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
(Tom Cleary & Lorcan Stack - Reservoir Cogs)
Our first proper audax and to say I enjoyed the experience in full would probably be an exaggeration. However, I am still smiling after what was a wonderful adventure. Since last year both Lorcan and I have discussed PBP and LEL as two of our bucket list events and consequently began undertaking longer distance cycles earlier this year. From that time, the months kept rolling by and each month we would both plan a more adventurous trip than the previous month, each a little longer and involving a further test of both our individual and combined abilities.
Somewhere along the way The Celtic Knot 1000 was either referenced or discussed and without any real discussion or undertaking any decision making process, both of us had at least set the event as a target. This fact was leaked out to our fellow club members and suddenly there was no turning back. We were late registering and we now began to focus a little more on exactly what we had undertaken as the doubts and fears set in. What had we just done? Required; more night riding, an overnight without sleep and then we would be as ready as we could be. The bank holiday weekend was around the corner.
On our arrival the reception couldn’t have been better. We had an opportunity to view the array of bikes on the event and agreed we had chosen well with our Genesis Croix de Fers. And as Rory checked our bikes we got the green light - both bikes fit for purpose. We shared some coffee and chat with the other participants and each gave us their own words of wisdom “keep the stops to a minimum”, “cycle at your own pace” “don’t over exert yourself on the first day”, “Day 2 will be the most difficult”. Thanks to one and all for their supportive encouragement as each piece of advice rang true in the following days. However the key mantra for me was Paul’s rule No. 1 - finish, and finish smiling. There was more than one occasion when the body said no but we knew we had to observe rule 1. In fact from the first time of reading I thought it a wise piece of advice and I wasn’t wrong.
Day 2. Saturday 12pm just before Toomevara. Tired hungry and cold we were heading to Moneygall. Even though we had again received great support from Rory and David who met us on the road with sandwiches and cake I still had great hopes of getting some hot food in the Barrack Obama rest stop. No such luck - other than a hot coffee through the hatch it was closed. Back on the bikes again and from here each pedal stroke took an enormous effort. My mind was searching for any way in which we could get back to our beds in Clara without having to continue with this torture of pedaling cold and tired as we were. None became apparent. We continued the torture. Several times through the night I had experienced that drunken feeling when tiredness takes over and the body cycles on autopilot only to suddenly wake up and attempt in vain to concentrate on the task at hand before the drunken feeling returned (the 'noddies' - ed ). Day began to break and we were surrounded with a cold grey mist, my already shivering body was screaming for hot food and a bed. How could I have been so stupid as to leave without my leg warmers back in Clara. With this level of tiredness comes a certain level of intolerance. Lorcan had lost patience with me as I carried on out of earshot despite needing to hear his calls for directions. I had my own totally unfounded reason for being equally angry with Lorcan. Neither of us needed to verbalize our frustrations with the other. We persevered and observation of Rule 1 and Rule 2 combined saw us reach our destination around 7.30 am. It had been one long night. We ate a great breakfast freshly cooked by Clare and the rest of the support crew and set our alarms for 11 am and figured we could still get inside the time limit if we were on our bikes by 12 am.
By 8.25 am on Monday morning, 35 mins inside the allowable time, with nothing left in our legs, we reached Clara after yet another overnight cycle. This time we had eaten better through the day and managed the night cycle with just a little more ease. Hats off to all there who gave us such a great reception when we arrived, the feeling of accomplishment and elation were enormous and I couldn’t be more complementary of all we encountered on our wonderful adventure. I can highly recommend the event and compliment the organizers for a job well done. My overall experience was positive despite the hardship experienced along the way. Still smiling inside. We’ll definitely be back for more.
Thanks a million to all concerned!
(Bernard Flynn - Lakeside Wheelers/Audax Ireland)
On arriving in Clara, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the facilities on offer, with each room having a bunk bed and a single bed together with toilet and shower. This was our base for the next few days. I arrived on Thursday night and met some old acquaintances and some new faces too. Some people were on a 600K mission while others including myself were on the 1000 journey.
