(Rory O'Connor, Audax Ireland)
I set off from Heuston Station on the Thursday afternoon after faffing about with Irish Rail bike bookings, and stoking up simmering pre-ride nerves. After bumping into Helen getting off at Clara the two of us rode up to the Aspire Sports Center - part of a period country estate on the edge of the town - out of which the Celtic Knot 1000 would be based. As the evening wore on the rest of the participants started to arrive. We milled around drinking tea, ogling bikes and generally having a bit of fun. Most were there for the 1000 km event with some for the 600 km and 400 km, which had been scheduled for late PBP qualifiers. One hardy chap from De Ronde van Cork was doing both the 600 and 400 back to back. The previous week he had done his ribs in during a handlebar malfunction. Marcello and his daughter Anna orchestrated the event formalities before we retired for the evening, to the adjoining dormitory rooms.
Next morning after a breakfast of porridge and scrambled eggs, 28 riders set off on the first leg of the event - a loop out to North Sligo and back through Roscommon. We pedaled out from the town gingerly, putting aside thoughts of the enormous distance ahead, towards the sleepy hamlets of Rosemount and Ballymahon. The morning chill gave way to some warmer temperatures, many riders were in new club kit and if Ronnie was there he would have found the rugged, steel frame friendly roads the route traversed quite heart warming. The first few hours slipped by at a strong pace and soon enough the splintered peloton arrived at the first control at Carrick on Shannon. We sat outside a Maxol garage quaffing the first of the weekends petrol station coffees, when a tractor came buzzing along with a few of the lads nonchalantly drafting in its wake. There's never a camera handy when you need one but it was a sight that imprinted on our collective memories as a few chuckles gave way to a flurry of guffaws.
Aidan, Dave Finnigan, Pat Dease, Helen, William, Mike Byrne and myself got back on the road and headed off in the direction of Sligo. We were tipping along nicely, exchanging anecdotes and quips, whilst remarking on the particularly scenic route through Leitrim. It was especially lovely in the morning sun and a testament to the thought that goes into route planning. It had been a good three weeks since the National 600 during which I had just a handful of spins to the local Lidl bakery and was duly feeling the benefits of a rest. The terrain was lumpy, we attacked the rolling hills and plunged down the descents while keeping an even pace. Good clipping, as Paul Newman would say, although we were careful not to be complacent so early in the ride and kept an eye on energy levels. Coming into Sligo, the misty breeze yielded to drizzle and a biting headwind. I wondered if the good folk of North Sligo ever saw calm weather with blue skies? Probably why they're such strong riders I figured. We pressed on and came across a short ramp before coming into Easkey. I could hear all the gears around me being lowered as the gradient crept up... 8, 10, 12%. Coming close to the top it hit 15 and I struggled to get some purchase. There comes a point on a fixie when its just not possible to rotate the pedals. My gearing was 46 X 16 and on a good day that point generally lies in the mid-teens. Weaving up the hill is a last ditch effort until the gradient eases off, but there was no such luck here. I did, however, manage to coordinate clipping out and walked the extra meters until a hill start was possible. We arrived into Enniscrone with the full force of the Atlantic blasting in our faces, where Billy Finnane and Jim Fitzpatrick were just about to leave. To catch up with these chaps after 200 km we were either doing well or they were pacing themselves. I liked to think it was the former, but more than likely it was the latter. Still, better than a kick in the nuts as the fella says.
We ploughed on to Eamons hometown of Ballina where his family kindly prepared some food for us and gamely tolerated a bunch of weather-beaten men in lycra for 20 mins. The grub was spot on and the warm hospitality provided us with a boost in morale before heading out into the rain to the next control, Ballyhaunis, at 260km. Soon after I dropped off the main bunch for another food break at a Texaco garage. There were a few stools by the window and with some Muller Rice, that was me sorted for 15 mins. Pat Dease came back to see if I'd had a mechanical. Fair play to that man - a gentleman and a scholar. He then shot off with boundless energy, like he had just popped out to buy some milk. Dermot came along soon after with knee trouble. We exchanged a few appreciative remarks about Bianchi's and then he motored on. With energy levels restored I left shortly after and spent the remaining 100 km tootling along by myself, getting back to Clara after 11. Paul deftly managed the paperwork while Annette made me a cup of tea. At that point I was a bit frazzled and in the mood for a few zzzs'. Paul threw out a quote from Eddie Dunne, an audaxers mantra, as I knocked back the last drop: ' If you're not riding, eating, or pooping, you should be sleeping ' ..so off I went to catch a nap, 360km done.
