In terms of equipment, there was not much that needed to be changed, after all I was one of the lucky few racers of TAW16 whose bikes had zero mechanical issues. The inaugural race claimed slashed tires, snapped cables, broken cleats, bent derailleurs. I’m a lousy mechanic and some of the same issues would have probably ended my race. I crashed once and bent the handlebar, so that had to be replaced afterwards. The chain and brake pads had to be swapped, normal after that distance. I didn’t even have a single puncture. So in terms of the bike itself, there was nothing that really needed to be improved. It was more about the details. I cut out a couple of items that I hadn’t really needed, like the sandals which I eventually lost on An Spidéal Beach, the bottle of sanitizer I never used, the second jersey. This year my setup is lighter, with a smaller sleeping bag and much lighter rainjacket. It’s not only lighter but actually waterproof, so there’s a big advantage.
We fitted aero bars on the front. With 30 mm spacers positioning them high over the actual handlebars, they are not actually that aero, but that’s not their primary reason anyway. They are supposed to help with one of the biggest issues I had last year, which was numb fingers. From the continuous pressure on the palm of the hands, the nerves get compressed and the result is tingly and sometimes even numb fingers. A second, small top tube bag and two food pouches have been added, the handlebar bag stays at home. Don’t ask me about the weight.
London to Dublin
When I board the train to Holyhead, there’s a suspiciously race-ready Pivot road bike complete with bags already in there. James waves me over to his seat, there is no explanation needed. We have the same destination.
My preparation this year has not been ideal and I’ve been getting increasingly nervous, but from this point on, I’m surprisingly calm. Chatting with James, the train journey is over really fast and we arrive in Holyhead. We bump into Kyle in the ferry terminal, almost literally, as his bivvy bag is so well hidden behind his bike. Paul arrives shortly after. This is getting real, again.
After trying to get some sleep on the ferry, we reassemble at McDonald’s for coffee until our rooms in Trinity College are ready.
The rest of the day is spent eating, meeting more riders and generally getting excited for what lies ahead. I’m overwhelmed by the amount of people at the rider briefing. Do these people know what they are getting themselves into? I sure didn’t last year.
Day 1: In the thick of it
We roll on wet pavement along the Liffey, weaving through slow traffic. Are we going the right way? It should be just a little further along the river bank. A long line of colourful plastic jackets flying in front of us confirms it. This is the way to Phoenix Park and the start of the Transatlantic Way Bike Race 2017. It’s my second time but it might as well be a totally different race. Instead of the handful of “guinea pigs” that gathered at the GPO last June, I see a big crowd of endurance cyclists from all over the world. This is a serious field of competitors. It’s nice to see a couple of familar faces and have a chat with some of the new ones. Ciarán, who is not riding this year, made it to the start line and is taking pictures. I’m not sure if I should pity him for not riding this year or myself for voluntarily getting into trouble again. No, I’m actually looking forward to this. Last year’s race was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life and yet here I am, back for more of the same. Though this is definitely not the same. This is something else.
Photo: [Jennifer Doohan –53northcreative.co.uk]
Adrian has gone to great lengths to make sure the race is as safe as it can be and that includes a new neutralized start to get the riders out of Dublin. It also provided a chance to chat to some of the other racers and a gentle entry into the race. Riding in a big group has it’s own dangers, I have to narrowly avoid a stray water bottle and the rider next to me suddenly loses his tracker, which shatters to many pieces on the ground.
Soon we reach the big motorway-like road that leads north and out of Dublin and the field begins to spread apart. The first day is ridden faster than the following ones, partly because the energy and adrenaline levels are up, partly because it’s one of the flattest sections of the race. I take care not to get carried away with the high pace some of the others are riding, but rather stick to a pace that feels good and sustainable. For the first 2 or 3 hours, there are racers everywhere. I see them in front and behind me on the road, stopped in bushes, fixing punctures by the roadside, queing in service stations. It is busy out here. There is lots of waving, good-luck-wishing and settling-into-pace going on. I’m riding with Yves when the media car overtakes and Jennifer takes a picture of us.
Photo: [Jennifer Doohan –53northcreative.co.uk]
Victoria says I look like a happy cyclist. I’m not sure what she means, but this thought will stay with me. I am approaching the turn-off from the busy road onto smaller ones when I first notice the big black cloud just ahead of me. It’s only a few minutes later that it unloads itself with full force. It happens so quickly that there’s no point in putting the rain jacket on anymore because I get fully drenched in a matter of seconds. A couple of cars are stopped at the roadside because of the low visibility. They must think I’m absolutely crazy to ride through this weather and so do I, but it’s too early to stop. I have enough food with me for much more cycling, though a service station draws me in magically. Might as well have some warm food while the worst of the rain comes down and then continue. Jason catches up while I let my jersey dry a little over a chair and eat a chicken burger. The downpour has evolved into steady rain, which doesn’t look like it’s going to stop anytime soon and soon I find myself back on the road following Jason’s hi-vis jacket from a distance. Some time passes until I next glance at my Garmin screen and realize I left my planned route. Zooming out, I can see I’m already about 10 kilometers too far east, but since I don’t have any basemap installed, I can’t see the roads between my position and the planned route. No problem, I think, just keep Jason in your sight, he is heading to the same checkpoint after all. That works for a while, but something is wrong with my stomach. The chicken I ate earlier. I’m not sure if I’m getting slower or Jason faster, but it’s getting tougher to follow his pace. He disappears behind corners longer every time until I have to acknowledge the fact that I can’t keep up and will have to find my own way. Cursing myself for failing to install basemaps I’m trying to find my way back to the planned route. These lanes are winding their way and more often than I like I find myself going south. After being chased by two impressive sheep dogs I turn on my second Garmin, an Etrex 30x. This one has basemaps, but well, I just got it the other day and never figured out how to properly use it. Another thing I clearly should have paid some attention to in my preparations, but didn’t. It was supposed to be my back-up device but isn’t of much use to me now since, well, I don’t know how to operate it. Somehow I find my way back to the planned route, feeling a little bit annoyed with the extra mileage and very annoyed with my failure to prepare better. Just get to the bridge before sunset.
Photo: [Jennifer Doohan –53northcreative.co.uk]
After having lost Jason out of sight I cruise the lanes of Northern Ireland alone for a while, wondering what all the “Poll Station” signs are about until I realize they’re for the General Election, Northern Ireland is part of the UK. In Omagh I see Stephan’s familiar Genesis bike parked at a service station and stop for a break as well. While the coffee is running into the paper cup, I ask the staff where the other cyclist is. She looks at me clueless. Never mind. While carefully eating my very hot apple pastries I see him taking off outside. I go outside and realize there is a tiny pizzeria next door. Clearly the better choice for hot food, only I simply had not seen it. With a new incentive to chase somebody I take off again, but won’t see Stephan again until Blarney. Instead I run into Frank and on top of the last climb we marvel together at the sight of Derry far below us. It’s a totally different sight than the one I had last year when I came in from the other side of the river. The steep downhill to the bridge is spoiled by a couple of one way lanes where I have to use the sidewalk and be very careful. Another result of the rushed route planning, but manageable. It’s getting dark as I roll onto the Peace Bridge and find some other racers as well as the race photographers and Breifne there.
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CP1. Today was hard. Messed up my stomach on service station chicken and did a 10 mile detour. Tomorrow will be harder. Doing the sensible thing and getting some rest inside. If I learned one thing from last year it's to not burn all the matches too early. #donteatthechicken #taw2017 @transatlanticway #northernireland
This is much nicer than last year where we could not find anybody. I do get a stamp this time and don’t even have to take care of photographic evidence myself.
It has been a tough first day and it’s good to see some familiar faces. Maybe too good, I find it hard to get going again. My initial plan was to ride about 280 km (30 more) and bivvy on a beach just behind the first steep climb, but I also remember well how I got to Derry last year thinking I really needed to push on a little bit more, then bivvying 20 km further without getting much of a rest. Keep your matches dry and take a room, that way you can also get some early breakfast and be on your way fresh and ready. I check in to the Travelodge and meet several other racers in the lobby. Google Maps tells me there is a sandwich place door, so after parking the bike up in the room, I rush down to get some food. The sandwich place is closed, there is only an open pub. I ignore the strange looks one gets when walking into such a place at this time in full cycling kit, especially without a bike in sight and walk straight to the bar. She’ll check if the kitchen is still open. All they can prepare at this time is a chicken burger. My stomach revolts again for a second, but I order it anyway. I’m stood in a dark corner of the pub waiting ages for my food and starting to regret my decision, when a guy looks me up and down and gets real close with his face. I can smell beer. “Where did you cycle from today?” “Dublin.” “No, today, where did you start?” “I started in Dublin.” His curious face changes into an offended one. “That’s not possible! My brother is a cyclist and…” My food is ready. I grab it, bid my farewell and am out as fast as possible. I don’t feel like discussing my outrageous claim of having cycled from Dublin to Derry in a day with this gentleman. Up to the room, shower, hanging clothes out and eating the prey while watching TV on the bed. All channels are discussing the General Election. I don’t get it. Alarm on and sleep. Today was hard, but I know tomorrow will be harder.
