by Bob Donaldson - Zappis CC/ Audax UK
(Thursday 28th July 2016)
It was clear that Clara, once a thriving industrial town, had seen better times. Boarded-up shops and pubs greeted me as I hobbled around town (my feet blistered and in agony from walking too much around Dublin). Large, rusted machinery jutted out from behind crumbling walls and hinted at former enterprise. After some wandering around I spotted some lean looking chaps with a distinct spring in their step who had also come to town for the Celtic Knot and directed me towards the Aspire Spa Centre tucked away behind a pair of once grand and now crumbling gateposts.
Here I was warmly welcomed by the Audax Eire support crew who seemed genuinely surprised that I had cycled from Oxford to get there. Judging by the wide array of largely carbon machines, with a few titanium bikes among them, which were leaning haphazardly around the walls of the showers and changing rooms, it also appeared that I was one of the last to arrive.
In a nearby store I located some pies and retreated back to base to reheat them in the large and well-equipped kitchen and devoured them while chatting to some of the others – mainly Irish riders, but with a small number from further afield like Anne from Wales, Geordie from Dorset (although originally from Northumbria) and Carol from Idaho (although originally from New Zealand).
The main crew appeared to be Rory, Brian and Paul. Rory had a shaved head and seemed a little anxious. He had ridden the Celtic Knot before on a fixie. Brian was a Dubliner who had some issues with a shoulder and seemed chatty. Paul immediately offered to get drink or food and was full of lively and positive words of wisdom.
Some had already gone to bed while others had located a nearby curry house and were engaged in some serious carb-loading. I chatted with the volunteers and a few of the other cyclists who seemed to know each other and were catching up since previous exploits, until my eyes grew too heavy. I ended up in a room at the end of a long corridor bedecked with well-polished and varnished wooden flooring. A solitary occupant on the bed next to mine lay motionless as I slipped into deep unconsciousness before my head hit the pillow.
(Friday 29th July)
As I leapt out of bed at 5am I noticed that my room-mate was still asleep. After a quick shower I made my way to the kitchen where a generous selection of breakfasts awaited and was soon demolished. A cool, dry cloudy morning awaited the assembled cyclists. Just before we set off we received a few kindly words of encouragement and general advice (of which I remembered none) and then we slipped out of Clara and into the awaiting Offaly lanes and started the Celtic Knot in earnest.
After an hour or so a group of around ten of us formed into a natural club-run type of peloton. Occasionally some would shoot off the front only to be caught up the road; others dropped off the back only to catch up again at the next stop. The group had a good range of abilities providing stronger riders with an opportunity to get up ahead and cut through the headwinds while slighter individuals could work around behind in 3rd or 4th wheel (or just hang on at the back). Among the stronger riders was Martin, John and a giant of a man who had grown up in a farming community in rural Ireland. Geordie (a recently-retired fireman) also managed to get to the front for much of the time. Others in this group were Dave Clark, a clubmate of Martin’s, who had only done a few shorter (200k) audaxes before CK but was full of fighting spirit. Geordie, Anne and Carol had endured long-distance events before as evidenced by PBP jerseys. It was reassuring to be part of a group with such seasoned veterans.
As is common with large groups of cyclists equipped with multiple navigational devices, it wasn’t long before, upon reaching a junction, opinions begun to differ as to which road was the correct one. I had downloaded a deluxe all-1000km-in-one GPX prior to leaving home (several days earlier). But this, I discovered, had been superseded by three separate files for the individual loops; the differences seemed to be rather significant. However, this didn’t stop me from chipping in with route suggestions when the opportunity availed itself. Remarkably, given the variation in options, we tended to stick more or less to a route which connected the controls on my deluxe edition, although one or two legs on dual-carriageways didn’t feel quite right! The route-sheet, I should add, which caused much cussing, and was almost as indecipherable as a string of perverse DNA, was proudly mounted on many a handlebar and consulted in moments of deepest indecision with grim determination. To those trundling along at the back of the group this all provided some light diversion from the serious business of waffling on about anything and everything under the dubious summer skies of Ireland. We made good progress while sharing our cycling experiences and backgrounds.