I woke at 5:00 am for the next leg - a 240km loop out of Clara down south, followed by an evening 100km ' mini PBP ' (on account of its similar elevation profile) to Castlepollard with a return along the same road. A delicious breakfast from Marcello and Anna and we were off - the last leg for those doing the 600 km event but not yet halfway for the rest of us. The early morning crispness soon dissipated leaving clear blue skies and billowy white clouds. We tipped along through Carlow towards the back-roads of Kilkenny, enjoying the onset of proper summer weather and down to Gowran for the first control. We found a public table in the town center and lashed back a few coffees and bananas from the local grocer. Moving on and the day slipped by pleasantly with, it must be said, some first-rate group riding until later in the afternoon, just after Rathdowney, where a nascent headwind eventually exacted its toll on me. I had stopped off for a pee and struggled to sprint back to the main bunch, so I stuck on the earphones and carried on by myself. The route wound its way in the evening sun up by the Slieve Blooms to Blue Ball and back to Clara. In spite of the clear position of the sun in the sky I had oddly lost perspective on time when Jim Fitz came barreling down the road in the opposite direction, presumably on his last 300k, and waved across. Grand, things couldn't be too bad at all then. On I went and back to Clara for 6.10 pm, or 600 km so far. Marcello served up a pasta dish that was not only super tasty but exactly what I needed at that point. I got myself ready and headed off with John McElroy for the final 100 km of that section. We spun along together for a while, however I was thinking about a plan for the final section and pressed on while I still had some legs. Around Mullingar, as if by some black magic, the Saturday night boy racers - a natural foe of the night riding cyclist - began to appear on the roads, their clapped out cars with engines wailing like old lawn mowers, spluttering past with witless malevolence. A sure sign the economy is picking up I surmised, half remembering some David McWilliams article, as they zoomed past in a puff of fumes. I pressed on over the rolling hills to Castlepollard, arriving at 11.20 pm. John Mc and John O'Sullivan arrived soon after and we stopped for a chat over chips before heading back. Whatever happened I missed a turn in the dark, in the direction of Ballymore, before realizing things were way off track. There was enough power left in the phone to check Google maps which confirmed as much. Jaysus. I set off back to rejoin the route and got back into Clara just after sunrise, adding another few hours onto the ride. Not a showstopper, but it meant less rest for the final 300 km. Brian, who had just qualified for PBP, looked after the brevet card and made me a bacon and egg sambo, which I made short work of. I then caught a quick nap before hitting the road..
Marcello's enthusiastic send-off and the comfort of having a good deal of time in the bank - essentially 24 hours to complete 300 km - did nothing to diminish the difficulty of this last stretch. There was a high climbing to distance ratio, I was tired and sore, and groaned at the prospect of riding all day by myself. The first few kilometers were a struggle with various body aches, the weather and rough terrain all seeming to conspire against me. However, before too long I settled into a pace and began to contemplate a number of scenarios for the day ahead. I decided on a plan with frequent stops, every 50 km. I'd have decent breaks for lunch and dinner. I'd be careful with food and tip along at a reasonable pace in between meals. I'd make time for a roadside nap whenever the opportunity presented itself, but with growing fatigue and extra hilliness it was going to be a slow day grinding out this last section. Before starting the goals were to build fitness and gain some new learnings on sleep management for Paris, which as it turned out, is a whole new challenge unto itself. If this could be done with a decent time well and good. If not, the qualifiers were already in the bag so it would be a solid training exercise at the very least. A 1000 km brevet was uncharted territory and the expectation was that any benefit would come after the finish, when I had time to consider what parts of the plan had worked. Processing these thoughts galvanized my resolve heading out towards Clonaslee, after which I turned right into the Slieve Bloom Mountains and the first significant climb of the event.
' The Cut ', as it turned out, was a decent enough climb at about 8km with a low gradient. It took a few moments to settle into a pace, one that could be sustained to the top without impacting the rest of the day. At 10kmph, that pace was modest and soon enough there were a few Sunday club spinners overtaking with a flick of the hand to say hello. I was feeling good and had an urge to put the foot on the gas as they passed, however, with an increasingly tenuous supply of energy it would have been foolish. I kept the head down, nodding at those coming in the opposite direction and plodded along until I reached the top, a narrow lane, the eponymous cut through a piece of bog astride the mountain top. There was a note on the route sheet about a technical descent. You sometimes hear folks saying that riding a fixie uphill is hard but it's going down that presents more challenges. If the decline gets too steep, gravity will force your legs to spin faster than they are capable, so you check the downward momentum by applying backward pressure on the pedals as they rotate forward, assisted by pulling at the bars and feathering the front brake lever. On a hard, winding descent, it becomes a full body workout when all your limbs seem to be working on separate tasks. I arrived at the bottom to find a Sunday spinner coming in the opposite direction. He probably wasn't used to seeing someone come down The Cut with such a grimace plastered across his face.