Dublin -> Derry, 251.8 km, 1.415 vm, Strava
Day 2: Donegal delights
I feel really sneaky pushing my bike into the elevator of the hotel early in the morning, but when I leave my key card on the receptionists’ counter and see the other three key cards, I know I’m not the earliest. Out on the road I’m searching the McDonald’s and find it shortly after. Derry may be one of the biggest towns of Ireland, it is still only a small town. Andi and Gavin are making use of the drive-through as well, but while I’m ordering they are already back on the road. I stuff the breakfast bagels down my jersey and roll onto the coastal road, the first kilometers of the Wild Atlantic Way.
It was a good decision to stop for a relatively long sleep. Some people will do the same mistakes I did last year and push it too hard in the first few days. I’m trying to check the tracker to get an overview, but the page won’t load. Doesn’t matter, I just have to keep my eyes open and can tell there are riders everywhere around me. Cycling in Donegal is pretty tough and the route pushes the riders into its steep hills head-on. I’m thinking of the lead riders that have passed through here last night. Just before the climbing begins, I post a picture of my screen announcing the inevitable.
My mate George, who knows this route, comments “You love it”. I have to smile, he is right. I’m a sucker for punishment. Why else would I be doing this again? On this steep ramp I slowly catch up to another racer. It’s Mick, with whom I exchanged a couple of words at the rider briefing the night before the start. He tells me to move on and not get held up by him, but that’s easier said than done. Very slowly I pull away from him. All day I’m meeting riders and cannot help but wonder what they must think of the sudden change of route characteristics. Donegal is just one steep ramp after the other and provides an excellent wake up call for riders who found the first day too easy. I’m looking forward to reaching the little crossroads shop where I had soup with Tobias last year and when I arrive, there is a whole crowd of cyclists gathered in and around the shop, chatting and having a picknick in the sun.
The lady behind the counter seems a bit overwhelmed and confused by the sudden onslaught and her assistant does not get a break from preparing sandwiches. I remember her from last year. When I tell her about the race and how it had been grim weather last year when we ate soup here, she thinks she does remember, but is not sure. She sends everybody on the way with a whispered but distinct “God Bless You” and tells me goodbye until next year. I start the Malin Head loop, some riders are going the “wrong” way around it and we wave at each other. There is a little food truck on the parking lot out on Malin Head, perfect for stocking up on water. This is where many cyclists start or finish their Malin Head-Mizen Head or viceversa journey. Aside from the Ring of Kerry Challenge this seems to be the most popular ride in Ireland, judging by how often locals tell you proudly that they did it.
Just before reaching Mamore Gap, I catch up with Sean from Glasgow. I’m enjoying the fact that there are much more riders this year. Together we wonder by just how many hundreds of miles Paula, who is also a Glasgow local, will probably be ahead of us by this point. The happy chatter comes to a stop when the ramp of Mamore builds up before us. The encounters with other riders really make a difference, but on climbs like these everybody fights their own battle just to keep on going. There are other racers struggling up the climb before us and I’m going too hard without really noticing. It pitches up again not far from the top and I finally realize that I’m expending too much energy here, so start pushing my bike towards the crest. A car comes towards me slowly, the driver rolls down the window and says “You are supposed to ride that bike, not push it”. “Do you know how heavy this thing is?” We both laugh. He is the organiser of the Wild Atlantic Way Audax. He knows all about what we’re doing, in fact he came out here to see us riders. It’s my first run-in with a dotwatcher, and it wouldn’t be the last. Even though he is clearly not impressed by our performance, being so far behind the leaders and telling us that we are “not really racing”, I find it to be a nice break from the riding and a nice little mental push as it reminds me that there are actually people watching what we are doing here.
The downhill from Mamore is now potentially even faster than last year, because there are road workers laying down new tarmac. However, they are not done yet, so I’m not going for a new personal record here. It’s good to have passed this first really difficult obstacle of the course. Letterkenny is uneventful, but the traffic almost as annoying as last year, even though the pseudo-rallye drivers are not out. I’m out of town quickly and start seeing a rider with familiar bright orange helmet on the horizon. Another incentive to pick up the pace. On the empty lanes heading out to Glenveigh, I catch up with Tim. It’s always great to catch a rider, even more if it’s somebody you already know well from last year’s race! We ride together for a bit when one of the media cars comes up from behind and takes some pictures of us.
Photo: [Jennifer Doohan –53northcreative.co.uk]
Tim is looking forward to the gravel section and starts to shoot off. I’m riding more slowly, but I’m riding. Last year I was too scared to damage my tires and walked this whole section. I’ve ridden more gravel lately and have much more confidence in them, so by just carefully riding I’m able to clear the section half an hour faster than last year. I even pass a few riders that decided to walk it. In one of the worst parts I catch up with Tim again as he is stopped fixing a puncture, but his good mood still intact. I’m thinking of Matthias who passed me here last year in the rain and who is currently riding the Transamerica Bike Race. Without stopping this time around, I continue onto the perfect castle road and remember having been told off by a bus driver for riding here last year. Apparently cycling is not allowed and we are supposed to use the gravel path next to it, but the race route clearly uses the road and the gravel path doesn’t look great. Other riders also reported having been told off for riding this road, maybe something to look into for the race director for next year. Out of Glenveigh National Park and towards Dunfanaghy, you can see for miles up the road and I remember chasing Matthias’ yellow jacket through impending dusk here a year ago.
Glenveigh, Photo: [Jennifer Doohan –53northcreative.co.uk]
It’s only afternoon, so I’m a little bit in front of my ghost rider. Last year I stopped for the night in Dunfanaghy, this year the idea is to stop here for a good feed and then continue into the evening until I find a good bivvy spot. There are lots to places to choose from in Dunfanaghy, I pick the one with the probably slowest kitchen. When the food finally comes it tastes really good, but I’m frustrated with having lost so much time. While I wait outside the restaurant, lots of riders roll by. I see Frank, Victoria, Tim and at least three other riders. It is also during that wait in Dunfanaghy that I realize my powerbank’s USB port is broken. It was connected with a cable during the gravel downhill. The vibrations must have broken the plug out of its opening. It has become useless and stays behind in Dunfanaghy. I try to comfort myself with the weight that I just dropped, but the disadvantages would far outweigh the few grams later on. While I’m having my lasagna on the sidewalk table, a couple walks by, he points at the bike and my cap and casually asks whether I am “doing the big one”. I’m nodding, confused, and he says “Good on you, good luck!” After this stop that took way too much time, I push on into the Bloody Foreland (I love that name) and feel good about being slightly ahead of my past self. It’s overcast and windy but doesn’t look like rain when I roll by a gaelic school. It’s Saturday night, so there shouldn’t be any problem with using a schoolyard as a bivvy spot, at least I wouldn’t be woken up in the morning by a horde of screaming kids or worse, teachers. There is light in one of the office buildings, so I knock on the window to make sure I’m not trespassing, maybe even get permission. No answer. I walk around the whole building, try a couple of other doors and knock louder on the windows. Nobody opens, probably the light is just timed to keep possible trespassers like me away. Just after I roll out my bivvy on the table, it starts to rain slightly. I try to sleep anyway and just about manage when suddenly a man comes out of the office building I had knocked on earlier and walks by me. I start to explain myself quickly, feeling like I’m in trouble for being here, but he mumbles something about “only” being the janitor and me not worrying and is gone. As if he finds random cyclists sleeping on his schoolyard every night. Maybe he does, but I cannot help and think that if this was in Germany, or any of the school janitors I met during my school time there anyway, I would be in trouble now. So he is gone and I try to find sleep again in the drizzle. First a car pulls up a few metres down the road and the driver tends to his sheep, leaving the engine of his car running for a good half an hour. After he leaves, the weather takes a serious turn for the worse and a proper storm is coming in. It’s becoming too uncomfortable here. There is a little roof on the other side of the schoolyard, but sleeping on the floor is not a good option as it is wet and looks cold. I try whether I can pull the table. It just about works, I can pull it about 10 cm at a time. It must look ridiculous and takes me about 10 minutes, but I manage to pull the table-bench combination across the whole schoolyard under the roof while the storm intensifies. The rainstorm is hailing now and it’s a miserable place to try and find some sleep in this weather, but at least it’s dry. At some point in the night I get woken up by the sound of a car “pulling donuts” on the road in front of the school. I don’t see a thing, but can hear the engine and tires on the asphalt. It sounds like I’m in the middle of a car race, unbelievably noisy. It turns out to be exactly what I wanted to avoid in the first night: A miserable night with lots of time wasted by trying to sleep but not actually doing so. I’m still slightly ahead of schedule but would pay for this short night later.