Our route took us in a northerly direction towards Carrick-on-Shannon (our first control) via Moate, Ballymahon and Longford. This took us out of County Offaly, across Westmeath and Longford and into County Leitrim in less than 4 hours. If cycling in England with a group of cyclists while crossing a county border sign you may get a faint phut of an acknowledgement from someone – “I say, old boy”, they might sigh, “did you happen to notice that we’ve just crossed into Gloucestershire?” In Ireland, a land where people are hardwired to their counties at birth, and never truly leave them no matter how far across the surface of the globe they may wander, a county sign is an invitation to wax lyrical about the hurling championships, battles fought several centuries ago and childhood memories of driving tractors back home (while still a child). The odd disparaging remark about a particular football result might be hurled up in the air only to be returned with a swift volley about a memorable hurling result – frequently of historic vintage.
Cyclists from London, or indeed any British city, could not fail to be impressed with the standard of driving in Ireland. With the exception of towns (where inconsiderate motorists can nearly always be found), drivers will show great courtesy to cyclists and give them plenty of room while overtaking and exercise caution when driving behind them. Even when in a peloton, the drivers were generally understanding and this added to the pleasure of cycling in Ireland. For our part, there was a reciprocated courtesy of checking ahead and, if safe to do so, waving the motorists past the group – normally followed by a thank you toot of the horn. Not one window wound down and obscenities exchanged. A very different experience from that found in the South East of England where cutting up and swearing at cyclists is considered a mandatory part of the on-road experience.
The sun came out as we kissed the Sligo coastline like a glittering treasured jewel. It became clear that this was a tourist area as the number of foreign-plated campervans and twee little gift shops and cafes began to appear. This was a fine stretch providing some stunning views as we wound our way along the coastline until the sumptuous Killala Bay came into view and the delightful town of Enniscrone which was clearly popular with tourists. Martin, who had emerged as ride leader led us safely passed the rather tempting harbour-view cafes to a rather average Irish supermarket where we grabbed assorted snacks and gathered on the pavement outside to the bemusement of passing tourists. Did I mention that we also cut across Roscommon en route to the coast?
Ireland possesses some of the finest small supermarkets and petrol-station forecourts Europe has to offer. In addition to the usual attractions and facilities, many also supply 24-hour full-Irish breakfasts, coffee vending machines and flushing toilets, which essentially boils down to 99% of the average audaxer's needs. What they don’t provide – a fine dining experience – can normally be obtained several streets down the road. For the majority of the group, at least initially, this delicate balance in favour of basic needs over aesthetic experience was sufficient to hold the group together – normally sprawled around the frontage of a modest store. Perhaps an initial crack in this strategy first appeared when I succumbed to the temptations of a fish and chips shop over a meal of the more regular grab’n’go variety. Oh they tasted so good – even when gobbled down quickly to keep within the decreed stoppage allowances the group imposed upon itself.
“Come on now – we haven’t got all day!” And so on into Mayo to Ballina and Foxford (it’s rather cool to cycle from Oxford to Foxford), Kiltimagh and Knock (sadly no time for pics).
Between Ballina and Foxford is a small lane that goes off route to a tiny hamlet called Attymass – we were literally only a kilometer or two from it – where the author Marrie Walsh documented life growing up in this part of Ireland in the 1930s and 40’s in “An Irish Country Childhood”. It’s a wonderful read bringing to life the harsh realities of a way of life that has now all but disappeared. While she paints a picture of poverty which drives the menfolk and the older children away from their homes, and even their country of birth, in order to earn wages that will enable the younger children and women to be able to sit around the homeside hearth (which never goes out) and scrape together an existence, it also tells of those small activities that bound the isolated homes together in shared experiences – such as cutting turf, celebrating holy days and attending wakes.
