The Celtic Knot – Part II

Recollections from a 1,000km cycle ride around various parts of Ireland, July 2016

Continued from Part I

Saturday 30th June

The alarm went off at 05:00. I felt rather rough but physically fine. After showering I headed to the canteen where the rest of the “team” were already way through their breakfasts. It transpired that we’d made good progress on the previous day as several riders had arrived in the wee small hours and two had abandoned.  After a quick breakfast and packing it was back on the road at 06:00. This time our neat peloton went out to the Wild West to Galway where we once again kissed the coastline at Kinvara, our first control, after stretching our legs a little by the Slieve Aughty Mountains. Kinvara features some very scenic spots. We homed in on a Londis PLUS. There was a bountiful array of provender and the usual quality toilets we’d come to expect. It’s a short hop from there into County Claire and the wonderful limestone pavements and escarpments of The Burren National Park where we located Father Ted’s House atop a stiff hill and had a group photo taken there by a young couple who were making this televisual pilgrimage. It was quite staggering that 30 years after the show, the house still draws frequent groups of inquisitive tourists from the far ends of the earth. The house is a private residence and peering through the rusting gates was as far as anyone could go.

I had already sampled some of Rory’s route planning prior to the Celtic Knot as he’d kindly sent me a route from Dublin to Clara which had taken in some quiet roads and tracks along tranquil canals. And so it came as no surprise when a quiet lane turned into a rugged and rutted woodland track which I found rather delightful (although others, cursing their punctures, had markedly differing views). One of the pleasures of audax routes for me is that they will often mix a little rough with the smooth – often cutting out busy roads or industrial areas in the process. Although neither industry nor major traffic were unlikely to trouble us in the depths of rural Ireland, the pleasure of an off-road segment was not lost – albeit shortly over and back onto the relatively sound metalled surface of Irish roads.

There’s a rugged beauty to this part of Ireland as we made our return journey just to the north of Ennis and to the shores of Lough Derg which provided spectacular views and more photo opportunities. The group was becoming quite stretched out by the time we reached our next control at Ballina, having crossed the River Shannon, and a rest stop seemed to be in order.

We pulled over by a tempting waterside restaurant – the sort where you can have a leisurely meal overlooking the loch and enjoying the late afternoon sun. While debating whether or not to stop there or go somewhere that looked a little less busy, a few of the group had taken a table and begun to order drinks. Not all were of like mind and a splinter-group was emerging. I’d spotted a Polish deli just behind the restaurant and was thinking of grabbing a couple of kielbasa of maybe and slab of kremowka when it was decided that we would check out the town and maybe find a chippy. About 3 minutes later John, Dave Martin and I were standing outside a now familiar brand of supermarket chewing all too familiar fare. A nearby pub seemed to be okay about us emptying our bladders against the wall of the urinal. Let the good times roll.

We headed out into the gathering night and the Silvermine Mountains of Tipperaray which Dave and I found rather a grind while John and Martin raced on ahead. Already the team of four was beginning to show signs of becoming two groups of two. On one particularly steep and recently resurfaced road Dave’s chain came off in the pitch darkness and it was a struggle to get it back into the right place again (but is was a welcome break from clambering up the ramp). Mining in this area of Ireland goes back to 1289 and only wound up as recently as 1992 by which time the mining concerns had extracted baryte, lead, zinc, copper and, of course, silver, and left behind extensive slag heaps.

The road took us down through Dolla and to Toomevara where we found a welcoming Texaco garage and some welcome refuelling. A solo cyclist was just leaving as we arrived – we never saw him again so he was clearly going at a good pace. We clambered back onto our saddles and were soon getting up a good rhythm as we regained Offaly at Moneygall. Offaly is relatively flat with a fifth of the county being made up of peat bogs, making it essentially the Somerset levels of Ireland – just the ticket for legs with over 500km in them!

