few simple things, meditating, not getting stressed out by anything. If it was going to take me an extra week, that's ok. If I only cycle ten miles in a day, that's ok. I didn't get competitive in a cycling sense so I was trying to get that quiet bliss where I was focused but not overly competitive.”
The Desert Angels came to his rescue in one of the most difficult parts of the trip in Nevada. The twins, in their early 60s, decided to shepherd Holmes through the desert in their trusty RV, ensuring he had AC and cool water waiting for him at the side of the road when he finished his day’s cycle. Having lost her husband two years previously to prostate cancer, Em had since wished to give back to a cancer charity but it wasn’t until she and her sister crossed paths with Holmes outside a grocery store that she found the opportunity she had been looking for.
“I was bowled over. I was brought to tears loads of times by the kindness and generosity of random strangers,” Holmes admitted.
Of course, being Irish helped - sort of. Holmes was half glad when his tricolor flag blew off his bike and he no longer had curious locals stopping him to share their own Irish stories and cutting into his cycling time.
“The Irish have a pretty good reputation when you go out through all of those states,” Holmes believes.
“People speak highly of us and they think we're friendly, hard-working and that we've a good heart. They also think we drink too much, but they think we're happy and that we party so I was treated really well.”
Holmes finally returned to Donegal on Sunday, August 28, after more than two months in America. Holmes will now take a well-deserved few days to recalibrate before setting off on the final leg of what he describes as nothing but a positive experience.
“My bicycle fall was a really negative experience. Everything about it was negative,” he said.
“So I reached a point where I thought can I somehow change that negative experience and make it into something else so when it pops up in my memory, it doesn't pop up as a negative memory, it pops up as a more positive memory. I was driven by trying to change that negative experience into a positive, personally.”
So far Holmes has raised almost $8,000 for the Irish Cancer Society, but the fund is still open for contributions here. Holmes is hoping to set off for Dublin after September 10,
You can follow the remainder of his journey on his Facebook page.