My last visit to Knock had been on leaving Ireland after a friend’s wedding something like 30 years ago – a two-week blur that had taken me from Dublin to Malahide to Cashel, Tipperary and then to a town, maybe Charlestown, in Mayo, and then by a precarious high-speed drive down relatively minor roads to Knock Airport.
I’d known about Knock long before I ever went there, as my Grandmother, of distant Irish Catholic stock, had told me all about the pope’s visit there (in 1979). The Pope had attracted vast crowds of pilgrims when he came to the centenary of Knock Shrine; built to commemorate an apparition of St Mary, St Joseph, St John the Evangelist, a Lamb and a cross on an altar, and seen by 15 people on 21st August 1879. Somehow the story of Knock, the Pope and the later airport all seemed to be intertwined in some mysterious modern miracle – for what else could explain an airport with a runway long enough to land a 747 in the middle of an Irish bog? Niall, who was connected to the European Parliament, and therefore knows such things, mentioned something about Star Wars and the Cold War (or was it the Iron Curtain) which sounded sufficiently X-Fileseque and of that era to be plausible. Sadly, we cycled straight past the Shrine (and Basilica) where a candle and prayer might have been in order (for I was raising money for CAFOD by undertaking a 2000km cycle ride – of which the Celtic Knot was the main course).
I’d been to no airport like Knock. For a start, it was in the middle of nowhere – literally nothing but open countryside all around as far as I could see. Then the airport was little more than a collection of portacabins that had been joined together to make a check-in, arrivals, departures, shop and then the runway. I sat in a very small room with the other passengers each clutching our hand-luggage and duty frees and waited. Our plane, which was the only one on the runway, wasn’t moving anywhere. Eventually, the men who look at the underbelly of planes took a closer look and got their tool boxes out. Being a Sunday nothing was happening very quickly. Eventually we were allowed on the plane. But the unsettling sound of men tinkering under the fuselage wasn’t terribly confidence-building. After an hour or so, and still on the plane, we were told that the plane would not be going anywhere and that we would be allowed off – after the friends and family had left the runway that they had walked onto to get a closer look at the action – there was nothing happening, but my guess was that this was as exciting as it got on in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. Eventually after several hours we were back in the departure lounge (a rather grand title for what was little more than a flatpack garage assembled into an airport facility). After further tinkering with the unwell plane and a little more deliberation we were told that a replacement plane was being sent across from Luton. The plane eventually arrived and we eventually took to the skies and I waved Knock and Ireland farewell to be unceremoniously bused into central London (compensation was basic in those days) in the middle of the night. I think dawn was breaking when I finally made my way back to Turnpike Lane just in time to have breakfast and catch the tube into central London and back to the office grind!
On we pedalled, worked as a tight-knit group, and cruised into Ballyhaunis, our last control of the day at around 6:30pm, and still in Mayo. This was a short stop and on we travelled into Roscommon through Creggs and Curraghboy (a name that belongs to the title of wistful poem) and finally to the outskirts of Athlone where a luxurious Texaco forecourt next to a McDonalds kept us all amused for a good half-hour and then, fortified, we went back into the night and into Westmeath via Moate and then safely back into Offaly for the final stretch to Clara at just after 11:30pm, and with 376 km rather than the advertised 364km in our legs. Despite the distance, the steady shared pace and good company had made it a fine day on the road and I soon crashed out after feasting on lasagne, apple pie and proper fresh cream and chocolate milk-shake. The bed next to mine was unoccupied.
(Saturday 30th June)
The alarm went off at 05:00. I felt rather rough but physically fine. After showering I headed to the canteen where the rest of the “team” were already way through their breakfasts. It transpired that we’d made good progress on the previous day as several riders had arrived in the wee small hours and two had abandoned. After a quick breakfast and packing it was back on the road at 06:00. This time our neat peloton went out to the Wild West to Galway where we once again kissed the coastline at Kinvara, our first control, after stretching our legs a little by the Slieve Aughty Mountains. Kinvara features some very scenic spots. We homed in on a Londis PLUS. There was a bountiful array of provender and the usual quality toilets we’d come to expect. It’s a short hop from there into County Clare and the wonderful limestone pavements and escarpments of The Burren National Park where we located Father ted’s House atop a stiff hill and had a group photo taken there by a young couple who were making this televisual pilgrimage. It was quite staggering that 30 years after the show, the house still draws frequent groups of inquisitive tourists from the far ends of the earth. The house is a private residence and peering through the rusting gates was as far as anyone could go.