Marcello had breakfast ready from 5 am with the help of his daughter Anna. We began our journey at 6 am on Friday morning with our first control being Carrick on Shannon. I am always amazed at Audax organisers and their ability to find the most suitable roads. The group broke up as expected with Jimmy from Kilkenny the first to break followed soon after by Billy Finnane and then Pat Dease. As the day progressed, I cycled with Dermot Hogan and Eamonn Nealon. The journey from Clooney to Enniscrone was the toughest part of the day as we battled into a headwind all down the coast. Eamonn had a "fan club" waiting for him in Ballina where we had to stop for photos etc. In fact, we were just short of a Garda escort as Eamonn greeted (roared at !) the locals as we traversed the streets of Ballina. We arrived at Eamonn's house in Ballina where his wife Bernadette had prepared food for everyone. This was a most welcome respite. From here, our group was always around 7 riders and we worked well right up to Moate where two of our group decided to race for home.Our group got in just after 10 pm. Marcello and Anna together with Paul Newman and Annette had the pasta ready upon our arrival and we also got some of Marcello's wife's famous cake.
We decided upon a 5 am wake up for a 6 am start, which gave us a good nights sleep. Pat Dease who was doing the 600K, Jim and Billy on 1000K kept going throughout the night. Dave Finnegan took just a couple of hours before he resumed. Day 2 brought us South towards Kilkenny on a 240K loop. Our group again worked well and we stayed together all day. We returned to Clara at 5.45pm where once again we were greeted with excellent food. Those doing the 600K were now finished. (henceforth called the sixty-percenters). We departed on a journey to Castlepollard, straight out 50K and back the same way. We had a tailwind on the journey out and made a great time. However, we paid the price for this on the return and eventually arrived back at 11 pm.
We now had 700K done with "just" 300 left for day 3. Once again we choose a 5 am up for 6 am start. Our group now comprised Paul Gosney, Aidan Creaner, Seamus O Dowd, Eamonn Nealon and myself.
The start of day 3 was particularly tough as the legs were tired. Just 25K after the start we had an 8K climb of the Sliabh Blooms. Although there were only 3 controls on the Brevet card, we adopted a policy of a break every 50K where we needed to or not. This worked well.
We came across some cyclists from the Skoda series as they flew up and by us. However, Aidan and Paul showed them that Audaxers can go fast too. It was probably demoralizing for them as Aidan, with a big bag out front together with a large bag on the back complete with panniers, passed these riders at speed and continued the momentum as they chased in vain up the hills towards Enniscorthy.
Aidan knew a restaurant in Enniscorthy where they let us take the bikes inside as we sat down for a well-earned meal. Having descended into the town, it was a grueling climb back out as the legs and other bits adjusted. We had a headwind for most of the way home along with a lot of drags which added to the challenge. We had an extra stop at Mountmellick at 960K and this seemed to invigorate our group as the speed definitely increased on the homeward stretch. We arrived back in Clara at 11.15 with just over 1000 kilometres on the clock and a great sense of achievement. Once again we were met by Marcello and Anna who had a fabulous shepherds pie and quiche ready.
My sincere thanks to Marcello for organizing and having the vision, to the many helpers, Anna, Paul, Marc, Annette and to my fellow cyclists who made the journey memorable for the right reasons.
