Ice bags in the freezer and peas on knees, CP2 was a bustling hive of emotions, tired bikes and exhausted bodies, a respite on the end of a peninsula to accomodate all mindsets and riders asking themselves all manner of questions. I was one of them, and the questions i was asking myself were dark, final and ultimately the culmination of mental and physical attrition of the first 700 miles. Usually a talkative, engaging and extroverted in introvert or what ever medley i am - my mood was somber, existing in a regressed state of defeat - and trying to not impasse the same energies onto others.
Come morning I saw some of the same faces, a few scratched folk, now dressed down into their human forms, no butt pads or skin tight leggings required anymore - my mind pondered… Was this my reality to come? I didn't know, but the achilles pain of the night before of which I had never experienced was the deciding factor.
Bikes, Bums, Batteries, Body and Baps
Setting out on this race, I was racing myself, my plan, a personal challenge. My fitness was good, and is good. Enough to have the confidence to start, but was it strong enough to take on the challenge I set myself? - evidently not, eventually finishing 24 hours later than I had hoped.
But I finished when I was meant to finish, my reality during the race changed so frequently, leaving me to adapt, and manage this cross section of 5 factors.
The first day was remarkable to chase away, the incredible light in the sky was evidently terrified of the horde of riders that was looking to dominate the dark cloak intent on enveloping the land. Eery lights through the low cloud and sea mist were the theme of the first night, a long greenway that provided little entertainment made up a bulk of the night riding.
Pockets of cool air, followed by patchy moments of hot atmosphere confused internal temperatures and by 11 oclock the rolling convoy of red lights and white beams began to settle aside for moments to layer up and then trundle on. My sensible plan for the first day was around 140km and to stop around 1/1.30am.
Sleep was brief and supplies are unlikely to reveal themselves till later in the next day but moving through the new lanes and roads i was hoping and hunting with my eagle eye/ +5.75 prescription and low and behold the slow start was broken up by a rather special Truckstop in Youghal. J J’s Diner was the ticket, prime road side delights, delectable offerings that are sure to please, sustain and satiate even the most ravenous of folk, both on bike and in cab.
The first full day of riding in Ireland was sweltering, blue skies met blue waters and where the land interrupted this hue graduation Emerald green shone bright, it really is true what they say.
Water consumption was high, and sweating it all back out seemed like the natural cycle of things, this additional perspiration played havoc with my…. Lets say wardrobe, bibs that i had used a fair bit and were ultimately comfy for the most part were perhaps not coping well with the heat and road surface. I couldn't believe it.. Day two and already dealing with sores, thats just not cricket.
Passing Cork, and Kinsale were two key mental landmarks for me, and gave me some respite to catch a few red bulls, handfuls of bananas and of course a fruit pastille for each of my bidons… Something that I would repeat a few times to excite the taste buds… and eventually ruin my mouth's normal operations. The rest of the day was winding down nicely and my progress was where i wanted it to be, however i knew that there was a deficit of miles, a hiccup in my initial plan. I tried to keep my expectations in check though. It's easy to try and make up a deficit but it's the following physical deficit which I was most unsure of.
Estimating my arrival to be nearer 11.30 I was gladly rolling in for just before 10 to Union Hall and a last minute B & B Booking, but with no pubs open or restaurants to serve up, i stuffed my face with whatever i had in my bags in between washing kit and hoping that a less salty body will do the job for the morrow. To say i got my rest was an understatement, 6 hours or thereabouts, perfect time to charge all my battery reliant items and recharge the dehydrated body.
While I hadn’t intended this play by play to be quite so strict chronologically, it seems the more you sit, process, reflect and ponder the more things come up, like worms coming up during the rain, my thought shower is summoning all manner of moments that came to complete my experience.
So with the first and only real precipitation of the race the morning was a little soggy, but nothing to moan about, a foolish mistake made early on though was only realised much later in the day. My clean, handwashed bibs from the day previous, were attached to my saddle bag to dry… To dry only after being peppered with road detritus and petrol.
A Fool of a Took!