I had already sampled some of Rory’s route planning prior to the Celtic Knot as he’d kindly sent me a route from Dublin to Clara which had taken in some quiet roads and tracks along tranquil canals. And so it came as no surprise when a quiet lane turned into a rugged and rutted woodland track which I found rather delightful (although others, cursing their punctures, had markedly differing views). One of the pleasures of audax routes for me is that they will often mix a little rough with the smooth – often cutting out busy roads or industrial areas in the process. Although neither industry nor major traffic were unlikely to trouble us in the depths of rural Ireland, the pleasure of an off-road segment was not lost – albeit shortly over and back onto the relatively sound metalled surface of Irish roads.
There’s a rugged beauty to this part of Ireland as we made our return journey just to the north of Ennis and to the shores of Lough Derg which provided spectacular views and more photo opportunities. The group was becoming quite stretched out by the time we reached our next control at Ballina, having crossed the River Shannon, and a rest stop seemed to be in order.
We pulled over by a tempting waterside restaurant – the sort where you can have a leisurely meal overlooking the loch and enjoying the late afternoon sun. While debating whether or not to stop there or go somewhere that looked a little less busy, a few of the group had taken a table and begun to order drinks. Not all were of like mind and a splinter-group was emerging. I’d spotted a Polish deli just behind the restaurant and was thinking of grabbing a couple of kielbasa of maybe and slab of kremowka when it was decided that we would check out the town and maybe find a chippy. About 3 minutes later John, Dave, Martin and I were standing outside a now familiar brand of supermarket chewing all too familiar fare. A nearby pub seemed to be okay about us emptying our bladders against the wall of the urinal. Let the good times roll.
We headed out into the gathering night and the Silvermine Mountains of Tipperary which Dave and I found rather a grind while John and Martin raced on ahead. Already the team of four was beginning to show signs of becoming two groups of two. On one particularly steep and recently resurfaced road Dave’s chain came off in the pitch darkness and it was a struggle to get it back into the right place again (but is was a welcome break from clambering up the ramp). Mining in this area of Ireland goes back to 1289 and only wound up as recently as 1992 by which time the mining concerns had extracted barite, lead, zinc, copper and, of course, silver, and left behind extensive slag heaps.
The road took us down through Dolla and to Toomevara where we found a welcoming Texaco garage and some welcome refuelling. A solo cyclist was just leaving as we arrived – we never saw him again so he was clearly going at a good pace. We clambered back onto our saddles and were soon getting up a good rhythm as we regained Offaly at Moneygall. Offaly is relatively flat with a fifth of the county being made up of peat bogs, making it essentially the Somerset levels of Ireland – just the ticket for legs with over 500 km in them!
Our strategy was very simple: heads down, do the miles, minimal stops, get back sooner and get more sleep. It seemed brutally simple, and so it proved to be as we rode on through the bleak landscape and into the night with that fixed purpose lodged in our brains. We sliced our way onwards until the distant lights of Tullamore came into view. Soon we were once again back at Clara – some fresh deep pebbly gravel having been strewn down (it seemed) since our departure to create a final hurdle only metres from the door of the Aspire Centre. I remember feeling a little shot by this stage, but we were now over two-thirds of the way through our Celtic Odyssey and seemed to have a good team spirit. The other six members arrived during a delicious supper of shepherd’s pie, and a high-end pear tart and cream. They were keen to mention fine food stops along the way while working well together as a team.