Derry -> Cnoc Fola, 257.2 km, 3.616 vm, Strava
Day 3: There are no strangers here…
With the first light of day, the storm has subsided, leaving only the rain. For breakfast I force some biscuits down my throat and get on the road. The road immediately starts climbing. When I look behind me on one of the crests, I see two riders chasing me in the distance, just a little bit apart from each other. It’s a bizarre scene, but also reassuring because it reminds me there is a reason I’m doing this and there are others voluntarily pushing through the same. I increase the pace a little and they do not catch me for now. The weather is really grim this morning and it doesn’t take long until we ride into an incredibly strong headwind again. I try to retrace the route from last year in my mind, try to remember where I had breakfast and coffee around here last time. It’s a service station I recognise, but this time I’m here too early in the morning and it is not open yet. It should be a good thing that I’m at the same spot earlier on the day, but I could really use some coffee now. There are two riders just emerging out of their sleeping bags who have spent a seemingly similar rough night on the concrete floor of the service station, sheltered from the worst of the rain but not the wind. They offer me biscuits in a nice gesture, but I have biscuits myself and am looking for something more substantial. This area is not even one of the most remote, there are little villages and stray houses everywhere, but at this hour in the morning on a Sunday it might as well be the moon, there is just no chance to find any food unless you catch a sheep. I’m not that desperate just yet and they are probably too fast for me anyway.
When I arrive in Dungloe and see two men with coffee cups in their hands, I need to know where they got them from. They point me towards a little supermarket and add that the coffee is not that great, but I find it heavenly. The place just opened and I’m stocking up on all kinds of food. While I’m eating yogurts and pastries by the entrance, a whole bunch of riders arrives one after the other, all looking for breakfast. The supermarket is actually not exactly on the route but a little bit uphill from a turn, a small detour. Apparently nobody minds, they all look hungry enough to go the few extra meters. With renewed energies and spirits after chatting with Paul, Gavin and the others over breakfast, I’m chasing Paul for a while, once again riding a little bit faster than I probably would alone, just due to the fact that there is a cyclist on the horizon which I don’t want to lose out of sight. We ride for this maybe two or three hours but at some point I have to slow down a little and let him out of sight. When another cyclist comes in sight later, I initially think I have caught up to Paul again, but then realize it’s Jason. We talk about coffee and ice cream and decide to stop at the next service station. The name of the place, Ardara, should ring a bell, this is where I was stopped last year for a good while during a rain storm. This year it’s sunny and I don’t even recognize the place. We are having ice cream in the sun, more racers catch up to us, it is a totally different experience than last time. I am not aware that we are so close to Glengesh pass, one of the climbs that I’m most afraid of. We want to push on together when Jason realizes his rear wheel has punctured, so I leave him to fix it and get back on the road alone just as Frank from the Netherlands rolls by. Once again I’m very happy about the company and love how often I meet other riders. Glengesh in the sun is such a different experience. It’s still as steep and I decide to walk the steepest bits, but it’s much more enjoyable and beautiful in these conditions.
Even the long downhill into Glencolumbkile is actually fun when the fingers are not freezing. What a difference the weather makes. Since I know what’s coming up, I can aim for specific places where I know a stop will be worthwile instead of searching around and losing time with unnecessary stops. Maybe the experience does pay off. When I reach the pub I had planned all along to have lunch at, there are already a couple of bikes parked in front of it. Jane, Paul and Odd are all eating here and so it becomes a social lunch. Everybody sets off independently and I find myself alone again, chasing Paul from a distance. The weather throws everything at us now. Ridiculous gusts of wind from the front or side, heavy rain immediately followed by bright sunshine and then drizzle again. It’s like in a weather lab where somebody is pressing all the buttons at once. I roll on through Donegal town where I slept last year and feel content with my progress. Donegal was also where the trouble with my ankle and the limp to the pharmacy to Ballyshannon the next day began. The only thing that’s slightly hurting now is my knee, so I’m very happy to arrive in Ballyshannon earlier and in better shape than last time, treating myself to a B&B and relatively early stop. After all I am still ahead of my own time from last year and can make up even more miles tomorrow. Rocky, the friendly dog of the house, begs me to share my dinner with him, but I cannot do that. You’re not cycling tomorrow, Rocky!
Cnoc Fola -> Ballyshannon, 192 km, 3.595 vm, Strava
Day 4: Low morale
Another miserable morning. More rain and more wind, today it’s even worse. Apparently they call it gale force. I’m wondering whether that’s a gaelic thing. Not the perfect conditions to make up miles, but after all everybody will have to face the same weather, so why complain. I’m rolling through Grange and see a service station, but it’s closed. The mornings are always the hardest parts of the day for me, it takes me a while to get into any kind of mood, especially without coffee. While I sit under the service station’s little roof and eat some of my reserve cookies, Charles rolls by and waves happily. He seems to be enjoying this. At the moment I am not, but no point dwelling on it, back on the road. I really slowly grind up a slight incline thinking about why I got myself into this again, when suddenly Jason shoots by me and shouts “Last one to Sligo pays breakfast!”. I haven’t heard him coming up in the strong headwind and it is a proper scare, but also a welcome surprise. I have to raise my pace to keep up with him, but it’s worth it, he knows there’s a 24/7 service station coming up. I wasn’t aware that we were so close to Sligo town. The thought of coffee and warm food spurs me on. We meet Charles again and everybody takes their time for big breakfasts, nobody seems eager to go out again. Jason is the first one.
I’m having one more coffee and finally feel ready to face the road again too. I tell myself to be cheerful because I’m relatively pain-free in a section where I had serious issues with my ankle last year and came close to scratching. It does not really work. My knee hurts, though it’s still manageable. I’m changing cleats position on the shoes every now and then, which does not really help. Only later it dawns on me that the knee had just needed warmth, all the cold rain and wind without the protection of a knee warmer was too much for it. This morning it feels as if everything conspired against me, the poor roads, the strong headwind, the rain and now on this narrow lane along the coast also the car drivers. Some of them pass me much too close and much too fast, my mood is getting worse and worse. This is also one of the first longer stretches where I don’t meet any other riders. I think of George and how he said last year that everybody has at least one bad day, so decide that this is my bad day and tomorrow everything will be easier. Not enjoying myself makes any bike ride a hundred times harder. Nobody said this was easy. The weather had to be expected, but the run-ins with careless drivers get more and more, and this is something that I don’t remember from last year. Looking back, probably the traffic didn’t change that much, but my perception did. I have a few particularly bad cases just before I reach Easky and dive into a small cafe for coffee, sandwiches, lemonade and mainly to get off the road for a bit. The only other guest is a cyclist too. Turns out he is touring the west coast in the opposite direction and was wondering about the many cyclists coming towards him. He particularly wonders why he sees so many riders that are in sight of each other, but don’t close the gap. Are they stupid? Why don’t they draft each other in this headwind? That would make everybody’s ride easier! I explain the race rules to him and we have a laugh as well as some serious talk about the bad driving. It’s really good to talk to somebody who understands how it feels and has some good points about the relationship between drivers and cyclists. Somewhat relieved I go out into the rain again where an elderly French couple adores my bicycle and starts talking French to me. My French is really bad, but we manage to exchange a couple of well-meant words. I’m feeling somewhat better about all this, but the wind and weather have other ideas and really turn up the intensity. I’m now back on a big N road with lots of traffic and a hard shoulder. There’s a little shop by the side of the road and I find myself stopping again, just to get out of the rain and off the bike. I have enough food and drink, so this stop is not necessary at all. The girls working in the shop ask me all kinds of curious questions while I’m having my alibi coffee and do restore my belief that I am doing something really worthwile. At least they are impressed. Better don’t tell them how far in front the leaders already are. I somehow drag myself to Killala, the weather is still doing everything it can so I don’t get there. But I do, and stop again. I am aware that I’m stopping far too often, but just cannot find enough motivation to keep riding for hours on end. There is always some excuse to stop, which is starting to disappoint myself. In Killala an old man asks me where I’m from and suddenly wants to start a political discussion about the role of Germany in Europe. It turns into one of the most interesting discussions I ever had, we quickly go from irrational fears of terrorism to Irish hospitality to riding bicycles, a topic I much prefer to politics. Behind Killala the rain stops briefly and the clouds let through a sunbeam. It’s the first glimpse of nice weather all day and reminds me how beautiful this place can be.
