Well, the Roche-Elliott-Kelly 400k ride at the end of May did not go well. I'd reckoned I might
be able to complete it in a bit over 24 hours, and, if so, it might be possible to contemplate the 1200k ride without assistance. I knew I was slow on the hills, but I managed the climb up Glenmalure to the Shay Elliott memorial without too much difficulty, and even caught up with a few of the other riders by the first control.
Then things started to go wrong. I punctured - fixed it easily enough, but as a result decided to head straight through New Ross when I really should have stopped. My digestion started to play up, I couldn't eat the food I had brought with me, and I started walking hills that I would normally have climbed easily. Then I took a wrong turn, and I realised I would not make the control at Carrick-on-Suir in time. I was 150k from the start and there wasn't any point in going on, so I took a couple of hours to recover in a pub with tea and soup, then headed back on the main roads. The shadows were lengthening as I set off, and it was ten in the morning when got back, my first all-night ride.
Now I knew there was no way I would make the big ride without assistance, and I still had no working motor. I finally got a UK source for a BBS01, and it arrived with just a week to go. I hadn't time to test it with any really long rides, but I was (sort of) all set.
I put the bike in the back of the car and drove down to Midleton on Friday the 20th, arriving about 2 pm. It was a long drive - nearly 200 miles - but not as long as the ride I would have the next day.
The start was at eight on Saturday morning, so that the faster riders would not have to wait too long for the ferry across Cork harbour at the start of the next day. I didn't take a lot of photos, but there are plenty on the event's Facebook page
, together with a video
that captures the atmosphere well. There were, I think, 95 riders in all - mainly Irish and British, with around ten Americans, about the same number of other nationalities, and seven other women.
DAY ONE ROUTE
In the early stages I had a few minor problems with luggage, which put me at the back of the field, but I was soon passing other riders (usually on the hills!). A lovely sunny day, beautiful scenery, the bike going even better than I had hoped. When I rolled into Waterford after about six hours and 120k, I was feeling pretty pleased. I'd used less than 10 amp hours, which went back in while I enjoyed a toasted sandwich and a pot of tea. On then, through Carrick-on-Suir, the home town of the legendary racing cyclist Sean Kelly, and up into the hills. I was on my own now. Back roads with grass growing up the middle, winding through tunnels of trees, sometimes meeting a tractor with a hay-rake on the back that took up so much of the road you had to pull in as far as you could and hold there with a foot in the hedge until he got past. Perhaps I wasn't going so fast now; I was enjoying myself too much. When I stopped at a shop in Fethard I was told that a large group had passed through twenty minutes before. Time to get a move on.
More haste, less speed. My navigation app had ceased to function. I was held up for quite some time at Clonmel, looking for the right exit of a roundabout. I'd gone half a k up the road and returned before I realised I was looking at the wrong roundabout - the one I needed was further on. Things were beginning to get a little surreal. As I stopped at the proper exit I heard the sound of hooves and a ten-year-old boy came past, riding a Shetland pony, his feet almost scraping the road. The pony was wearing a trotting harness. Now I was looking for a road off to the left. There was one, but it was far too close. I continued on for another k. Nothing. I stopped at a house to ask directions. There was a patio door open onto a back garden, and a young child wandering round in his pyjamas. I asked if there was anyone else in the house, but he didn't seem to understand, so I rang the front door bell and eventually his father (I presume) directed me to Ardfinnan. A
way to Ardfinnan anyway, but by now I wasn't worried about following the precise route so long as I reached all the controls in time.
Now I was picking up other riders again, and there was a good crowd in Cahir when I stopped for my second sit-down-and-recharge break. It would take an hour this time, so I could relax and enjoy my meal while others were trying to get in and out as quickly as possible. It was just beginning to get dark, but the pub where we stopped was buzzing, with the World Cup on on the telly. The evening was still warm, so we sat at tables out on the street. Ask about sockets, order a starter, set up the chargers, start the timer. Check the bike, fit lights, put on spare jersey, have soup. I didn't need much more, while the others were digging into big feeds of chips or pasta. A passer-by tried to get a rise out of me, thinking I was a France supporter. I had no idea how well or badly France were doing; it was just a blue jersey. Wander down to the shop. Buy some chocolate brownies for emergency night-time rations. Fifteen minutes to go - why not have some apple pie for dessert?