(Conor Isdell - Lakeside Wheelers/Audax Ireland)
Living only 30 mins in the car away from Clara I drove over on Friday morning arriving at 5.00am just in time for a bacon butty. Marcello and Anna had put on a great spread and it set the tone for the whole weekend. After final briefings from Marcello we set off in a large group and kept together to Longford where our group lead by General Nealon decided to stop while another large group pushed on to Carrick. A General’s job is to marshall his troops and make sure they do all the work while he barks out orders. So it was was hardly surprising that Eamon rarely went to the front although I did spot him going to the front after we crested a hill only to drift back as we hit the next one. Our group split at a junction around Lough Arrow as Eamon got the smell of home cooking from all of 100kms away. We were left with Seamus, Paul, Mark and myself and Conor Daly on and off. We chatted and were enthralled by Paul’s Ironman exploits to be followed by Mark’s cross country skiing feats all over Canada and Northern Europe. I kept quiet as my athletic prowess doesn’t extend beyond the bike! Conor Daly and myself discussed the idea of how we are often mixed up in audax circles as we are both Conors. Conor D. suggested that I adopt the Apple ' i 'and we decided from now on I will sign myself off as iConor and, therefore, won’t be asked to give a weather forecast in the future.
The roads around Dromore West were rolling and with a westerly wind a little testing. Seamus had all the local knowledge and before long we were nearing Ballina. Eamon had very kindly invited the whole field to his house for dinner but neglected to inform his wife, Bernie of the number arriving - ah sure maybe 4 or 5 might tip in. It was about 15 in the end. Whatever Bernie put in that pasta was savage. Within a second of sitting down a large plate of pasta and chicken was placed in front of me followed by fruit and custard. It was a godsend and thanks to Bernie and the girls for your hospitality once again. On to Knock and Ballyhaunis. Leaving Ballyhaunis the group was down to 3 and Paul Seamus and myself legged it back towards Clara. We fed off each other’s pace and kept the speed high (for me anyway). We arrived back at 11.30pm and were greeted to more great food. Marcello and Paul Newman placed the food in front of us, took our cards and filled them up. It is these small little things that make the audax community rather special. Shower, bed and sleep for 4 hours and up at 5.00am for a 6.00 start. A full breakfast in us and off we went. The day was a bit warmer than the previous day and we ended up in Gowran at the extremity of the course. Then all to Kilkenny and there was a slight mutiny in the group. My Garmin said straight ahead at the traffic lights but the others knew better! I waited up for them while the went the long way around. The next section to Freshford and on to Rathdowney was testing into the wind. We got a bit of a respite from then on and arrived back finally to Clara at 17.45pm. Most of the group were grabbing a bit of food before heading over to Castlepollard and back on a 100km leg. I was finished my 600km and wished them luck. Great food again and a shower and then home. What a great event, what great organisation, what a great idea a centre based 1,000km event is and what great company from all the lads that I cycled with. Normally I get stuck on my own on these events so it was great to have the company of everyone plus all the chat and slagging from the General. It really does make the km’s pass quickly. Next stop PBP and it was a great confidence boosting event for me.
(Rory O'Connor, Audax Ireland)
I set off from Heuston Station on Thursday evening, after a few hours of faffing about with Irish Rail bike bookings which, frankly, stoked up already simmering pre-ride nerves. After bumping into Helen getting off at Clara the two of us rode up to the Aspire Sports Center, out of which the event would be based. As the evening wore on the rest of the participants started to arrive and 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. One hardy chap from De Ronde van Cork was doing both the 600 and 400 back to back for his remaining PBP qualifiers. 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 down to Clara 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 all of our 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 reckoned. 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, 14%. Coming close to the top it hit 17 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 an unclip and walked the extra meters until a hill start was possible. We arrived into Inniscrone with the full force of the Atlantic blasting in our faces, where Billy Finnane and Jim Fitz 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 back out into the rain towards 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 a few tubs of Muller Rice and that was me happily sorted for 15 mins. Pat came back to see if I'd had a mechanical. Fair play to that man - a gentleman and a scholar. When all was found to be OK he shot off with boundless energy. 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 smashing 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, a long distance cycling 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 and back, followed by an evening 100km ' mini PBP ' ,on account of its similar elevation profile, up to Castlepollard with a return along the same road. Another delicious breakfast from Marcello and Anna and we were off at 6:00 - the last leg for those doing the 600 km event but not yet halfway for the rest of us. The morning crispness soon dissipated leaving a clear blue sky 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 centre and lashed back a few coffees and bananas. 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 stuck on the earphones and carried on by myself. The route wound its way in the balmy evening sun up by the Slieve Blooms, to Blue Ball and back towards Clara. In spite of the clear position of the sun in the sky I had lost some perspective on time when Jim Fitz came barrelling 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 malevolance. A sure sign the economy is picking up, if nothing else, I thought to myself, 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 only 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 scoffed back gratefully. I then caught a quick nap before hitting the road at 9:00.