On to Abbeyleix where it became cold with a few showers followed by Ballinakill, the bumpy bits leading into Castlecomer and the first control of the day at 800km. As planned I was kind to myself and stopped at the Lime Tree bistro for lunch. I took a table by the window and ordered from the 3-course menu. The Spar was visible across the street and I was glad to take a break from sitting on the ground, sipping tepid, flavourless coffee. Sometime later I hit the road with a sharp but manageable climb out of the town and on to Borris, where I had to stop with stomach cramps. I don't recall much of the section after except that the waves of hills towards Enniscorthy were hard going. I turned off into Ballymurpy (I think ) and ahead of me a wall of tarmac loomed ominously. A few turns of the pedals while the Garmin's gradient crept up towards the mid teens and I thought, no, I cant make it, and clipped out to start walking. When riding fixed, its important to correctly evaluate a hill, to gauge if you can make it up. If it turns out you can't, you risk not being able to clip out when the pedals can no longer be turned, and you'll be doing well to stay upright - pretty hairy if a car comes bombing along. On the way, I passed by a lady walking down the opposite side. I half expected her to shout across ' get back on that bike and get up that hill young man, this isn't a holiday camp! '.Instead, she looked over with a sort of vague interest and carried on. A few moments later I was at the top, back on the road and putting the embarrassment of wheeling the bike up a hill firmly behind me.
Coming into Enniscorthy, I stopped at a Maxol garage for a protein bar and Muller rice. I sat outside by the blocks of turf to get ready for the last 150km. The night closed in and with it, dark clouds and a gusty wind. I pulled out the arm and leg warmers and zipped up the windbreaker. I knew there would be a headwind on the way back, but at this point rain and cold would be a chore. I stood there for a while blankly staring out at a forecourt full of shouty teenagers in cars, revving and beeping at each other. I felt slightly nauseous. It was hard to keep a point of reference and to stay focused, not having spoken to anyone all day and I briefly wondered what the hell I was doing. After refueling and re-hydrating I felt a bit better. I got back on the bike and rolled out and up towards Bunclody. The rain soon stopped and the wind died down and as the traffic eased off, I settled into the night ride and my spirits soon lifted.
I rode on through the night. It was a blur of headlights and empty towns with the midsummer sun forming a sliver of light across the horizon. After some time I came across a house on the side of the road with a recessed gateway. I figured I could sit against the wall where the sweeping lights of passing traffic wouldn't catch me, sparing me an annoyance and themselves an unusual spectacle. I propped the bike against the pillar and sat there for a few moments, the lack of exertion providing a soothing glow around my body (except the quads, which at this point had turned to iron), while the weekends sun on my skin kept me warm against the cool air. I drifted off to the sound of intermittent traffic and the sensation of an occasional breeze on my face. Lingering at that halfway point to sleep was pleasurable. Some time later I felt rested enough to continue and hit the road. Before long I rolled into the final control in Athy and got a coffee and donut, where I was surprised to see that the garage worker wasn't at all surprised to see me. The sun came up heading towards MountMellick & Tullamore and with it the Monday morning commuters to Dublin. In order to make the times acceptable they must keep a high speed, I figured, which caused me some irritation as they overtook, narrowly missing traffic approaching from the opposite direction. Still, the sun was shining and I was feeling relatively good. My rear wheel had loosened causing slack on the chain, displacing the energy put down on the pedals. It had been like that for quite a while - a common problem with fixies - but I didn't care and winced at the thought of stopping for maintenance. My brain had slowly shriveled to a ball, its remaining functions were now turning the pedals and thinking of food. At this modest speed I was on track to make the cutoff. Along the outskirts of Tullamore was a mess. I was trying to calculate finish times based on fluctuating speeds and missed a few turns trying to find the route through to Clara. I did, eventually, and by 8.25 or so was nearly there. With a few kilometers to go, I was expecting a puncture or some such, when up came a tractor from behind trundling along at a pedestrian speed. I took off with a feeble thrust of power to hitch a ride in the slipstream but couldn't keep it going. It did, however, serve as a virtual slingshot flinging me up the road, shaking me out of some tedious plodding. A few cars beeped at me as I rolled up Clara's Main street. Minutes later I was turning into the Aspire center after 74 hours and 55 mins, the last bit of concentration deployed to keep the bike from slipping on the gravel surface and to twist my foot from the pedal. I had 5 minutes to spare and had clocked 1034 km on the GPS. Let me just say I could have happily done without those extra kms, but to paraphrase Kevin O'Sullivan from the Borlin 300, I was unlikely to be charged extra for them.
A big thanks to Marcello for the organization, tasty food, hospitality and encouragement. To Anna, for giving up her spare time to pander to a bunch of crazy riders, to all the other volunteers, to the participants for the company and camaraderie and to the senior club riders who mentored a rookie randonneur. To my lovely wife who very agreeably ignored my brownie point deficit over the 2015 season (and with a bit of luck, will again in 2016) ..... chapeau to one and all.