Sheila O’Brien has gone from novice cyclist to breaking records in a nationwide community cycling initiative, and has signed up to become one of its leaders. Pic: Lorraine Teevan.

Navan healthcare worker Sheila O'Brien went from casual cyclist to full-on advocate for community cycling initiatives and uses her passion to raise funds for Motor Neurone Disease research and support her sister who is living with the condition

When Sheila O’Brien first bought a bike in May 2019, it got little use.

“My partner and I would cycle to the Crover Hotel which is about 3K from home, get a gin and cycle back,” she recalls with a chuckle.

“Honestly, that is all we did, and I would complain about the hills on the journey.”

However, a year ago, her sister was diagnosed with life-changing motor neurone disease (MND) and that altered everything.

Of Irish parents, Sheila (52) grew up in America, but moved to Mountnugent, Co Cavan, in 1997.

A mother of four with three grandchildren, she describes herself as “overweight, with a dodgy knee and a degenerative disc disease.”

Yet, in the past year, she has become such an advocate for the bicycle that she has broken records in a nationwide community cycling initiative and has signed up to become one of its leaders.

“When my sister Tara (48) was diagnosed this time last year, I was devastated. I started riding the bike and getting outdoors because all I could think was ‘She cannot go through this, I cannot bear this’.

“It was not easy at the start. It is still not easy at times. But ten minutes into it I am like, ‘this is just great’.

“I get totally lost in it, and our beautiful scenery, and am usually out for an hour or two. My partner often has to phone to remind me it is getting dark.”

A health-care worker at a residential centre in Navan, Co Meath, Sheila first spotted the AXA Community Bike Ride initiative, partnered with Cycling Ireland, on Facebook.

The social cycling scheme, sometimes described as the ‘park run on wheels’, helps adults connect with their local community by beginning or returning to cycling.

Local volunteers, in Sheila’s case Noel Garrahan of Sheelin Flyers, guide small groups (a maximum of eight) on short, leisurely cycles and before long, Sheila was loving it.

Covid restrictions disrupted the group element, but participants have kept going by registering their solo cycles virtually, through an online system.

Sheila was the first woman in Ireland to clock up 100 cycles last September, and has added more since, even logging a few in Boston when she travelled over to visit her sister.

She stresses that she cycles “for my head, it is not about losing weight.”

Sheila O’Brien has gone from novice cyclist to breaking records in a nationwide community cycling initiative, and has signed up to become one of its leaders. Pic: Lorraine Teevan. Photo by LORRAINE TEEVAN

But she has lost 16 pounds, and the physical benefits were never more apparent than when she contracted Coronavirus last March.

She made a relatively quick recovery, which her doctor partly attributed to improved health.

“If I am having a twinge or an ache, I just think of Tara. She is moving rapidly towards becoming a wheelchair user, but is such a positive, powerful woman. You would not believe how strong she is.”

Cycling also provides Sheila with an opportunity to support her sister by raising money for MND research. Her bike is now wrapped in the livery of Tara’s ‘4youIwillfight’ campaign.

She is also intent on giving back to cycling and her community. The AXA Community Bike Ride scheme doesn’t yet operate in every county. Expanding it further relies on finding new group leaders, and Sheila has registered to become one.

“I got the letter confirming my Garda clearance and have now received my leader certification.

“When I started, the guys at Sheelin Flyers were amazing. They would go off and do their 80-100K and meet us afterwards and take us for a leisurely 25K.

“I had no idea about cycling, like what to do with gears or how to get up a hill. They were so kind, and never once made me feel like I didn’t belong. That is the kind of leader I want to be.

“What I really want is for people like me to cycle with people like me! We’ll do 10k or 15K, get to talk, get to know each other, have fun.

“I have never found physical things easy, so I’m totally into embracing people without overwhelming them. These cycles are so accessible and I would love other people to feel as good as I do afterwards.

“Even if I have to walk beside someone with a bike to get them started, I will do it. I always say, ‘I am not better than you, I have just had more practice!’”

Sheila O’Brien is one of a number of inspirational women profiled as part of Sport Ireland’s online Women in Sport series.

This interview first appeared in the recent issue of INSPIRE which was a celebration of Women in Sport