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 the last leg. There was a high climbing to distance ratio, I was tired and sore, and groaned at the prospect of probably riding a full day and night by myself. The first few kilometers were a struggle, with the weather and terrain also seeming to conspire against me, but before too long I settled into a pace and contemplated a number of scenarios for the day ahead. I decided on a plan with frequent mini stops, roughly every 50km or so, over the rest of the route. 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 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 in the bag so it would be a solid training exercise at least. With the National 600 being my longest ride to date, this 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 major climb of the event.
' The Cut ', as it turned out, was a decent enough climb at about 8km with a steady 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 about 10kmph, that pace was modest and soon enough there were a few Sunday club spinners passing me by with a flick of the hand to say hello. At this point 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, occasionally nodding at those coming in the opposite direction and plodded along until I reached the top, a narrow strip of lane, the eponymous cut through a piece of bog astride the mountain top. There was a note on the route sheet about the quality of the surface going down, about a technical descent. You sometimes hear folks saying that riding a fixie uphill is hard but it's going down that often presents more challenges. If the gradient gets too low gravity will force your legs to spin faster than they are capable, so you check the downward speed by applying backward pressure on the pedals as they rotate forward, assisted by pulling at the bars and feathering the 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 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 heading towards Enniscorthy were hard going. I turned off into Ballymurpy and passed the memorial plaque to the 1798 rebellion. Ahead of me a wall of tarmac loomed ominously. A few turns of the pedals while the Garmin's gradient display crept up towards the mid teens and I thought, no - I cant make it, and clipped out to start walking. When riding fixed, its imporant to correctly evaluate a steep ramp to gauge if you can make it up. If it turns out you can't, you risk not being able to unclip when the pedal can no longer be turned, and you'll be doing well to stay upright - pretty hairy if a car comes bombing along at the same moment. 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 and back on the road, putting the embarrassment of wheeling the bike up a hill behind me.
Coming into Enniscorthy, I stopped at a Maxol garage at the edge of the town and bought a protein bar with some Muller rice and sat outside 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 tough going. 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. I got back on the bike and rolled out and up towards Bunclody. The rain soon stopped and the wind died down. As the traffic eased off, I settled into the night ride and was back on track in no time.
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 of the gate where the sweeping lights of passing traffic wouldn't catch me, sparing me a distraction and themselves what would probably be an unusual spectacle. I propped the bike against the wall and sat there for a few moments, the lack of exertion provided a soothing glow around my limbs while the weekends sun kept me warm against the cool air. I closed my eyes and drifted off to the sound of intermittent traffic and the sensation of a slight, occasional breeze on my face. Lingering at that halfway point to sleep for a while was pleasurable. Some time later I felt rested enough to continue. and got up to hit the road. Before too long I rolled into Athy and got a coffee and donut before heading towards MountMellick & Tullamore. The sun was up soon after and with it the Monday morning commuters to Dublin. In order to make the commuting 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 felt good. My rear wheel had loosened causing some slack on the chain, displacing the energy put down on the pedals. I think it had been like that for quite a while but I didn't really care at that point and winced at the thought of stopping for any maintenance. 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 something, when up came a tractor from behind trundling along at a pedestrian speed. I took off with a feeble thrust of power trying to hitch a ride in the slipstream but couldn't quite 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, with 5 minutes to spare and 1034 km on the clock.
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.