WHEN he first completed the Tour de Munster cycle race in Cork city, Jason Pierce admits he got emotional.
“When I saw everyone at the bottom of Patrick’s Hill welcoming us home, I cried my heart out!” he laughs.
Jason took part in this year’s version of the four-day cycle race, which started in Cork and ended here yesterday, and chances are he filled up again, as he was doing it for a very special cause that is close to his heart.
The proud dad of three wanted to raise funds for Down Syndrome Ireland, as his six-year-old son Ruadh benefits greatly from the organisation’s work.
“I remember the first time I was involved in the Tour de Munster cycling event for Down Syndrome Ireland in 2016,” says Jason.
“It was pretty amazing cycling with all the lads for such a good cause.
“We all have a connection with cyclists in Cork, Clare, Limerick, Tipperary and Kerry. We are welcomed in all those counties when we are taking part in the Tour de Munster. It is really good to meet other families and other communities outside of Cork.”
The families and communities extend the hand of friendship.
“We’ve made great friends over the years through Tour de Munster” says Jason, who works as a sales director for a Belfast building firm.
But he wasn’t a rookie when he took part in that 2016 cycle.
“No. I’d cycled before and I’ve taken part in triathlons before,” says Jason. “I started cycling in 2009 to keep fit before I got married.
“In my job, I spend a lot of time in the car driving. Cycling is good for mental health.
“But I had no connection with Tour de Munster before Ruadh was born. I got involved when he was a year-and-a half. Being involved at some level now every year is great.”
Jason is married to Fia, and they are parents to Billy, 9, Ruadh, 6, and Clara, 3. He loves having the connection with the cyclists that take part in the four-day 640km event annually, and he loves the connection and support of the communities along the way, and the special connection Tour de Munster cyclists have had with D.S Ireland over the years.
“I took part again this year, cycling the course over two days. It was all I could manage with work and three kids! I was in training beforehand, clocking up the hours on the road in the mornings and evenings.”
Even though he has had numerous knee surgeries? And even though he was 40 recently?
“Don’t remind me!
“You know, the commitment and camaraderie among the participants is fantastic.
"Raising funds for Down Syndrome Ireland Cork branch is so worthwhile.
“Ruadh has benefited so much from the early intervention programme, the Little Explorers Early Intervention programme, LEEIP, which is provided by DSI Cork,” says Jason. “DSI Cork is a wonderful organisation.”
Entering into its 21st year this month, the Tour de Munster has raised a significant sum of money for some very worthy beneficiaries along the way, raising more than €3.4 million in total.
For DSI Munster branches alone, the tour has raised a staggering €3 million since they became the main beneficiary of the cycling event in 2010.
Ruadh has benefitted greatly from his connection with DSI Cork, which offers a wide range of services to young children with Down Syndrome and their families.
“Ruadh is proficient in Lámh signing and he has got on so well with his speech and language teacher, Míde Kearney, who he has built up a great one-to-one rapport with. And he has had her teaching him from the beginning, from the first appointment, which means a lot,” says Jason.
“Communication can be difficult for Ruadh, not knowing what he wants sometimes. But he has come on leaps and bounds and progressed greatly with his speech and language skills.”
Ruadh was born on November 27, 2014.
“He was always small and he was born with some complications,” says Jason.
“He was in the neo-natal unit for some time and he spent months in hospital.
“Christmas that year was different. When Ruadh was born with Down syndrome, we just rolled with it. We didn’t know beforehand.
"We wouldn’t change it now. He has brought us on an incredible journey.”
He has brought miles of happiness, always smiling and always celebrating his ‘firsts’.
“We get to celebrate every single ‘first’,” says Jason.
“Not everyone gets to do that. Ruadh goes to the loo himself in his potty and he celebrates that. He is a really happy child.”
He is a big boy now.
“We got his ‘big boy’ bed the other day,” says Jason.
“That was another ‘first’ celebration! It didn’t work out at first, but now it’s fine.”
DSI Cork celebrates every child.
“It is a fantastic organisation,” says Jason. “The consistency of the services provided by DSI Cork gives us great comfort.
“The funds raised by Tour de Munster go to good use, providing continuous vital services to children with Down Syndrome and their families. There are two full-time speech and language therapists employed now,” says Jason.
“Funds can be used to create new spaces and dedicated rooms for the children to use for play and for play therapy.”
Jason was on the board of DSI Cork in 2016.
“I met a lot of younger families who were looking to avail of the services and of early intervention programme and who hadn’t reached out. It can be tough on them,” he says.
“It is important to reach out in the early days as the public services are hard to access. Young families need that support.
“Research done in UCC on early intervention proves that it works. In DSI Cork, the classes with four or five children are well-structured and that is what is needed.
“Funds raised by Tour de Munster help support all the services provided by DSI Cork.”
The cyclists are all in it together.
“It is a lot of parents who support, DSI taking part in the cycle every year. We have some ladies taking part too!”
The Tour de Munster forges friendships for life.
“Spending time training and cycling together, we all become great friends,” says Jason.
“You might not see each other for five or six months of the year, but when we re-group it’s like there is no time elapsed since we last met up.”
Does the gruelling four day cycle up and down gentle and giant hills get any easier each year?
“It is tough every year!” says Jason. “Knowing what’s before you doesn’t make it any easier! Finding time to train, making the commitment is hard with work and family ties.”
There is another consideration to take note of. “I am 40 after all!”
Jason has won an award for his participation.
“The first year I won an award for being the most emotional on the tour!” says Jason. “I’m sure I cried in every town! It is something I’ll never forget.”
He never forgets photo of Ruadh taken at the home-coming at Patrick’s Hill, Cork.
“He has such a smile from ear to ear, he finds his way into photographs!” says Jason.
Father and son cherish all the photographs and they treasure all the ‘firsts’.
The cyclists were welcomed back to Cork yesterday. “I’ll be the one sobbing,” says Jason, laughing.
That won’t be a first.
Funds raised as a result of Tour de Munster play a significant role across Munster branches DSI.
Each year, an average of 120 cyclists make their way around the six counties of Munster on a four-day journey, raising much-needed funds and awareness for DSI.
On day 1, it went from City Hall, Cork, to Killaloe, on day two it headed to Tralee. Day three travelled from Tralee to Kenmare, and on the final day the cyclists headed back to Cork, ending at Clayton Hotel Silversprings.
Long-standing supporter of the Tour de Munster, Sean Kelly once again took to the road for his 16th tour. All cyclists cover their own expenses and every cent raised goes to the beneficiary.
Commenting on the partnership with DSI, Paul Sheridan, who established the tour, said: “We were delighted to enter into our 12th year with DSI Munster branches as the main beneficiary of Tour de Munster.
“If the past year has taught us anything, it’s how much the amazing children and adults who rely on DSI need our support.
“We have shared a journey for 12 years, which is very special, and each and every time we meet these wonderful children and adults, it’s all the motivation cyclists need to keep pedalling.
“We are all looking forward to another successful year as we continue our quest to raise vital funds and awareness.”