Of course it doesn’t last long and everything goes grey again shortly after. It’s slowly getting dark and I pass the bivvy spot where I stayed last year, realizing the advantage over my old self is almost gone. As long as I keep some reserves and sleep enough, so I can speed up towards the end, it will be all fine, I think. I keep riding into the wind through the moorish landscape and along the driveways with stacked pyramids of peat until the sun goes down. The weather is dreadful and remembering my futile attempt of bivvying in this area last year, I would go for another B&B. The lady of Kilcommon Lodge welcomes me with a familiar accent which cannot hide her German heritage. She’s cooking dinner, washing my clothes and gives me a cheap bed in a multi bedroom. After the hard day out it is surreal to feel so at home. I’m not the only racer here. After a quick shower I’m having dinner with Victoria who arrived a while before me. We tell each other about sleeping spots and eating habits, clearly disturbing the poor woman on the table next to us. We couldn’t care less, it’s great to catch up. While I forget the race for a moment, clearly talk too much and have trouble finishing my plate, Victoria tugs in and is off to bed in no time. I’m impressed with her attitude and competitiveness. Surely I’ll bump into her tomorrow again. In the meantime Charles has arrived and also gets a bed in the big room. I set my alarm to 4 am and sleep immediately.
Ballyshannon –> Kilcommon, 196.6 km, 2.118 vm, Strava
Day 5: Get up that hill
I’m sneaking out of the shared bedroom and grab my clothes from the line. They are not dry yet, but it doesn’t matter, they are clean. They wouldn’t have stayed dry for long anway. Victoria’s bike is already gone. I’m eating as many bowls of cereal as I can. Until I’m finally ready to move, it’s after 5 am and Charles is up as well. Victoria has at least an hour of advantage, but I’m confident that I will catch her in Bangor. I know there are virtually no shops until the one there, so that’s my first goal of the day. No point stopping before. At the risk of repeating myself, the weather is miserable again. Strong headwinds with even stronger gusts and constant rain. It’s not easy to find the flow and a good mood on such a morning, but suddenly after the turn towards Bangor, a favourable tail wind pushes me along. I know it won’t last long as the route makes another 180 degree turn in Bangor, so try and make the best of it. I’m flying along the empty road and starting to have fun again, spurred on by the thought of catching Victoria and having some warm coffee there. I fly into town and see a bike parked up against the shop window, which makes me happy. When I come closer I realize it’s not Victoria’s bike, it’s Jason’s! She must have stopped only briefly or not at all. On the other hand, Jason doesn’t look like he’s in a rush at all. I’m grabbing a coffee and look forward to hearing how he got on, but he doesn’t have good news. Since we parted ways in Ardara he has been struggling with lots of mechanicals and bad luck. I’m hoping he won’t scratch, but it turns out he already did. The decision is made, he is just waiting for a bus to take him out of here. I’m not ready to head out again so have more coffee while watching him get on the bus. Charles also arrives while I’m still sitting there. I remember the next part of the route well and I’m not looking forward to it.
The weather is exactly the same as last year in the Ballycroy National Park, it’s a relentless headwind with occasional downpours along the relatively flat stretch. It’s just a chore. My long breakfast stop in Bangor meant my Garmin ran out of battery. While I’m charging it back up enough to turn it on again, I’m using the phone to record the track. That’s why the Strava recording of this day is in three parts. I am alone with my thoughts again. The sight of Jason dropping out of the race won’t leave my mind and depresses me. More and more negative thoughts are creeping in. I should notice the mental crisis approaching, but I am too engulfed in my negative thoughts to notice the spiral I am getting myself into. This stretch is hard going and just boring to me. The highlight is a sheep almost running in front of my wheel. The road to Achill Island seems endless. There are some more situations with ignorant drivers overtaking in the least appropriate moments and much too close. My mood is really bad when I see a long queue of cars heading towards me. It’s a funeral parade for a young local that died of cancer, somebody tells me.
Everything is depressing me now. Thoughts that had started as little doubts that could have been brushed off have come back and grown so tall in my mind that suddenly they are valid reasons for a scratch, at least they are good enough excuses for me. My knee hurts and I don’t want to do any permanent damage to it; I don’t need to prove that I can do this, I’ve done it before; I’m too slow anyway; it’s better to save energy for the next race in just 5 weeks; if I cut out the second loop on Achill I could be in Westport in a couple of hours. I google train connections from Westport to Cork. I brush away the thought and keep pedalling. This cycle of “I’m giving up, no I’m not, yes I am…” is going on for a while when suddenly I decide to stop by the side of the road. I’ve had enough. When I saw Jason leave the shop in Bangor, I could see a glimpse of relief in his eyes, the kind of relief somebody feels after struggling with a decision and then just doing it. Right now all that I want is that relief. I’m pulling out the brevet card with Adrian’s number on it to call and announce the scratch, get it over with. There are messages on my phone. I flick through them and find loads of support from my friends and family spurring me on. At the same time, I’m happy for the support and angry at the universe for not letting me give up. Telling all these people that I just did not have it in me flashes through my mind. I tell Paul, my mate from last year’s race, about the way I feel and he asks me to think of somebody that would be proud of me. The support at home has been so motivating, I decide to roll on and at least include the second loop of Achill. I’ll still be in Westport soon enough to take a train and there’s no rush in calling Adrian. This loop was one of my highlights from last year’s route, so it would be a pity to not ride it while I’m here. I’m saying goodbye to the sheep I pass. My head is full of thoughts and empty at the same time. There’s a man working in his garden. He suddenly shouts my name and comes running towards the road with his arms waving wildly. I must be dreaming, how does he know my name? Before I know it, I’m holding a cup with lemonade in my hand. Murph is building a house right on the coast of Achill Island, in a beautiful spot. He gets a laptop from inside and shows me the tracker site. Every time I empty my cup he fills it up immediately. He sticks some nuts and trailmix into my food pouch. How do I deserve this? After all the negative thoughts in my mind for the last two days, I’m overwhelmed by meeting somebody so supportive, and a complete stranger too.
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For the last two days my mind has been coming up with excuses for scratching up to the point where it seemed the logical thing to do. So I took out my phone to call Adrian and say it's over when I saw messages from family and friends willing me on and reminding me why I started this. Then I passed Murph's house. He shouted my name, which I found weird. Turns out he is watching the dots and has lemonade and cookies for all the racers. What a legend! It's an overused phrase, but it's true: I could not make it without you. That goes for Murph as well as all the supporters at home. Thank you so much. #taw2017
Murph asks me how far I am planning to ride today and I tell him I was only going to the Westport train station, but he is not having any of it. “No no, you’re not getting on that train. I tell you what you’re gonna do, you get up that hill and then you ride to the finish. You know, I’m a rugby player. We play for 80 minutes and then rest for a week and we think we’re athletes. What you guys are doing is inspirational!” He tells me that his mate was supposed to ride this race, but couldn’t, so he decided to support all the riders coming by his house. I want to hug the man. What a great gesture at exactly the right time. When I ride on, there’s loud cheers and a round of applause from the other locals that have gathered and listened. “Now get up that hill!” Thank you Murph. I do get up that hill, and then the next, and the next one, with a big smile on my face. I ignore the shops at Achill Sound and just push on all the way to Newport, where I’m having dinner. A group of people on hire bikes sees my setup and asks me where I’m headed to. I’m saying Westport, not mentioning that I should go at least to Louisburgh if I want to stay on schedule. “Westport? That’s like.. 17 miles. You cannot go that far tonight!” I say “Okay, thanks” and think “You don’t know how far I’ve come”. There is a cycle lane between the two towns, something very rare in Ireland. Last year I avoided most of it because of gravel but this year the gravel sections have gotten fewer and I find it quite enjoyable. I even find enjoyment in a dog attack, reacting quickly and spraying the white furry dog with a big burst of sticky lemonade. He trots away looking disgusted. I have to laugh at his poor sight and yell “Remember that for the next cyclist”. Westport sees me arrive with new found confidence and instead of the train station, I head for a B&B. Some tea, cake and a hot shower later, I’m committed to making up miles tomorrow.
Day 6: Connemara comeback
Connemara. I’m looking forward to this part. It’s relatively flat and we had beautiful weather here last year. Not this time around. I remember seeing rainbows over the same hills that are now shrouded in thick grey cloud. The wind is picking up more and more until it almost makes me stand still in Doolough Valley. It makes for a nice photo, but riding this is anything but pretty.
