This was the second stop I had made for water since the start of the race, the salt lines were showing on my jersey, wasn’t this race supposed to be wet, windy and cold? I had expected to be racing through torrential rain when I signed up all those months ago, I should just have to open my mouth and drink the rainwater, but oh no, this was like a proper summer’s day not a TAW day.
The race had not started how I had wanted, a niggling headache was playing on my mind already, was I just dehydrated or was it something else, and if dehydration, then a day racing through rolling countryside in hot weather was not the solution. To make matters worse, the precautionary heart rate alarm I had set on my Lezyne Super GPS was sounding almost continuously despite me knowing that my HR was way less than the 145 I had set. Disconnecting the sensor from the strap multiple times on the move did not solve the problem, so I could only conclude something was amiss with with the measurement and so I decided to disconnect it, I needn’t have worried about trying to keep my HR under control, my cumulative fatigue would take care of that.
Although the riders have free choice of route from Dublin to CP1 in Londonderry (with the restriction of avoiding main roads) the first 20/30 kms groups of riders formed, peleton style. It had been recognised by the organisers that this was a possibility, the group I got caught up in felt too much like everyone hanging on to the rear wheel of the leader, so I decided to break the deadlock and head off the front with a quick word to the guy at the front, who I later found out to be Ian Tosh, who also didn’t seem too happy to be pulling 20 riders along the lanes so I was glad to give it a go pulling out ahead for a while. Eventually the groups dissipated as expected and we trickled into the countryside and slowly filtered through the lanes and byways of Ireland on our collective way north.
I was struggling to understand if I had a good route or not, as I would pass or be passed by riders only to cross their paths a few kms later, but I seemed to be making decent progress and after sucking down all my water and half way through the next refill, my headache slowly subsided and I slipped into a rhythm and started telling myself to just relax and enjoy it. The density of the lattice like roads on the way helped to ensure I was never alone for long on the way, saying, hi, chatting and making some new friends along the way, this was what it was all about I told myself . On the road I had the good fortune to run into a few Trancontinental veterans and share some kilometers and chat time, Karen Toastee, Tom Searby and Chris White, he of ridefar.info fame, his bike setup was something to behold, predicated on the mantra of ‘time in the saddle’ being paramount, he delorean like bike had plenty loaded on it and the scooby-doo like sandwiches he had been preparing at the start were certainly keeping him fuelled , but he like the rest of us still had to stop for water, and that was where I caught up with him at a convenience store. Later we crossed paths again descending into a small river valley when he dropped back before rolling up to the traffic lights to cheerily announce that an ‘unimportant’ supporting bracket from his rear rack had broken. There is clearly something to his strategy as we eventually rolled into Derry at about 8pm within minutes of eachother.
It was a welcome sight to see the assembled volunteers on the Peace bridge in the glorious evening sun, pizza boxes strewn temptingly around the place. The sight of the food and a desire not to waste too much time and lose the momentum forced me to make my way onto my planned evening feeding hole, trusty KFC. Surprisingly I was the only racer in the place, considering the nearby McDs was closed for refurb this was a bit shocking, but it seemed most people headed to pizza places, so I was left to consume my food in peace, with the occasional sideways glance from a group of school kids, the only distraction. With a spare wrap in the bag (a lightweight rucksack, which proved invaluable as a food buffer system) I hit the road again, not sure how far I may make it with all the warnings about how brutal the first few climbs are once we leave the main road. Although the unofficial goal was Malin head having read in Jack Peterson’s blog that there were plenty of bivvy spots there.
After leaving Derry, and feeling pretty good, I figured that the one KFC wrap probably would not see me very far into the night or cover my morning hunger, so I stopped for a top up for the night at a convenience store knowing that once I leave the main road there would most likely be nothing until after 9am the next day at best. Now that the sun was setting and I passed the sign for the start of the Wild Atlantic Way proper, the reality of the race and the adventure ahead permeated my thoughts, this was not just another long ride, this was a ride round Ireland.
Steep hills are to be expected on the Transatlanticway, the tales of the race reek of them, was I ready for them? clearly not as I huffed and puffed through the darkness up the seemingly vertiginous climb heading west towards Malin Head. The sight of a slow moving red light ahead gave some motivation, a fellow rider who seemed to moving equally slowly. Edging closer to the light my energy was waning faster than I was gaining on him, so it came as sweet relief when he dismounted his bike and I could also hop off without hating myself too much for giving up at the first challenge of the route. Chance to chat properly with another rider, one I had not met before, that was my justification to myself, for which my legs and knees thanked me fort he brief respite. And they were also glad of my mtb shoes, since walking would not be a rare occurrence on this ride.
