Cycling through pain so that others gain

Tour De Munster cyclist John Preston talks to Sarah Horgan about why he is taking part in the annual event, even while grieving. 
Cycling through pain so that others gain
John Kiely, Jillian Preston Kiely, John Preston, Joey Kiely and Jeni Kiely at home in Carrigaline getting ready for the tour de Munster for Down Syndrome Cork. Pic: Gavin Browne

A CORK man will take to his bike with a heavy heart next week as he prepares to cycle in the Tour De Munster without his wife, following her death from cancer.

John Preston will be among hundreds taking part in the charity event on Thursday next, August 8, just over a year after losing his wife who supported him during every race. The Cobh man, whose wife once drove behind him in her car during the event, was determined not to give up, given that his seven-year-old niece Jeni has benefited from the services of Down Syndrome Cork.

John Kiely, Jillian Preston Kiely, John Preston, Joey Kiely and Jeni Kiely at home in Carrigaline getting ready for the tour de Munster for Down Syndrome Cork. Pic: Gavin Browne
John Kiely, Jillian Preston Kiely, John Preston, Joey Kiely and Jeni Kiely at home in Carrigaline getting ready for the tour de Munster for Down Syndrome Cork. Pic: Gavin Browne

This won’t be the first bittersweet Tour de Munster for John. Back in 2015 he lost his friend Seán Hennessy who he had met through the competition.

John had kindly agreed to step in and help Seán during his own cancer battle. The Cobh man had been visiting their mutual friend’s bike shop in Blackpool five years ago when it emerged that Seán would need a chaperone to drive behind him during the race.

“If one person falls ill you can’t leave them at the side of the road to deal with the situation,” John explained. “Seán wanted to ensure that any potential medical issues he might have wouldn’t upset the tour. This was where I came in.”

After some deliberation the pair came up with an ingenious plan that included John’s wife Mairead.

“It didn’t make much sense that Seán was in his 70s and I was in my 50s and I was the one driving behind him. We decided to both cycle together and my wife Mairead took on the role of driving behind us. At one point I remember feeling put off by the torrential rain but Seán was still smiling at everyone including the bucket shakers as he passed by. It made me wonder how I could complain when Seán was still smiling despite everything he had been going through.”

Although the pair had planned to cycle together again the following year Sean sadly didn’t live to see the next race, but John continued participating in each annual race with the support of his wife who captured every special moment on her camera. The family was devastated when Mairead died following a brief illness in Marymount Hospice.

“I had taken part in another charity cycle that left from the car park of Marymount Hospice. I never thought that 12 months later I would be looking out at that car park. Looking out the window of Marymount Hospice knowing that there are patients who will never step out of that building again is a harsh reminder of just how valuable life is. What appears to be a certain way today might be completely different tomorrow. We still have a life ourselves and it would be a fright to waste it.”

He takes comforts from the positives adding: “It was a short illness but we are lucky that it wasn’t a prolonged agony.”

John was determined to honour his wife’s legacy. “I could hear her voice in my head urging me to get on with my life,” he said. “The last thing she would want is me using her as an excuse. Life still goes on in spite of unfortunate circumstances. You have to look at the good you’re doing over anything else. To a lot of people’s surprise, I took part again last year after the goalposts had moved dramatically. In this life you have to play the cards you are dealt.

While it’s difficult to have one chapter end I have to remember that it’s the beginning of another.”

The cyclist has learned a lot from his experiences.I’m just glad to be able to do this tour for Down Syndrome Cork.”

One of John’s biggest inspirations is his sister Jillian - who he trained for the event a few years ago - and her daughter Jeni who has Down Syndrome.

“I’m the lucky one because I can drop in and out of this world,” he said. “I don’t have the trials and tribulations that so many families of children with Down Syndrome have to deal with.

Cycling a bike for 600k is nothing compared to what these families have to go through on a daily basis. Everyone is there for the common good and nursing each other through.”

John Kiely, Jillian Preston Kiely, John Preston, Joey Kiely and Jeni Kiely at home in Carrigaline getting ready for the tour de Munster for Down Syndrome Cork. Pic: Gavin Browne
John Kiely, Jillian Preston Kiely, John Preston, Joey Kiely and Jeni Kiely at home in Carrigaline getting ready for the tour de Munster for Down Syndrome Cork. Pic: Gavin Browne

He admits that there will be painful reminders during the tour but very happy moments too. “Certain days of the year leave you in a different space. I’d be lying if I said it had no effect on me. Every tour is different and throws up new memories. Last year outside City Hall I could almost still see Mairead in the spot where she always took pictures.” Nonetheless, he reiterated that every cyclist on the tour is fighting their own battle. This isn’t a story about me. It’s a story about the 120 people taking to the road to help improve the lives of children and families with Down Syndrome. This is something I would encourage everyone to do.”

One of the highlights of the tour for John is seeing the kids from Down Syndrome Ireland there to cheer on the cyclists. “If you had a heart of stone it would melt after seeing and meeting with these kids. One of the mottos is “don’t see my disability, look at my ability. You just have to look at the positives in life.”

Jillian, who is also coordinating a calendar for Down Syndrome Cork this year, spoke of how proud she is of her brother for his strength over adversity.

“He was the one who encouraged me to do the tour even though I hadn’t been on a bike since the age of 12. Mairead had looked after my children three times a week while John trained me. That was just the kind of person she was. I’ll never forget how she took my photograph on Patrick’s Hill at the end of the tour when I was crying buckets of tears. When you have a child with Down Syndrome you are on your own to a degree so it’s good to know that there are people behind you.”

Jillian’s will also be cheering on her husband John who is taking part in the cycle this year. Tour de Munster was established in 2001 and is a 600km charity cycle around the six counties of Munster. Over 100 cyclists will participate this year as well as cycling legend Seán Kelly.

Since 2010, the Munster branches of Down Syndrome Ireland have been the main beneficiary of the tour, bringing the total to over €2.3 million raised since the partnership began. To find out more about the tour and how to donate visit http://tourdemunster.com

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