It was decided that the splinter group would set off an hour later the following morn and so I set my alarm for 06:15 and reached a state of unconsciousness as my head slumped towards the pillow. My room-mate, and all of his belongings had vanished during my absence. One day to go.
(Sunday 31st July)
It had been decided that we would set off an hour later as we only had 300km to do today – the extra hour in bed seemed like an excellent approach – as both mind and body were starting to feel very tired and sore and the conversation was becoming a little more muted. During breakfast the last pair of cyclists had arrived giving a stark indication of just how spread out the field had now become. The larger group from which we had splintered off had left sometime before so it was just the breakaway gang of four who set out shortly after 7 into a cool grey morning in a southerly direction towards the Slieve Bloom Mountains in County Laois, where we ascended a long steady ramp that under normal circumstances would not have been too arduous, but with over 700k in our legs became a slow crawl. Dave dropped back until he was out of sight while John surged ahead with Martin somewhere behind him. On the way up some casual cyclists were taking an early morning spin and floated past us effortlessly on lightweight carbon bling. Near to “The Cut” we caught up with some of the original group smiling for a few photos before they disappeared over the crest and out of sight while we waited for Dave to resurface. It was pretty bleak up here and the air was chilly as it oozed around the high point of the Ridge of Capard. Together with the Central Massif in France they are the oldest mountains in Europe and once towered to 3,700m. Weathering has fortunately, as Dave would concur, reduced them to a more manageable 500m – even so, they are still a stiff old climb.
The descent was reminiscent of descending down the French Alps with some fine sweeping bends and sumptuous vegetation and onto terrain that was a little more rolling through Mountrath and the historical town of Abbeyleix once famed for its carpets. At Ballinakill we took a wrong turn. I know this because I saw the positive Deluxe edition blue line appear and then disappear off my smartphone screen as we eked out an alternative route that sadly took us on a rather circuitous route over a hill that made “The Cut” look like a nursery slope. This was the point at which it became apparent that Dave and I would have to work together as John and Martin had now spent much more time disappearing into the distance only to hang around waiting for Dave and I to crawl back towards them. Despite suggesting that John and Martin go on ahead they decided to grit their teeth and we continued to “work together.” And so we clambered up the slope and into Kilkenny. The view from the top was truly stunning with a view over the lush Nore Valley and across to the Slieveardagh Hills away to the southwest. I was brought out of my reverie by the arrival of a rather hot and relieved Dave. The descent into our first control at the former coal-mining town of Castlecomer was precipitous and rapid and we were soon standing outside of another supermarket beside Martin and John. While wolfing down some calories, Martin explained his plan. It was so simple and so eloquent that we immediately fell in line with it and got to work. The plan had been to stick together and battle into the wind towards Enniscorthy. Although Dave and I insisted that Martin and John go on ahead, they decided to grit their teeth and stick with us (until every so often they would press on ahead unable to bear the tedium of watching us spin slowly up another gentle incline at a pace only fractionally faster than a snail). But they did keep pulling over and getting a breather (which must have been a welcome relief as the wind was quite fearsome at times) and watch Dave and I slowly crawl back towards them. Eventually a petrol station marked the outskirts of our destination and we inevitably pulled in to try out the waiting foodstuffs which included sour milk and sandwiches barely within their BBF dates. Being an Englishman it was naturally assumed that I had no taste until Martin also tasted his milk and confirmed my worst suspicions. Begrudgingly some fresh milk was made available to us.
And so suitably refreshed we turned around (catching a glimpse, as we did so, of the rest of our original group waving from what appeared to be the terrace of a restaurant away up the road) and traversed out of Wexford and across Carlow into southern Kildare to the fine town of Athy which was our next control. At another petrol-station somewhere along this stretch, Martin had complained of severe pain in his right knee and was threatening to bail. After taking painkillers he rallied around to such an extent that he disappeared ahead of us again into the evening. Dave and I didn’t think we would see him again until he emerged with John from a fish n chip shop in the aforementioned town (Dave and I had faithfully followed the script and ate on a forecourt to the bemusement of the Polish girls running the tills). Martin’s knee was hurting to such an extent that Dave and I were able to get to the front and we even managed a short stretch of chain-gang. As John so eloquently put it: “it’s a good way of working with what you have” (which presumably was not a great deal).