We crested the climb together and pedalled on at our own pace, good thing too as the deserted rolling northern coastal road was doling out plenty of challenge already. Climbs were steep and descents narrow and far from smooth. A decent dynamo light went a long way to helping me avoid pot holes, gravel and any potentially escapee sheet hiding out on the warm road. A dark rollercoaster in blissful silence, just the rasp of rubber on tarmac, clicking of the freehub and the occasional sheep to keep me company until a stationary set of bike lights loomed up the road. A fellow TAW rider had been caught out by the rough and tumble of the rural road and his tracker had duly jumped ship from its mount and dived into the undergrowth. This is a race, but camaraderie trumps competitive spirit when a fellow racer is in need of assistance and your legs are tired anyway, so stop I did and leant a hand in the search for the wayward tracker. A good 15mins later, and one additional searcher later we stumbled across the fugitive tracker and we were all on our way again.
Midnight came and went, the darkness was now complete and impenetrable. But this being the end of the first day, the density of riders on the road was still high and I was not alone for long. Through the gloom my day’s rider intersected with that of Fraser Hughes providing company on the run out to Malin head, the reputation of the refuge of the abandoned buildings had clearly gotten around, the place was littered with bikes and every peak into a doorway revealed multicoloured bivi bags in every corner. But the weather was dry and still so I found a spot on the north side and tucked into my well earned KFC wrap. Day 1 done.
Daybreak came and the end of 4 hours of deep sleep, my bivvy spot would, in normal irish weather have probably been far too exposed to the elements but on this occasion I was gifted a watery sunrise befitting the calmness of the location. Taking pause to sit up in my bivvy and admire the view give me time to cram the remainder of my snacks down my throat as an improvised breakfast. My spirit wanted to just sit and let the atmosphere wash over me as the sky brightened but the rustle of fellow riders reminded me I was still in a race and time sitting is time wasted, so I hastily packed up my things and caught sight of Karen leaving in a purposeful way, a look of determination on her face that did not mirror my own sluggishness. I was not up to full steam yet, but she was certainly in race mode.
The road back down from the headland was cold, misty and distinctly eery, the first day , despite lots of rural roads, was dominated by Dublin and Derry and all the accompanying hustle and bustle. Today promised a retreat from civilisation into the mists of time. The air was chilly but my spirits were high, the sun was shining enough to warm me into action, but nothing compared to the first challenge of the day, Mamore Gap, a pass through the hills that, like so many of the climbs on the route follows the natural path of ‘least’ resistance from valley to valley, that is to say, where the swiss would have tunnelled or switchbacked their way up an over mountains of more altitude these roads offered the rawer experience of route 1, up and over. As a rule that means steep, not as steep and other possibilities but steep nonetheless. I imagined a shepherd letting his flock loose on one side of Mamore hill and watching them find the lowest effort way over to the next village. At least that might have been what I was thinking if I was not struggling so much up the 12% gradient, zigging and zagging to avoid the ignominy of dismounting. Maybe it was my gearing, lack of leg power or the paucity of breakfast that made it hard, but certainly I was struggling. Another rider, Erik Phalet ride up along side, looking fresh and well rested, we exchanged as many words as my breathlessness and our speed differential would allow after which I gave in walked the rest of the steepest section. The reward for reaching the top of the gap was a well earned long straight descent to dry the sweat from your brow and release a little yelp of joy, this was the message from the road, you have to earn your rewards out here.
After 60km and around 3 hours on the road, I was in need of a second/proper breakfast and the route delivered. Rolling into the first decent sized town of the day, Buncranna, at 8am was fortuitous timing, cafes were opening and spotting a bike outside one establishment the decision was made for me, time to get hot calories. The bike turned out to be Erik’s and after ordering my porridge and bacon sarnie we sat and chewed the fat. The feeling of a Saturday cafe ride grew as more riders joined us, the brightly coloured facade and ever increasing pile of bikes outside accelerating the process. Soon we were 5 or 6, all taking advantage of the good menu, clean toilets and warmth that the cafe offered. The company of other riders in a cosy cafe, although comforting for the soul, is not conducive to a high average speed, so depart we must, reluctantly, at least for me, and back out on the road I went, fed and watered.