You know the weather is bad even for Irish standards when the sheep run for cover just to get out of the wind and driving rain. I’ve done enough moaning the previous days, so today I try a different approach and scream “Is that all you got?” against the wind. Laughing like an idiot and pushing on stubbornly, I feel very much alive. Just when I am committed to finishing this again, the weather throws everything it has at me to make me reconsider. It’s all a test and it cannot get much worse than this anymore, so I just pedal on. I’m approaching Delphi Lodge and Killary Harbour when suddenly I can make out a small moving orange glimpse amidst the grey on the road before me. I immediately recognise the helmet, it’s Tim. I can’t stop grinning with exitement as I’m slowly catching up to him. Last year he had to scratch in Westport, it’s good to see him here. We’re both eager for some hot breakfast or at least coffee. I know the Leenaun Hotel is coming up, I was staying there a few years back and enjoyed it. Unfortunately the staff in the hotel wasn’t as friendly last year when I rocked up and asked if I could get a coffee. I already guessed that it was because of my appearance as a wet and tired cyclist. That was last year, but I’m ready to try it again. Epecially when Tim hits a bad pothole and punctures. I tell him I’ll be down the road at that hotel and have some coffee. I’ll park the bike outside if it works, so he knows to stop. When I ask the receptionist if I could get some coffee here, she looks me up and down in a disapproving way, raises her eyebrows and says “We are serving breakfast for our guests right now”. “So that means.. No?” “Well, you can ask inside..” “No that’s okay, I understand the problem, have a nice day.” This hotel won’t be seeing me again. It would have been so easy for them to help me, and obviously I would have paid for the coffee, but wasn’t up to their standards. Tim has not arrived yet, so I push on and eventually find a little café that doesn’t judge its guests by their looks. I prop my bike against the wall in a way that Tim will see it and just as I’m being served my second plate of breakfast, he arrives with a big grin and we share a table. The waiter knows all about the race and tells us repeatedly to not be so lazy and get going again. When I do and roll along the beautiful lanes of Connemara, I keep comparing my progress with last year to gauge how far I am behind schedule. The last few days have seen me falling back. However, I also remember from last year being very tired and needing frequent power naps along this stretch. I’ve slept much more so far this time, so I try to keep cool and trust the plan. It’s still a long way. For now I’m glad to be still in the race. Murph’s “Get up that hill” becomes my mantra. Hill after hill. Pushing over Sky Road and allowing myself only a short pit stop in Clifden, for lunch I set myself another familiar goal, a restaurant where I ate last year. Now the advantages of knowing the route are coming into play. Knowing some good stops along the route and some to avoid, I can plan better and waste less time searching around for services. Only this time, the road to the restaurant seems to be much longer. It’s coming up just in time after running out of food and consequently energy. I take a seat with a view of the road in order to see if anybody passes me, order a big pasta dish and log into the provided wifi. I’m the only guest and the food comes quickly. The internet connection is fast enough for me to check the tracker for the first time. There are people not too far in front of me. There are also lots of messages of support and even donations have started to come in! The support is growing and growing, I can barely keep up with the messages. I can’t believe it and don’t quite know how to handle this, but I feel very humbled and know the only way I can give back anything now is by keeping to pedal and not giving up. At some point during the race or after it, I don’t remember, somebody said “Mike would have loved this course”. I did not know Mike personally, but he was a big part of my life for a while now. His creation, the Transcontinental, was what made me start to ride my bike further and further, so I most likely wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for him. Now I think about him a lot, how he wanted to race this one and didn’t get the chance. I feel even more obliged to do my best to finish this. He would not have given up and I should be grateful for being here, I remind myself. On the stretch into Galway, I get an incredible tailwind and fly along the smooth road, soft pedalling at 35 km/h. This is fun.
Photo: [Jennifer Doohan –53northcreative.co.uk]
I’m stuck behind a tractor when suddenly a car squeezes by much too close in a pointless attempt to get past. Because of the tractor he is not going anywhere, all while talking on his phone. Since his window is down, I shout at him while he passes. He steps on the brakes. I’m getting ready to dive into the ditch, fully expecting him to run me off the road. What I said to him wasn’t exactly friendly and my experience with drivers is such that if you provoke them, some lose their temper and try to outright kill you. I’ve been there. Instead, he gets next to me and inquires in a friendly way what I had just said to him. I repeat it, this time without expletitives. “I said, get off your phone.” He puts the phone down, apologizes with a smile and finally overtakes the tractor. I’m baffled, had I fully expected to get into an argument. I’m finally realizing that there is a substantial difference between the drivers here and at home. Most are really friendly and mean us no harm, they just don’t realize how close and fast they overtake or how it feels for a cyclist. It doesn’t make it any safer, but it’s somewhat harder to be angry at them. Ireland is the first country where I met drivers overtaking dangerously, all while waving and smiling. This evening I roll into Galway, looking for another B&B. There are hundreds here. The lady in the first one I try says “The bike is not coming inside”. Well, then I’m not coming inside. There are enough alternatives. The host of the B&B I end up in is not much friendlier either. What is it with bigger cities that people forget how to be nice to each other? After meeting only friendly locals in the countryside, this place is making me sad. I take a quick walk to the shop by the corner, but it’s closed already. When I come back, the host tells me I should have walked in the other direction to find a shop that’s still open, but my feet are hurting and I cannot be bothered so go straight to bed with some cookies for dinner. When I remove my shoes, I see why walking hurts. I think it’s called “Trench foot”. A testament to how wet the last few days had been. I raid the bathroom for some kind of lotion and hope it will be better in the morning.
Westport –> Galway, 262.1 km, 1.824 vm, Strava
Day 7: Fear is a big brown dog
I’m pleased with my decision to stay in a warm bed when I see the rain outside, even though I’m kind of stretching my budget here. I did not plan to use so many B&Bs. Leaving Galway before the rush hour sets in, I find the same Texaco that had served me warm croissants in the middle of the night last year. This means I’m about 6 hours behind my schedule, but again, I’m much better rested, so no need to worry. I have warm ham and cheese croissants, several coffees, donuts, I feel like in heaven. After stocking up for the rest of the day which I know will be pretty remote, I push on into the Burren. It’s good to pass places where I needed naps last year and still feeling fresh. On another resupply stop, I leave the store to find two locals very interested in my bike set-up. After explaining the race, one goes “So that’s why I kept seeing cyclist going through here in the middle of the night! That’s mental! With lights and all. You’re going to Cork, ye? Well I have a hot tip for you, take the ferry across the Shannon to Tarbert, it’s a good shortcut!” Thanks guys, appreciated… I’d really like to take this ferry, but it’s prohibited. We have to go the long way around the Shannon into Limerick, the biggest detour of the route compared to last year. But first come the Cliffs of Moher. This was the beginning of my big breakdown last year and the stretch where I suffered the most. Getting through it without stopping and with relative ease gives me some more confidence. It’s not as hard as I remember it, I was just absolutely spent last time. Continuing my tactic of picking out familiar food stops along the way and not faffing around until I get there, I look forward to Lahinch and the little polish café I know there. The wind has other ideas, I have to pedal hard just to get down the hill into Lahinch. On a good day this is frustrating, on the Transatlantic Way you get used to it and just shrug your shoulders after a while. Everybody is going through the same conditions, so why complain. In a bus stop at the entrance to Lahinch, I spot Charles and give him a wave. He waves back less than enthusiastic, and I wonder what’s wrong. Probably fed up with the weather, I think and continue on to the café. Just like last year, I arrive ten minutes before it opens, only last year it opened for breakfast and this year for lunch. I’m three hours behind schedule. And just like last year, she opens the door early for me. I ask if the lasagna will be fast because I’m kind of in a rush and she assures me it will be, so I order it and Charles appears around the corner. With a look of resignation on his face, he shows me that his shifter cable has snapped and his phone broke. I cannot help him but ask the owner of the café if she knows of a bike shop in town. She calls a mechanic who says that he cannot fix it, but that there is a bike shop in Milltown Malbay where he should try his luck. He refuses food and rides on immediately. I’m not rushing my lunch and when I finally summon the will to face the road again, the girl laughs and says “You cyclists are funny. You ask whether the food will be quick and then you sit here for 40 minutes not wanting to leave. See you next year!” At Spanish Point I get nostalgic and take a photo for George, who was suffering here last year.
Shortly after I almost get run over by a BMW SUV, this one puts me over the edge and I pedal furiously for the next few miles, hoping to see the car stopped somewhere to vent my frustration on the driver. I eventually stop for ice cream and to calm myself down. Jason obviously watches the tracker from Blarney as he immediately tells me to keep moving. The roads around here are rather boring, but at least I don’t need to stop for regular naps this time around. When I enter Kilrush, I see Charles by the side of the road. He is surprised to see me and says he expected me to be way ahead of him. He got his shifter and phone fixed and looks like a new man, albeit he says he is very hungry now. I can use some company and tell him I will also stop at the next opportunity. With a new found spirit, Charles is riding a hard pace and I cannot keep up with him for long.