The glorious snaking ascent upto Mount Gabriel and CP1 was liberating and difficult, the promise of a view like no other was enticing only to have the cloud follow a few of us up and scupper that option. Feeling pretty full and content after getting the first stamp in my Brevet Card the mountain stage was afoot, and boy what a day to be on a bike!
A slow winding hill out of Kilcrohane made for a beautiful push into Bantry Bay, up and over the peninsula with the descent putting the water on the left along with the next piece of land to be circumnavigated just across the way. Was I seeing riders across the water ahead of me? Who knows, but the grand scale of it became obvious, the Bay was long and smiles were wide, through Bantry and on, and on… and then up.
Up to where the smiles wound down, the road stretched out and there The Priests Leap stood. A wall, a relentless rugged spear of asphalt and gravel piercing into the cloud, would zeus sit atop? No… just sheep and the odd border collie, bounding around carefree, with a sense of agility and spring in its step, that almost felt insulting. It was conquered though, and wow, the descent was all worth it, albeit hairy, somewhat dicey and a little rough, the Cheshire cat grin returned. And remained for much of the day, as what would follow were pass-a-plenty, and for many the favourite of the route - Healy Pass.
A hidden gem that wound up into the armpit of a valley like an alpine road blessed with steady gradients and switchbacks a-plenty. My mojo was in full swing at this point, and I was literally dancing my way up it to a whole host of tunes, singing and making the most of the far more palatable climbing experience than The Priests Leap from earlier.
After a turkey stuffing sarnie, a hideously unripe pear and some fizzy pop, the road out of Kenmare was briefly bustling and riddled with traffic but it soon became verdant and littered with small streams and waterfalls following Moll’s Gap. Sam Davies and I spent the evening together rolling up and over both Molls Gap and onwards to the Gap of Dunloe, all both before the sun began to ease into the sea beyond the horizon. Both roads are a must for any cyclist or traveler looking to experience the fairytale lands of Ireland.
The Ring of Kerry and Raft of Baby Food
After settling in alongside maybe 9 or so other riders that chose to make the Climbers Inn their base for the night, a pint of Guinness with a whisky chaser helped settle body and mind for the night. I was soon to learn there were others who were choosing to make the Inn the base for their night, every bikepackers kindest of allies - the Midge.
Apparently I was last to roll out of the Climbers Inn, and while part of that was down to a love for the snooze button I was also acutely aware how little would be open for the first few hours of the morning's ride if I left too early. Still my first few cranks were made before the sun turned it up to 11 and I managed to enjoy a wonderful double sunrise, split between two valleys. A glorious landscape all to myself.
Looping out and round the coastal road, I stumbled across Waterville finally after 65km where i ingested a double dose of breakfast and an array of sandwiches to takeaway for the day ensuring I was suitably fuelled for what was to come. The far end of the loop, home to Skellig Michael and Puffin Island was glorious, and rolling.
A beautiful sense of calm seemed to emanate from the remote Cove of the Fairies, peaceful scenes that were ever so quickly obliterated with the roaring, straining and sounds of a stubborn and fuelled up rider grinding up to the top of cliff view.
Heat was continuing to be a factor, the skies remained clear for much of the day, and while factor 50 was in full flow I still felt as though the top few layers of skin were getting caramelised proper. The Ballagsheen Pass closed out the Ring of Kerry and what a last hoorah it was. The views up top were stunning, and we as a collective of riders continued to be spoiled by the incredible and somewhat unnerving spell of warm weather falling over much of Western Europe.
A rapid descent into a vast and flat valley through to, one more pint of Guinness at the Climbers Inn with Laurence and then CP2 was next. My time at CP2 was spent eating, googling train trips to Dublin, showering down a salty and weary body and making my most important purchase of the race, some White, size 18, womens corduroy shorts. When your butt needs to breathe, you let it breathe.
Waves of riders were still coming and going to the loop, from the loop, into CP2 and away onto the ferry, the energy was just the same as the day before, but this time i didn't feel like a deflated observer, i was part of the flow, in the moment i knew what had to be done.
