Andy Friend knows all about pedal power. The Connacht head coach first saw it when he was at Harlequins 17 years ago and it has since inspired him to take the road of death in Bolivia, to traverse some of the highest peaks of the Alps and Pyrenees and, when hard times visited his own front door, saw him pedal over 5,000km from tip to toe Australia.
n Saturday, the Aussie will step up for another good cause close to Connacht Rugby’s hearts when he leads a field from Sportsground to Sligo RFC on a 218km charity cycle, Care4Claire.
The Connacht Rugby community is showing support and raising funds for Claire Carpenter, from Sligo, who suffered a life-changing stroke at home in February this year. Claire’s partner Ross Mannion is responsible for the province’s involvement and was head coach of the Connacht women’s team in 2021. They have three children, Luke (14), Anna (10) and Zach (7 years).
“These are difficult times for people who are going through (difficulties),” Friend said. independent.ie“but what you realize when you go through it is there’s a community out there that’s very, very caring and very generous and cares about each other. And that gives you tremendous strength when you experience that first hand. And hopefully that’s what the cycle does for Ross and Claire and the kids.
Friend was working as Harlequins head coach in 2005 when he first felt the impact these events can have. He didn’t own his own bike when director of rugby Dean Richards first recruited him for their charity ride from London to Paris, but the experience ignited a flame in the 53-year-old that still burns bright.
“Doing these cycles made me love cycling. Listen, my main love is actually mountain biking. I always say if I want to get away from it all I go for a ride on the mountain bike. If I just want some to think, I’m going for a ride on the road, but I like the two companions, really.
Twelve years ago, Friend turned to cycling again to help get through a difficult time within his own family.
His wife Kerri suffered a traumatic brain injury after falling off a mountain bike and a fundraising cycle is said to be part of her recovery process.
He had been advised to spend time away from the complicated stress of the city. The time spent in the bush therefore had a meaning. It was also an environment they were very comfortable in, as they had both worked as instructors for Outward Bound, a non-profit outdoor education organization.
So Friend took on the challenge of cycling 5,300km in 93 days along the National Bicentenary Trail from Cookstown to his hometown of Canberra, with Kerri driving the support vehicle.
“Physically it was a challenge, but there was a bigger cause at play – and that was Kerri and she was trying to raise money and awareness for brain injury. there’s not really a lot of support there.
“By my rugby coaching profile – I had just been sacked by the Brumbies so I had a profile! – we managed to raise $180,000,000 for two charities, one was Brain Injury Australia and the other was Outward Bound.
It also gave them both a sense of purpose at a difficult time.
“It was a really powerful experience for us and, even better, Kerri has rallied now, you’ll hardly notice she got hurt. So it was very beneficial to us. »
Since arriving in Galway in 2018, Friend has had the opportunity to explore the best of the Irish countryside on two wheels. After recovering from a ruptured quadrilateral tendon last year, he has found his rhythm.
This off-season has given him time to explore the full length of the west coast – by bike and with his new campervan – from climbing Healy Pass in Cork to the peninsula of St John’s Point in Donegal. The physical challenge, even in his advanced age, is still an attraction for Friend, but for this weekend’s race there is a broader motivation.
“Ideally you wouldn’t have these good causes that you cycle for, but life is life and things happen. And I think what’s important is that when things happen, you try as best you can to be behind people.
“And if you can raise money and raise awareness, then jumping on a bike for 218 km is not a bad option.”
On Saturday, Andy Friend and Eric Elwood will be among members and staff of Connacht Rugby Club who will take part in a 218km cycle from the Sportsground to Sligo RFC as part of the fundraising campaign to support Claire Carpenter, partner of the Connacht employee Ross Mannion. https://www.connachtrugby.ie/care4claire/