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French rider Charles Billau riding with renewed spirits and a smile on his face. This morning his phone broke and his shifter cable snapped. He two-speeded 80km against the wind until he could get both fixed in Kilrush. Now he is flying through Clare to make up time. Every single one of these riders is a champion. #taw2017
We regroup at a little shop and have a chat with a local cyclist. Shortly after we lose sight of each other. It’s not far to Limerick now and I have no plan how far to go today, I’m just going with the flow. On an empty stretch of lane, there is something big standing in the road ahead of me. It’s a really big brown dog, staring at me. I stop. He takes a step closer to me, still staring. Something tells me that a splash of water from my water bottle would not impress this one. There are high hedges on both sides of the road, there is no getting around this one. I slowly walk towards him trying to summon up braveness, and he starts barking. A car approaches and I try to get the driver to stop, without success. The dog makes room for the car to pass, so I’m just waiting for the next one to arrive and do my best 20 second sprint while trying to apologize to the driver for being on the wrong side of the road. It’s a bit sketchy but it works out. The dog is left behind barking and I ride on. So I enter Limerick at dusk, find a fast food chain and for the first time since Dublin am a little bit worried about my unlocked bike outside, as there are some shady-looking guys around. The bigger towns are a stark contrast to the countryside. I try a couple of cheap looking hotels, but everything is full, so I commit myself to riding on into the night and find a dry spot to bivvy somewhere. Just as I’m leaving Limerick I see a sign for “student accomodation”, so decide to give it one last try. It’s 30 euro, the receptionist is a nice guy and I get to park my bike in the room. This will be my last bed before Blarney. With less than a thousand kilometers left, it is time for me to finally turn up the pace and cut down on sleep. I allow myself 4 hours and get up before sunrise.
Galway –> Limerick, 238.8 km, 2.773 vm, Strava
Day 8: Catching up
The road out of Limerick is pretty boring. I cannot help but wonder why we have to ride this extra stretch. There are a couple of trucks on this road and there’s not really a shoulder, so I count myself lucky for hitting it before rush hour sets in, where things here would be much worse. Most of the traffic this morning is going into Limerick and I’m going out, so it’s bearable. Without knowing it, because I’m not checking the tracker regularly, I’ve caught up to a couple of racers. First I see Doug stopped at a service station near Tralee, waving. Then I see Paulius stopped by the side of the road. Shortly after I’m back on familiar turf and riding on beautiful narrow lanes towards Ballybunion, the place where I had to stop for 15 hours last year.
The wind this morning is particularly brutal, but the sun is also out and the roads are dry, which makes for a really nice change. Passing Ballybunion without stopping feels like an important milestone. I still have some speed left in my legs and I’m not tired. If it wasn’t for the wind I could make really good progress here. When I slowly fight up another incline and against the wind, I cannot help but notice the guy standing at the top of the hill taking pictures with his mobile phone. Wait, is he taking pictures of me? When I come closer, he is holding out a Mars bar and can of coke like in a feed zone. It’s Tommy, who is supporting the media crew by driving around, meeting racers, providing them with snacks and making little interviews with them. He asks me whether this is my first time doing an event like this and I have to admit I was stupid enough to come back for more. “Ok, yea, that is pretty stupid.” It’s a funny interview I think, unfortunately it never makes it onto the race website. It’s cut off, and the wind noise is too loud anyhow. Breifne later sends me this short clip of it. At least you can tell it’s windy. I find good food in Ardfert and have a dessert of rice pudding, which makes me catch Doug shortly after on the way to Conor Pass. He suffers from painful saddle sores but is not thinking about giving up. After I pass him and take some photos, he overtakes me again and picks up the pace. He might be suffering but is determined to finish the race. This race is full of inspiring characters.
When I approach Conor Pass, I have to think of this video I’d seen before the start, where Adrian talks about this climb. It’s your friend. It doesn’t punish you. I’m looking forward to it, but what I do experience is very different from what I had expected. For starters, I don’t remember it being so steep. It’s less steep than most of the other climbs, but it’s the longest and still has a 7% average. It doesn’t feel like my friend. I feel very weak and almost dizzy. I’m having to stop, twice. I see the dark clouds coming in over the pass and get afraid of being trapped up here, without any power to go on and stuck in another storm. In a slight panic I search my food pouch and eat all the chocolate I can find. Sugar always helps. Except this time it doesn’t. I’m crawling up the pass and it becomes a real struggle just to reach the top. Towards the top, the road gets really narrow and the amount of cars not paying enough attention and not giving me space drives me mad. They are most likely all tourists, because there is no need to take Conor Pass to get to Dingle, there is another much easier way into town. It’s a beautiful narrow road, blocked with cars whose drivers look everywhere but at the road in front of them.
I’m emotionally not in the best place when I reach Dingle, but happy to run into Paul at the service station. When I see the bags of potato chips by the counter and get a sudden craving for them, I realize that I’m lacking salt, not sugar. That’s why the chocolate didn’t help. I devour the salty snack and some greedy birds fight over what falls down the ground. Paul has already completed the Slea Head loop, so is technically still a good way ahead of me. At this stage I don’t think I can catch him, but he shows me the tracker on his phone. This makes me want to catch Doug again, who is not far ahead of me. The weather is beautiful and this time around I don’t get lost because my Garmin is actually working. Things could be worse. I catch Doug taking pictures out on the loop and we agree to meet for dinner in Dingle.
Doug wants to ride another 20 km tonight. I’m feeling pretty good and not tired yet, so when we visit the supermarket in Dingle after dinner, I decide to stock up for the night and try to ride through it. I’m loading my bags to the brim with lots of food and drink and immediately regret it at the next hill. What a difference the weight makes when climbing. It’s dark now and I realize that my phone as well as my Garmin are close to powering off due to the low battery level. My powerbank is broken since day 2 and I cannot effectively charge anything off the dynamo while I’m using the lights. I’m using a spare battery-powered rear light and turn off my main lights, only powering them back on when a car comes towards me. It’s a bit stressful, but somehow works. I realize it’s not long to go until the Gap of Dunloe and remember well what lies beyond it. The Black Valley – a long stretch of bad, dark roads in one of the most remote parts of Ireland, no infrastructure. It scared me last time and that was in daylight. The thought of my Garmin, my phone or my lights failing in this environment scares me even more. There’s a difference between brave and stupid, so I start looking for a bivvy spot. The sun will come up in 4 hours again anyway, it’s better to wait and then attack through the National Park as soon as it becomes light. I talk to a drunk man outside a pub at Inch Beach, who is a little surprised to see a cyclist asking him for good bivvy spots and isn’t of much help either. I linger around a schoolyard for a while considering to sleep behind the wall, but something feels off here. Shortly later I find the nicest spot I could have wished for. A GAA football pitch with an open gate. I climb the spectator stands and bed down on the highest aisle for 4 hours of solid sleep.
Limerick –> White Gate, 267.7 km, 3.043 vm, Strava
Day 9: Bliss is a warm bread
The first light of the day sees me waking up well rested. While packing up, I realize that I was sleeping on a couple of glass shards. It’s too early to hope for any open shops and my package of cookies won’t last me through the day. As I roll through Milltown I smell fresh bread and see a half open door with light behind it. I’m not sure if the guy speaks any English because he doesn’t reply, but he gets me a big bread, still warm from the oven and signals a two with his fingers. I give him 2 Euros and leave with a big smile. Approaching the Gap of Dunloe while snacking from warm bread in my jersey, I’m feeling no worry in the world and ready for another long day. The only other thing I really crave is coffee and since I cannot find any, take a 10 minute nap in one of the abandoned houses along the pass in hopes of the same effect.
As soon as I descend into the Black Valley, the rain is back. There is a little shop in the middle of nothing. It’s closed, with two cars standing in front of it. The engines are running and both drivers are texting something into their smartphones. This is something I notice a lot in Ireland, people leave their engines running all the time, even when going to the shops for several minutes. I don’t understand this behaviour, but they wave and smile at me in a friendly way. Just a couple of minutes later, climbing a narrow lane, I hear the sound of a car approaching from behind. There is no space to overtake here, my eyes are already scanning if the road gets wider further up, when I realize from the sound getting louder and louder that the car is not going to slow down. There is no time to do anything, I stay as close to the curb as I can and close my eyes. The car shoots by me with easily 80 kp/h, almost knocking me over. It’s the same guy that gave me a friendly wave just minutes earlier when he saw me pull into this lane. I’m speechless for a bit, then screaming the worst insults I know. Nobody can hear me. I’m getting more angry than I should. It doesn’t stop when I turn onto the main road toward Sneem. Every car seems like an enemy at this point. Shortly before Sneem and a couple of close overtakes later I’m emotionally exhausted and not sure how to deal with it. I stop by the side of the road with my head down over the handlebars just to breathe a little, when a couple walks by and she asks whether it’s a tough ride this morning. I’m mentioning almost being run over a couple of times and they say “well, this road is dangerous, you shouldn’t be riding on it”, which only makes me more angry. I’m trying to turn the powerful emotions into power onto the pedals. In Sneem I finally get some coffee and warm food. I take a longer rest there and try to refocus for the Ring of Kerry ahead. This stretch of wide road is very popular with bus tourists and was one of my least favourites in last year’s race. The weather is turning really nice now and the sun is out, so I actually see some of the views that were hidden by fog the last time around. What a difference the weather makes in this part of the world. Unfortunately this means even more of the bus tourists. Passing one of their staged photo opportunity spots on a long uphill stretch, a guy from the crowd tries to encourage me and shouts “You can do it!” I reply “I know I can. And you could too, if you weren’t so lazy!” I don’t turn around to see his face but the thought of it stays with me for a while and amuses me before I start feeling bad about my rudeness. Emotional rollercoaster, I tell you. That guy was trying to encourage me and I’m cycling in this wonderful weather, I should be grateful. The zig-zag climb before Portmagee sees me smiling, and walking again. Then on what is most likely the fastest descent of the whole race, a straight and steep run-in into Portmagee, I get another harsh reminder how fast it can be all over. A young girl driving up the hill towards me is looking at the telephone in her hand rather than the road and slowly sways over into my lane while I approach with about 60 kp/h and no space left to avoid her. She looks up and swerves back for me to squeeze through in the last possible second. Like paralyzed I roll into town and park my bike at the pub that I already knew. It’s only when my water is served and I hold the glass in my hand that I realize I’m shaking. I’ve had it with this race. It’s my emotional low point. I don’t feel capable of focusing on anything right now, let alone on a bike race and trying to beat my time. Physically I am feeling better every day now and know I have a lot of reserves left, but mentally I am on the edge. Without any urge to push on, I sit in the bar and give up a second time after Achill. I’m done. This time I’m not thinking about calling Adrian as I am too close to the finish line to stop here. It’s only about 500 km. To beat my time, I know I have to push myself hard for the last stretch and if the head is not in it, that’s not possible. Just when I decide to ride on in touring mode, Ross, Liam and DC arrive at the bar. We ask each other how it’s going and I cannot help but go on a rant about the driving. The poor guys just fought up a savage climb and are hungry, but listen and calm me down somewhat with their words. We say goodbye to each other and I ride on engulfed in thoughts. I feel unable to decide what to do, so I let my gut decide and stop for ice cream and coffee in the sun. The locals hanging around at the store ask me all kinds of questions and soon take my mind off the negative by declaring me official ambassador of Ireland in Germany. When I climb past Finnagan’s Well off the Ring of Kerry, the Black Valley embraces me once again. Drenched in sunlight, it is more beautiful than ever.