I was the last cyclist to leave, confident of catching up. But now, after dark, my navigation really went to pot. It took three hours to get to the next control, 30 k away round the back of the Galtee mountains. It was just past midnight; the fastest man had gone through at six in the afternoon. There I met another cyclist. We were the last two through, apart from one who had gone missing. He looked pretty tired, but at least he had a decent satnav, so I decided to stick with him. We were now 100k from our hostel beds, and it was downhill all the way to cross the main Cahir-Mitchelstown road at Kilbeheny before we started climbing again. I was leading down the steepest part when I was suddenly aware that his lights were no longer behind me. I turned. No sign. I retraced my path, now totally confused. Where was that steep hill I'd just come down? Pedelec and lack of sleep can do that to you. A narrow lane led off to the right. He must have gone that way and, yes, it led to a T junction just where it should. But by now there was no sign of a tail light anywhere, and I was so demoralised that I knocked on a door, just to make sure. Is this the way to Kilbeheny? Yes, he said, but it's about eight miles and it's not a great road. EIGHT MILES??? It was just over two k, and, just then, it was the best road in the world.
A few k farther on, and climbing, I saw a tail light winking. An English rider was sitting on the road side, with a hi-tech Moulton beside him. His rear hub had given way. He was waiting for the volunteers from the control to pick him up. In the mean time, he was happy enough; he'd just seen a shooting star. A bit farther. and I came across the rider I'd met at the control. We rode together for a while, but it was hard for me to climb slowly enough to stay with him. Was it any help for me to stay with him? Go on, he said, I'm just riding in. I knew there was a right turn coming up soon, but I wasn't exactly sure how far, so I said I'd ride as far as the first turn I wasn't sure of, and wait for him there. In a while I reached a junction that looked familiar from my homework on Google Maps, but I couldn't be sure in the dark. I stopped, had a drink, ate a brownie, put on my jacket and sat and waited. Then I got out my route sheet and had a think. If it was the right turning, then I was only a few miles from Lismore and it was a narrow, bumpy track that only led out onto the main road again. If it wasn't - well, in either case I'd be better off sticking to the main road. A shallow descent now, no need to pedal, and it went on and on for - a lot longer than a couple of k. I was beginning to wonder if I was coming down the wrong side of the mountain when I remembered that there was a river in front and I was a long way below the crest. The only place this road could
lead was Lismore, wasn't it? On and on, down and down, until I came to a T junction, and the left arrow read Waterford and the right arrow read - TALLOW??? Ah, underneath, Lismore, 1 k. I was running very late now, just time to visit an ATM as proof that I'd been in Lismore, then on, full throttle for the last control at Youghal.
And - I got lost again. Of course, I did, so lost in wooded valleys that I had no idea which way I was heading. Downhill, I thought, downhill on the thickest road you can find. Eventually I reached water and followed it downstream as a new day dawned. The lights of Youghal appeared in the distance just as my time ran out. Ah well, main road back to Midleton, then. Plenty still in the battery. On the way I caught up with another rider and paced him back to the hostel. We arrived with some time to spare, at about seven o'clock, as some other riders are heading out to the ferry. Put the battery on charge again, breakfast and then bed. At nine o'clock I am ready to go again.
The day was heating up again as I made my way down to Cobh. I was tired, but I thought if I take it easy to start with, I can ride through it. I make my way past Fota park, and the Garda directing traffic from the Irish Open Golf tournament. The ferry came, and at last I could sit down. But as soon as I did, the vibrations from the big diesel told me that there is no way I was going to ride through another night. And what was that noise I'd heard from the bottom bracket? I didn't want to be stuck out the end of some peninsula with a seized motor. On the other side, I found a patch of green and lay down. Later I crossed back on the ferry and returned to the hostel. Maybe I will rest there for a while, I thought then drive on to Killarney. The bike, of course, behaved perfectly on the way back.
I slept most of that day. At breakfast I met two more cyclists who had abandoned (I think only 70 completed the whole course) and we swapped war stories all morning of monster hills and lack of sleep. One claimed to have seen Elvis standing in a gateway. It was only when he was two feet away that he realised it was a bush. Later I drove, slowly and carefully, to the hostel in Killarney to help with the riders coming back from the second day and feel glad that I wasn't one of them. Or maybe I could have done it. With all my diversions I had ridden 10 k further than the official distance on the first day, more than I'd ridden on the REK 400, and in three-quarters of the time. If only I could have managed the sleep deprivation, because I wasn't physically exhausted, just jet-lagged. Many of the finishers had less than eight hours sleep over the four days.
Next morning I woke early and rode up to the Gap of Dunloe, before even the jaunting cars were out. A still, clear morning, with only a thrush singing. Later I drove down to Skibbereen to explore my mother's home country, then on to spend the night with my cousin on his farm near Macroom. Beautiful country - all of it.
My only regret is that I wasn't on the bike.