Our strategy was very simple: heads down, do the miles, minimal stops, get back sooner and get more sleep. It seemed brutally simple, and so it proved to be as we rode on through the bleak landscape and into the night with that fixed purpose lodged in our brains. We sliced our way onwards until the distant lights of Tullamore came into view. Soon we were once again back at Clara – some fresh deep pebbly gravel having been strewn down (it seemed) since our departure to create a final hurdle only metres from the door of the Aspire Centre. I remember feeling a little shot by this stage, but we were now over two-thirds of the way through our Celtic Odyssey and seemed to have a good team spirit. The other six members arrived during a delicious supper of shepherd’s pie, and a high-end pear tart and cream. They were keen to mention fine food stops along the way while working well together as a team.

It was decided that the splinter group would set off an hour later the following morn and so I set my alarm for 06:15 and reached a state of unconsciousness as my head slumped towards the pillow. My room-mate, and all of his belongings had vanished during my absence. One day to go.

Sunday 31st July

It had been decided that we would set off an hour later as we only had 300km to do today – the extra hour in bed seemed like an excellent approach – as both mind and body were starting to feel very tired and sore and the conversation was becoming a little more muted. During breakfast the last pair of cyclists had arrived giving a stark indication of just how spread out the field had now become. The larger group from which we had splintered off had left sometime before so it was just the breakaway gang of four who set out shortly after 7 into a cool grey morning in a southerly direction towards the Slieve Bloom Mountains in County Laois, where we ascended a long steady ramp that under normal circumstances would not have been too arduous, but with over 700k in our legs became a slow crawl. Dave dropped back until he was out of sight while John surged ahead with Martin somewhere behind him. On the way up some casual cyclists were taking an early morning spin and floated passed us effortlessly on lightweight carbon bling. Near to “The Cut” we caught up with some of the original group smiling for a few photos before they disappeared over the crest and out of sight while we waited for Dave to resurface. It was pretty bleak up here and the air was chilly as it oozed around the high point of the Ridge of Capard. Together with the Central Massif in France they are the oldest mountains in Europe and once towered to 3,700m. Weathering has fortunately, as Dave would concur, reduced them to a more manageable 500m – even so, they are still a stiff old climb.

The descent was reminiscent of descending down the French Alps with some fine sweeping bends and sumptuous vegetation and onto terrain that was a little more rolling through Mountrath and the historical town of Abbeyleix once famed for its carpets. At Ballinakill we took a wrong turn. I know this because I saw the positive Deluxe edition blue line appear and then disappear off my smartphone screen as we eked out an alternative route that sadly took us on a rather circuitous route over a hill that made “The Cut” look like a nursery slope. This was the point at which it became apparent that Dave and I would have to work together as John and Martin had now spent much more time disappearing into the distance only to hang around waiting for Dave and I to crawl back towards them. Despite suggesting that John and Martin go on ahead they decided to grit their teeth and we continued to “work together.”  And so we clambered up the slope and into Kilkenny. The view from the top was truly stunning with a view over the lush Nore Valley and across to the Slieveardagh Hills away to the southwest. I was brought out of my reverie by the arrival of a rather hot and relieved Dave. The descent into our first control at the former coal-mining town of Castlecomer was precipitous and rapid and we were soon standing outside of another supermarket beside Martin and John. While wolfing down some calories, Martin explained his plan. It was so simple and so eloquent that we immediately fell in line with it and got to work. The plan had been to stick together and battle into the wind towards Enniscorthy. Although Dave and I insisted that Martin and John go on ahead, they decided to grit their teeth and stick with us (until every so often they would press on ahead unable to bear the tedium of watching us spin slowly up another gentle incline at a pace only fractionally faster than a snail). But they did keep pulling over and getting a breather (which must have been a welcome relief as the wind was quite fearsome at times) and watch Dave and I slowly crawl back towards them. Eventually a petrol station marked the outskirts of our destination and we inevitably pulled in to try out the waiting foodstuffs which included sour milk and sandwiches barely within their BBF dates. Being an Englishman it was naturally assumed that I had no taste until Martin also tasted his milk and confirmed my worst suspicions. Begrudgingly some fresh milk was made available to us.