Just. Get. On. With. IT.
Leaving CP2 for the second time, following some sarnie prep for the road ahead the next target was the Tarbet Ferry, and my sights were set on the 7.30 crossing. The still afternoon air ensured the lengthy climb up and out of Dingle avec gravel was roasting, luckily the descent came guaranteed with a breeze, rocketing down to the coast and yet more lanes through farmland and some pepperings of sand. I made my ferry crossing accompanied by Father and Son duo Sam and Duncan, the next port of call was a quick Chow mein and some chips and curry sauce, that famous combo…
The evenings company in the form of Taylor Doyle where a soggy cemetery bivvy spot was shared and the long race to Connemara started from. A long day which became blurred through a set of blinkers intent on getting to another B & B for nothing more than further charging of wahoo, lights and battery brick. The second full on mistake of the race; neglecting to charge my electronics at CP2 while I was distracted feeling defeated.
I enjoyed the road and there were some nostalgic towns I had visited previously en route, but there was no time for memory lane as such. I hit the back end of Galway, found a cafe, took 30 minutes to charge lights just in case, while digesting a milkshake and sandwich and then hit the road full of a weird concoction of calories and dairy.
Connemara is beautiful, and timing my entrance to the national park couldn't have been better, the sun setting and the still waters reflecting the colours of the sky perfectly. Bedding down in Roundstone a bed for the night was guaranteed, and making it only by the skin of my teeth, riding the last 2 kilometres of darkness using only my head torch…
A peaceful bivvy behind an old barn with my old friend Midgey Midgerson helped me start the day with some dynamic movements, running around the patches of air clear of midges to slowly get my kit on, with style I might add.
Sitting pretty on the TT bars and eating a peshwari naan, i checked the dots again, and two names had somehow got past me in the early hours of the morning, for a second i felt a wave of defeat swiftly followed by an eagerness and a target to chase down, I felt i was back racing this time not my own race but the Pan Celtic Race. It was mega and I spent the whole day pushing, with only a few hours sleep and only a handful of baby food pouches left.
By the time i caught up to another rider I was 215km in and cooked, the heat wasn't abating and food was still difficult to eat, but just shy of Sligo i crossed paths with Tamzin Dewar at a petrol station where we ate a feast Al fresco on the forecourt. Piling on More Ice cream, sausage rolls and a hearty salad the Gleniff horseshoe remained along with a short stint to almost start heading back south east towards Dublin.
The last day in Ireland was a coast to coast across the furnace of the Midlands, two blips on the elevation profile provided some elevation for the day and then following a pub lunch, a few red bulls and a mighty delightful long descent into darkness Dublin was insight.
A rowdy, hot and bustling metropolis where three of us bedded down above a hotel nightclub for maybe 3 hours kip before meeting some old new faces at the Irish Ferries terminal. It finally hit home: Wales was so close and so was the 50 mile sprint Fergus drilled into everyone at sign on.
The Final Sprint
Funnily enough I laughed it off, but I had such an urge to finish, and finish strong and enjoy the ride! And wow did I, after catching up to Portuguese rider Joao, we swapped positions a good 4 or 5 times in between Holyhead and Bangor, then two others joined the dance, Mark and Phil.
Wow the smiles, the hooting and the winding lanes created a complete experience in contrast to the long steady miles of isolation. Familiar singletrack lined with hedgerows, brief stints of cycleway and then the Orme finally came into view. Cranking, carving, grinning.
A last ditch effort to close the gap between myself and Mark saw us battle out the descent and spin out the cranks before drawing closer to Pan Celtic HQ.
A cry, a giggle and a fist bump and that was it.
The end, but it's not over, the race was beyond everything i could envisage, the connections made, the memories and stories created and the landscapes discovered thanks to the whole team's ability to curate a perfect mile laced narrative through the wonderful celtic lands.
I'll be back, without a shadow of a doubt.
- Mike Drummond (@drummondphoto)
Finish line photos by Dan King (@breakawaydigital)
Learn more about the Pan Celtic Race here