Following Dervla Murphy

Picture of Dervla Murphy from the Telegraph, UK

Following Dervla Murphy By Mike Courteau.

You’ve probably never heard of Dervla Murphy. I say this because she is an Irish writer and my former Irish literature professor, who seems to know every Irish writer, had never heard of her. She is the author of “Full Tilt: Ireland to India by Bicycle.” I recommend it to anyone who enjoys cycling—especially anyone who is contemplating a big ride.

“On my tenth birthday a bicycle and an atlas coincided as presents and a few days later I decided to cycle to India,” Ms. Murphy wrote in the Foreword to her travelogue. First published in 1986 by The Overlook press but copyrighted 21 years earlier in 1965, “Full Tilt” chronicles Ms. Murphy’s solo cycling adventure that began in Dunkirk, Ireland on January 7, 1963 and ended in Delhi, India on July 18 some six months later.

Although it would be hard for many Twin Cities’ cyclists, even the most avid among us, to envision undertaking such a cycling odyssey, it would not be unreasonable to assume that many of us ride to test our limits. Some riders want to know how fast they can cover a certain distance in a time trial while others want to know what’s around the next bend, over the next hill or at the next brewpub.

For Dervla Murphy, this desire to travel a great distance by bicycle, “about three thousand miles,” would take her through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India on a men’s Armstrong Cadet bicycle that she affectionately named Rozinante (“Roz” for short) after the steed that Don Quixote famously rode on his idealistic adventures through Renaissance Europe. “The only preparation that Roz needed was the removal of her three-speed derailleur gear, which I reckoned would be too sensitive to survive Asian roads,” Ms. Murphy wrote.

Of course, such a journey would be impossible without equipment. Add gear to what would be an unthinkably heavy bicycle by today’s standards, and you start to appreciate the rigor of Murphy’s overland voyage. “Apart from the normal accessories—saddle bag, bell, lamp and pump—she [Roz] carried only pannier bag holders on either side of the back wheel. Unloaded she weighs thirty-seven pounds and at the start of the journey she was taking twenty-eight pounds of kit while I carried another six pounds in a small knapsack.”

Imagine trying to grind up Ramsey Hill with all of that dunnage!

We Twin Cities’ cyclists know how hard it is to transport our own weight amassed during winter’s sloth, and we entertain thoughts that it might be easier to reduce our poundage by buying a sleeker bike.  Even my own bike, a Fuji Newest 3.0, which carries a couple of water bottle cages and a tiny, Avenir saddle bag under the seat, weighs a whopping 26 pounds.  When you consider that the cycles pedaled by professional riders in long stage races like the Tour de France are a whisker over 14 pounds, you get some appreciation for the athleticism, if not sheer determination, that it took for Dervla Murphy to pedal that tank through the Khyber Pass.

Ms. Murphy, it is clear, had to endure so much more than pedal her ponderous bicycle 3,000 miles across all of that hard country. There’s a reason she carried a .25 caliber automatic pistol and four rounds of ammunition.

But it is also clear that most of us who enjoy cycling here in these lovely Twin Cities have to endure so much less. Soon, the sun will rise high in the sky and the snow will disappear along with our reasons for not cycling. So let us, Twin Cities’ cyclists all, take inspiration from adventurers like Dervla Murphy, and ride.

You never know what’s around the next bend, over the next hill or at the next brewpub.


Thanks Mike!

Mike Courteau is a Twin Cities rider and English teacher.  You can read all of his previous weekly musings on cycling and the Twin Cities here.

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