And so suitably refreshed we turned around (catching a glimpse, as we did so, of the rest of our original group waving from what appeared to be the terrace of a restaurant away up the road) and traversed out of Wexford and across Carlow into southern Kildare to the fine town of Athy which was our next control. At another petrol-station somewhere along this stretch, Martin had complained of severe pain in his right knee and was threatening to bail. After taking painkillers he rallied around to such an extent that he disappeared ahead of us again into the evening. Dave and I didn’t think we would see him again until he emerged with John from a fish’n’chip shop in the aforementioned town (Dave and I had faithfully followed the script and ate on a forecourt to the bemusement of the Polish girls running the tills). Martin’s knee was hurting to such an extent that Dave and I were able to get to the front and we even managed a short stretch of chain-gang. As John so eloquently put it: “it’s a good way of working with what you have” (which presumably was not a great deal).

And so we laboured on into the night retracing a north westerly direction until we were safely back across the Offaly border and a faint phosphorescent glow announced the approach of Tullamore. We pulled over and decided to give Martin a bit of a head-start (thinking we would probably reel him in before reaching the Arriveé). After a few more miles John accelerated up the road after Martin and eventually his rear light also disappeared into the night (which was both fine and mild). Dave hung onto my wheel as we continued to spin into the night and eventually through the streets of Tullamore and then straight out the other side on the final stretch back to Clara. That last stretch was tough as it contains a gradual ramp before finally dropping down into Clara.

Back at base-camp Rory was waiting for us and handed us a medal almost too heavy to hold in our exhausted hands (John and Martin had only just recovered from the euphoria of receiving their medals). We clambered upstairs to the dining area to refuel and catch up with those who had already arrived. Several of the guys were getting ready to head off in their cars (among them John, Martin and Dave). We had completed the last leg at around 11:30 and, despite a little knee pain in my right knee and some soreness on my left upper foot (yes, I wear toe-clips, so what could I expect?), I wasn’t feeling half as bad as the previous night. The total distance came in at 1034km with a moving time of 65 hours and 28 minutes. I know that without the aid of the others I would not have achieved such a positive time and may even have completed outside of the 75 hours allowed. By the time that the rest of the original team arrived at about midnight, my three team-mates had spirited themselves away into the night and I was almost the only person around.

I sat talking to a weary looking chap that I shall call Brendan who was seated with the most amazing trophy I’d ever seen before him – a huge structure of seriously heavy steel formed around a front chain-ring bearing the letters WAWA – the Wild Atlantic Way Audax – a 2,100km epic that featured horrendous wet and windy weather and put my own modest achievement into perspective. But what of my own challenge? On reflection, I would say that it is always better to ride with a group. The Irish lads that I rode with on the latter-half of the CK had a similar approach to the Zappis club (based in Oxford and of which I am a member) rides – minimal stopping along the way; heads-down and grinding away between stops. This was an effective approach to getting the ride accomplished in a good time, but, as someone new to the country and with a keener interest in savouring the culinary delights along the way, the approach taken by the main group would have made for a slightly less arduous ride with a little more “joie de vivre” along the way. It was much to their amusement when they heard of my petrol station sour milk experience, or being left with Dave to limp up the hills. I got their point and could see from their sense of camaraderie at the end that they had experienced something deeper than just grinding through the miles, ticking off the controls and following (badly at times it has to be said) a set of instructions on a route sheet.

Monday 1st August

I finally made my way to bed and slept like roadkill until hunger drove me back along the varnished corridor to the welcoming kitchen. Over breakfast I had a good chat with Geordie and Caroline who were planning to stay a little longer in Ireland. Anne also had plans to travel around Ireland in her VW camper van and take in some of the tourist attractions we had no doubt cycled past on the CK. Mary, who had put in a serious shift in the kitchen over the past 3 days fuelling an army of cyclists was putting away the last of the cups and plates and offered me a pack of biscuits (which kept me going on my cycle back to Dublin).

Just before I was due to leave Clara for the last time, at around 8:30 and only 30 minutes before the cut off, the last two weary travellers, Tom and Lorcan, arrived – on a pair of Enigma’s – one of which was stainless steel but looked at a glance like it might have been titanium. Both were clearly spent but relieved to have completed their first ever long-distance audax event. It was wonderful to be there to welcome them to the Arriveé and hear of about their long, slow, sleep-deprived ride through the cold and dark of night, and their superhuman grit and determination to finish come what may: it is to such as they that the true spirit of audax is to be found.

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