The light slowly becomes golden and the sun is nearing the horizon, so I’m starting to think about where to end this day. It isn’t helped by a sudden physical low, so I’m sitting down on the wall of a little schoolyard and try checking online for rooms in Kenmare, without really knowing how far it is to Kenmare. I cannot find out neither as the reception is hopelessly bad, but while I sit there with the phone in hand, I incidentally eat the whole package of candy from my food pouch, shrug my shoulders and get back on the bike. It doesn’t take long for the sugar to kick in. Only being stopped briefly by a herd of cows, I’m now flying up Ballaghbeama Gap.
I couldn’t have hit this beautiful road at a better day of time. With breathtaking views behind every bend and the feeling of absolute freedom out in nature, these are the kinds of moments I ride my bike for.
All the doubts and negative emotions are forgotten now and I feel like a happy cyclist again. It’s getting dark on the climb up to Moll’s Gap and I need to keep the speed above 19 kp/h to keep charging the Garmin from the dynamo. The steady grade allows for little sprints up the hill in the big chainring. I cannot help but laugh as this would be the least intuitive thing to do in a 2.500 km long bike race, but I’m actually enjoying it. I’m having the wide road up to the Gap all for myself and before I know it, stand at the top. All downhill to Kenmare from here, and I’m only a few hours behind last year’s time now. And suddenly I’m racing again. For a minute I enjoy the solitude at the top of the pass.
It’s here that I formulate a plan to go to Allihies tonight. I would stock up in Kenmare and then make my way out to Beara peninsula. As I start the descent, I make out a lonely figure walking up the pass in a hi-vis vest. While I’m still thinking how odd it is to walk up here at this time and how odd the walker must find it to see a cyclist, he shouts my name and takes photos. The media team is everywhere. I couldn’t find these photos yet, but it’s another welcome interruption and a reminder that we are not alone out here. The next reminder comes immediately after the descent at the service station that I planned to stock up for the night. It’s Shaw, who is following the race, we met before in Dingle. The service station is just closed so I rush into town and find an open pizza place. They let me park my bike inside. One waiter doesn’t like that and wants me to leave it outside, but his colleague says “That’s okay, he’s in the race”. Thanks for the good work, faster riders! Shaw doesn’t take long to find me here, thanks to the tracker. I’m on a buzz now. While I’m having my pizza, he shows me the tracker on his phone. Over the last few days I have been making some progress and caught up to people I had thought were too far ahead. Victoria is in town and has stopped for the day, Paul is just 17 km ahead, also stopped. I don’t feel tired at all and plan to do at least 60 km more after my pizza dinner. The only other customer in the store declares me crazy for wanting to go that far, but I’m bursting with confidence. 60 more kilometers is nothing, come on. When I push on and out of town, I feel like a secret agent on a mission. Everything is dark and calm, with only the odd driveway light illuminating the road. The tiredness comes fast and unexpected. My eyes are getting heavy, I need some sleep, at least a few hours. The guy in the pizza place was right, I did not have another 60 km in me. Then I see a B&B with a gravel parking lot behind it. I pull over and lie down on the grass verge of the lot. I am kind of hidden from the road, though from the B&B, you only would have to look out of the window to see me sleeping there. Maybe that’s the one Paul is staying in? I’m tired enough not to care and fall asleep in an instant.
White Gate -> Tuosist, 252.4 km, 3.190 vm, Strava
Day 10: Never alone
3 hours later I am woken up by noisy ducks flying in formation over my head, just before sunrise. I know it’s a bit more than 400 km to Blarney from here and I know that I can do that in one go. It is still possible to beat my time, and I’ll try to, if only by one minute. I almost forgot this stretch out to the tip of Beara and how hilly it is. For Irish standards there are also a lot of trees here and I see quite a lot of wildlife this morning, including deer, which I have not seen in Ireland before. I’m thinking of Victoria, whether she is awake and saw that I passed her in Kenmare. She is probably chasing already. A few days earlier when I was struggling and falling behind, she sent me a message to try and catch her, joking that she would leave a trail of biscuit crumbs. The sun is up and it looks like it might become the best day since leaving Dublin. I round a corner and find Victoria, sitting on a wall and munching biscuits. It’s a funny coincidence, even though I can hardly believe she passed me, how early must she have started riding this morning. She asks whether I was going non-stop for the finish now and I tell her that’s the plan, but that I would try and get 2 or 3 more hours of sleep along the way. For the next few hours, Victoria and me are casually rolling around the peninsula in a kind of cease-fire, just riding side by side and talking about life. She’s a quick climber and I’m having trouble keeping her pace up the many hills, but always catch back up to her on the downhills and flats. Just as both our cookie reserves seem to go towards empty, we roll into Castletownbere and stock up in the supermarket. Once again I’m witnessing how effective Victoria is off the bike, she’s already at the cashier while I’m still considering what to get. I even order “the same she is having” at the deli counter because I’m unable to decide and feel the pressure. The sun is out now and we sit down at a little picknick table in the town square having breakfast, which very much feels like having a holiday. Paula shows up in town. She had to scratch from the race due to an injury, reminds us how it only took her 17 hours to get to the finish from here last year and sends Victoria on the way with a loud “Go beat that man!” as we roll off. The cease-fire is over on the first hill out of town. For the next hours we are chasing each other, sometimes from a distance, sometimes closer, as each is trying to drop the other.
It doesn’t really work for either of us, we are in sight of the other for most of the time. I’m feeling the two short nights and stop at a little meadow next to the road on top of a crest to sleep for 15 minutes. Victoria passes waving and pushes away as I lay down in the sun. Back on the road, I’m starting to wonder if she will have to sleep too or will ride through to the finish now, in which case it will be difficult for me to catch her. It’s a lovely day and I’m looking forward to the last few peninsulas in the sun. Goat’s Path climbs slowly up to the ridge on Sheep’s Head and this is where I see her again as she just rolls through the gap a long way above me. It’s a long climb but she’s basically back in my sights now, so I can allow myself a sandwich in the little pub before starting the loop out to Sheep’s Head. Victoria comes towards me with a big grin coming back in while I ride out. This girl is on a mission. I tell myself that it’s not about catching her, that I’m only racing my own time, but cannot help but wonder if I’ll see her again before Blarney. I take a quick photo at the turnaround spot if only to show Paul, who I was with here last year in thick fog, that there is actually a view here.