And so we laboured on into the night retracing a north westerly direction until we were safely back across the Offaly border and a faint phosphorescent glow announced the approach of Tullamore. We pulled over and decided to give Martin a bit of a head-start (thinking we would probably reel him in before reaching the Arriveé). After a few more miles John accelerated up the road after Martin and eventually his rear light also disappeared into the night (which was both fine and mild). Dave hung onto my wheel as we continued to spin into the night and eventually through the streets of Tullamore and then straight out the other side on the final stretch back to Clara. That last stretch was tough as it contains a gradual ramp before finally dropping down into Clara.
Back at base-camp Rory was waiting for us and handed us a medal almost too heavy to hold in our exhausted hands (John and Martin had only just recovered from the euphoria of receiving their medals). We clambered upstairs to the dining area to refuel and catch up with those who had already arrived. Several of the guys were getting ready to head off in their cars (among them John, Martin and Dave). We had completed the last leg at around 11:30 and, despite a little knee pain in my right knee and some soreness on my left upper foot (yes, I wear toe-clips, so what could I expect?), I wasn’t feeling half as bad as the previous night. The total distance came in at 1034km with a moving time of 65 hours and 28 minutes. I know that without the aid of the others I would not have achieved such a positive time and may even have completed outside of the 75 hours allowed. By the time that the rest of the original team arrived at about midnight, my three team-mates had spirited themselves away into the night and I was almost the only person around.
I sat talking to a weary looking chap that I shall call Brendan, and who I later found out was the first finisher. He was seated with the most amazing trophy I’d ever seen before him – a huge structure of seriously heavy steel formed around a front chain-ring bearing the letters WAWA – the Wild Atlantic Way Audax – a 2,100km epic that featured horrendous wet and windy weather and put my own modest achievement into perspective. But what of my own challenge? On reflection, I would say that it is always better to ride with a group. The Irish lads that I rode with on the latter-half of the CK had a similar approach to the Zappis club (based in Oxford and of which I am a member) rides – minimal stopping along the way; heads-down and grinding away between stops. This was an effective approach to getting the ride accomplished in a good time, but, as someone new to the country and with a keener interest in savouring the culinary delights along the way, the approach taken by the main group would have made for a slightly less arduous ride with a little more joie de vivre along the way. It was much to their amusement when they heard of my petrol station sour milk experience, or being left with Dave to limp up the hills. I got their point and could see from their sense of camaraderie at the end that they had experienced something deeper than just grinding through the miles, ticking off the controls and following (badly at times it has to be said) a set of instructions on a route sheet.
(Monday 1st August)
I finally made my way to bed and slept like roadkill until hunger drove me back along the varnished corridor to the welcoming kitchen. Over breakfast I had a good chat with Geordie and Carol who were planning to stay a little longer in Ireland. Anne also had plans to travel around Ireland in her VW camper van and take in some of the tourist attractions we had no doubt cycled past on the CK. Clare, who had put in a serious shift in the kitchen over the past 3 days fuelling an army of cyclists was putting away the last of the cups and plates and offered me a pack of biscuits (which kept me going on my cycle back to Dublin).
Just before I was due to leave Clara for the last time, at around 8:30 and only 30 minutes before the cut off, the last two weary travellers, Tom and Lorcan, arrived - on a pair of Genesis CdeF– one of which was stainless steel but looked at a glance like it might have been titanium. Both were clearly spent but relieved to have completed their first ever long-distance audax event. It was wonderful to be there to welcome them to the Arriveé and hear of about their long, slow, sleep-deprived ride through the cold and dark of night, and their superhuman grit and determination to finish come what may. It is in such moments that the true spirit of audax can be found.
30th December 2016