Letterkenny came and went, skirting the outside of the town meant negotiating some large roads past retail and industrial parks, a brief but jarring hiatus to the tranquility that the early morning riding had offered up. But, like Mamore Gap previously, the torment of the town traffic was soon paid back with interest when I found myself in Glenveagh Park. Whereas previously the route had certainly felt remote, the traces of humanity were visible at the periphery, fences, dry stone walls, telegraph lines. But here, besides the road, there was nothing but unspoilt countryside 360degrees around. I stopped for a moment to appreciate the absence of motor vehicles, electric hum and the like; this was a place to find your inner peace. Good thing too since this diversion into the park would take me onto a gradual gravel descent to the banks of Loch Veagh. I would love to report how beautiful the view is down the valley, but my eyes were glued to the meters in front of my bike and my hands gripped oh so tightly to the drops. My descent was rapid without being foolish, this was only day two of the race no need to give myself a gravel tattoo on my face over estimating my skill level. Punctures were a concern, but having fitted ‘slime’ tubes with sealant in them was my insurance policy for just this sort of surface, and it paid off with a puncture free descent where others were not so fortunate (not just the pain of repairing the puncture, but doing so on the midge infested waterside was the puncture prize).
The foot of the descent brought respite at the busy tourist laden tearooms, more calories were needed, and I loaded up on uncharacteristically (compared to the normal petrol station grub) healthy salad and pasta. A few riders went and came, including Gavin Scott, who I had been lucky enough to chat to on the ferry over, he admitted to going out a bit hard on day one and was looking a little worse for wear as a result, but the cafe was a good refuge to take stock and regroup and it seems that his race form returned soon after. Frazer rolled in and was leaving the same time as me and we shared some more road time leaving the park and climbing out of the valley. This was becoming a habit, our crossing paths that would continue for a few days to come, proving to be simultaneously equal parts frustration when being overtaken and inspiration when catching up again. As illustrated by our parting on the climb just for him to pass me while a tucked into an ice cream on a petrol station forecourt all of 30km later.
After Ardara came another of the timed climbs for the Mike Hall challenge (Mamore Gap was also on the list, so clearly I had blown my non existent chances already). As a passed through the centre of the town, I clocked a couple of local club cyclists out for a late afternoon ride in the now golden sunshine. They happened to be going the same way and me, so I followed in their trail out of town and to the foot of the climb at which point I rolled alongside and had a wee chat, the climb loomed up in front of use looking near vertical from the angle we were approaching, ‘Is it as steep as it looks?’ I asked, ‘No, not at all, you’ll be fine, you look fresh enough’ Clearly the sun glasses were doing a grand job of masking my fatigue as well as keeping the sun from my eyes. The road steepened, and I forced myself to keep pace with the two locals, I wasn’t going to wimp out like on Mamore Gap, not in front of these two. Such was my deterimination at this point that even the ever friendly face of Adrian, the race organiser, half way up the climb didnt stop me, on I went, blindly determined to win this tiny victory and crest before their fresh(er) legs, and so it panned out, my pyrrhic victory complete as I puffed and dripped sweat at the top while the locals pedalled past oblivious to my self initiated dual with them.
The recovery time at the top did allow me to cross paths with Ciaran O’Hara, with whom i had waited briefly at one of the few traffic lights the day before. We had a good chat in the evening sun almost all the way to Killybeg, a fishing town short of Donegal about which Ciaran told me a joke which is better left untold before the watershed. He and I parted ways around Killybeg and I rode on blissfully unaware that I had little food on me and certainly not enough to lat into the night or the following morning, luckily a helpful chap kept the petrol station shop open an extra 10minutes while I wandered a bit aimlessly around the store. Stocked up I rode through Donegal around midnight, on balance a blessing since I didnt ned any shops and this way I avoided the traffic hassle, emerging the other side around 1am, I started looking for bivvy spots and eventually found a field after leaving the trunk road. Sleep was calling me and I had been tempted to call it a day earlier by sleeping behind a sign on the main road, but felt noisy, and if you are only going to get 4 hours of sleep in rural Ireland it might as well be quiet.