On the way back in, I’m meeting Paul for the first time today. He’s been chasing us all morning and looks forward to getting some food on Sheep’s Head. I still haven’t slept properly so tell him he will probably catch up to me on Mizen Head, where I’ll take another nap. I’m wasting more time in Durrus with a totally unnecessary stop for ice cream and coffee. I’m expecting a long grind out to Mizen Head, but I’m there faster than I expected. It’s late afternoon, early evening and I realize I am now a little bit ahead of myself from last year. I don’t feel tired now but keep reminding me that I still wanted to sleep a little bit, so keep stopping in the most random places to stick to the plan and try to shut an eye. Some inner restlessness does not let me drift off completely. I’m so close to the finish and wasting time. Moving on, there’s a car behind me that is suspiciously patient and does not overtake even though there is enough space. When it slowly comes up to my side, I see the driver is holding up a sign with my name. It’s Birgit, a friend of my family, who owns a B&B in the area and has already cheered us on last year. It’s great to meet her again and I stop for a couple of minutes to talk to her. It’s only 200 kilometers to Blarney from here, but I’m not going to make the same mistake as last year and underestimate that stretch. That ride to the finish line last year was still the hardest night I ever spent on a bike, so I don’t expect an easy ride. In an effort to prepare as good as possible for the upcoming task, I order some hot food in the Goleen takeaway and raid the little grocery store next door while waiting. After loading up my bags to the brim with food and drink, I’m having the warm food on a bench on the sidewalk next to a curious man with a strangely creepy voice. He insists that he has seen me before, up on Mizen Head earlier that day and proceeds to propose shortcuts to me, because “it’s a long cycle to Cork, but you make it even longer if you go via Kinsale”. I don’t have the composure nor the patience to explain to him why a shortcut is not an option and just thank him for his advice. “So where do you sleep tonight”? “I try and don’t, I want to be in Blarney for breakfast.” He recommends a place to sleep anyway, describes some dunes by the sea where nobody would find me and I’d have a perfect sleep. He keeps going on about how much he also would like to sleep there tonight while I bid my farewell and swear to myself that I won’t stop there, even if only for the risk of this guy showing up in the middle of the night. The way to Schull is hilly and it feels like somebody is pulling me back on my saddle. The weight of the food and drink I’ve packed is no joke, so better start eating and reducing the load soon. Sitting up against a container next to a little abandoned house, I try one more time to get some sleep, but fail. I’m feeling slower than slow now and have a hard time getting any kind of pace going. Upon leaving Schull, it’s an hour or two before sunset, I see a little park area by the side of the road. Just as I unpack my sleeping and bivvy bag, two children come running into the park, immediately followed by their father, who sees me, takes the children by the arms and drags them out again. Clearly this is not a safe place for his children to play, with homeless people camping out here. Slightly embarassed I try and get some sleep anyway. I feel tired enough but this time it’s midges not allowing me to shut my eyes. After about 15 minutes that seem like an eternity, I move on a little bit disheartened. It’s getting dark and I’m starting to accept that there won’t be any longer sleep breaks anymore, short naps will have to do. Shortly after I see a little dancing red light up on a hill in front of me. I’m rubbing my eyes, there is no way I caught another racer with my progress the last few hours, it must be somebody who passed me while I was trying to sleep. It must be Paul. I sprint up the hill, really needing to know if that’s actually a cyclist or if my mind is playing tricks on me. When I catch up and recognize the jersey, all my fatigue is forgotten in an instant. It’s Victoria. We must have been leapfrogging each other all day, while both thought that the other was a long way ahead, so we are equally surprised. Together we ride into the night. Time and for that matter distance passes much faster when you’re in good company. At one point we ride through the middle of a party that has spilled out from a pub onto the street. Drunk people staggering around, others on the floor. It’s a glimpse into a parallel universe, just as much for us as for them. And back into the dark. We have all the road to ourselves. Now we are taking turns in being tired and encourage each other to stay awake and rolling. When we roll through Skibbereen and see the West Cork hotel open, Victoria does not hesitate to ask inside for some coffee. And so we end up at the bar downing coffee at about 2 am, nobody seemingly wondering what we are doing or where we are going. It’s the most normal thing in the world.
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Last picture I took on the #taw2017 before reaching the finish several hours later. @v.mazie organized coffee in the middle of the night in Skibbereen. A brief moment of relative normality before the last push, which was absolutely crazy and ended with blood sweat and tears, a sprint to the line and memories that are hard to put in words still. Thanks for pushing me to my absolute limit and chapeau to the first female solo finisher of the race @v.mazie – can't wait to race you again. #nothingthatsworthanythingisevereasy #raceyourheartout #dreambig #getupthathill
The night passes fast and is only broken up by silly conversation, some little power naps and a lot of chocolate. The naps are getting shorter towards the morning, from 10 minutes to 5 to 2. When you’re tired enough to get off the bike, sit up against the next wall and fall fast asleep within 10 seconds, 2 full minutes of sleep actually feel really refreshing. As the duration of the naps decreases, so does the standards of the chosen spots. Somebody’s driveway looks too inviting to pass up at this point.
Photo: Victoria Mayes
With the sun coming up slowly, so do the energy levels. We are not attacking each other just yet, but it’s clear that this is a different deal than the one with Paul last year, where we crossed the line together. As much as we helped each other stay awake and are glad about the company, we know the race between us isn’t over. We will be in Kinsale soon and plotted very different routes for the last, self-navigated stretch. Approaching the Old Head of Kinsale, I’m struggling to keep my eyes open, it’s a balance act between keeping on riding and falling off. Even when you think you’re on the limit, there is always some energy to be found somewhere, always. I’m pushing up the climb to Old Head out of the saddle with Victoria behind me shouting “Get up that hill!”. Somebody is watching over us, I can feel it and it gives me a great boost. And then we enter Kinsale. Last year the final bit took us through the center of Cork in the morning’s rush hour. The amount of traffic in my sleep-deprived state stressed me out, so for this year I plotted a little longer, more scenic but also calmer run-in. It’s not the fastest way, but I had not expected it to be so close between me and another rider at this stage. As we depart Kinsale in different directions I know Victoria will give it her all. It’ll all be over soon and then I can recover as much as I want, so might as well squeeze everything out on this last stretch. My Garmin says “Distance to go: 39 km”, which seems like a ridiculously short way by now. I go all out on the first hill until I realize I can hold that pace for maybe 10 minutes, but 39 km is still a 90-minute effort under the best of circumstances. OK, dial it down, keep your cool and try to find the fastest pace that you can still maintain to the finish. When the adrenaline wears off, the tiredness comes back with unbelievable force. It’s 27 km to the finish line and I need another nap, I cannot believe or accept this. I’m trying to ignore the tiredness, but when I start weaving over the road and my eyelids are closing by themselves, I know I have no choice. Down on the floor by the side of the road, timer to 2 minutes. It’s amazing how deep you can drift off in that short timeframe. I feel like woken up from the dead when the alarm rings. “You’re almost at the finish, what are you doing sleeping here.” I jump back on the bike and face the locally infamous climb to Kerry Pike, a steep ramp that the locals do their hill climb training on, as I learn later. Thanks Strava Heatmap! “It doesn’t matter now, you don’t need to recover from this one, just get it over with.” While I push myself up the ramp with all the remaining strength, I can feel something dripping from my nose. It’s blood. Soon it’s all over my hands, the handlebars, the GPS tracker and won’t stop dripping. I stop in disbelief and try to get it to stop. I’m dizzy and it takes me a while to realize that I still have some tissue paper in my jersey pocket. When I finally get it to stop, I wrap the remaining tissue paper around my left hand and roll on. Briefly considering stopping somewhere to clean up, I dismiss that thought when I look at the time and realize it is getting really close now to beat the sub-10 days and my old time. With the fastest pace I can still trust myself to hold, which isn’t very fast at all, I carefully roll the last kilometers towards Blarney. Approaching the last kilometer, I see a cyclist waiting at the junction up ahead. He welcomes me and leads me into Blarney to a great reception.
Adrian captured the moment live on Facebook.
Tuosist -> Blarney, 418.9 km, 5.468 vm, Strava
I’m so late that Victoria thinks I let her win on purpose. Of course I didn’t, but have to admit that I don’t mind too much being beaten by her. I’m learning that I not only beat my time by just under an hour (9d 23h 03m), but finished in 31st place. There have been many scratches and so finishing alone guarantees for a pretty good position. I’ve also managed to overtake a couple of riders during the last three days and finish feeling tired, but physically strong. The rest of the day consists of eating ice cream, relaxing on the village green, more ice cream and sleep. It’s a real pleasure to see more racers arrive later in the afternoon and the next day.
Mentally, I found it tough again, maybe even tougher than the first time around. This race was a very emotional affair for me. I mentally gave up twice during the ride and was just lucky to meet the right people at the right time so I could continue. Physically however, I managed it much better than in 2016, and that is the main positive aspect I’m taking home. In 2016 I needed a lot of painkillers and became so tired that I needed to catch up on sleep during the race. Comparing the sleep patterns of the two races, it’s apparent that the experience helped me pace myself better.
It becomes especially obvious towards the last 3 days, where I had much more reserves in 2017 compared to 2016. This sees me leaving Ireland with a lot of confidence for the TCR, just 5 weeks later.
You’ve proven a lot of endurance by reading all this, so maybe the Transatlantic Way Bike Race is something for you – registration for the 2018 edition opens this September.