This is a bit of a cheat, but I wrote the blog below as an officially commissioned piece about participating in the Tour De Conamara on May 23rd. Due to a series of mix-ups (not of my making. I hasten to add) it never made it to the planned online cycling magazines. So in the spirit of ‘waste not, want not’ I’m sharing one guy’s insider view of what participating in a mass cycling event feels like. Names have been withheld to avoid costly litigation….
MY Tour de Conamara 2015
Well my tour started in earnest when I signed up back around February 2015. Having taken that momentous step, myself and a bunch of friends from work decided to rent a house for the weekend, out in Lettermore, which seemed to be a reasonable jaunt to Clifden, the hub of the tour and the capital of Connemara.
Then the training began in earnest, with everyone asking each other ‘what kind of miles did you do at the weekend’? Coffee station chats. And inevitably feeling inadequate in the light of the other person’s devotion to duty and ‘early season training’. There’s nothing like a bit of paranoia to get you out on the bike. With the event looming the weather was a continuing concern, with gusty winds, violent showers and generally unpleasant training conditions. Still, it was possible to nip out and get some reasonable treks in. I had signed up for the 80k in Connemara (basically I was intimidated by the 140k profile) so I hoped that I’d have enough in the tank on the day, whatever the weather.
My wife and I travelled down to Connemara on Thursday night, and as planned I didn’t do too much on the Friday, just soaked up the beauty of Connemara itself and chilled out. The weather was not especially kind, but we made the best of it. Lovely chowder for lunch in Roundstone, up to see Kylemore abbey and then back to Clifden to register at 7pm. You could feel the buzz begin to build as the cars with bikes on back started to pop up everywhere. Lots of chat – ‘Which one are you doing’, ‘Done this one before?’ and so on. Off back down to Lettermore in beautiful evening sunshine, with the mountains glowing by the roadside. The others all got lost en route (as had we) but arrived one by one on Friday night, so we had a reunion at the house. Limited alcohol intake – as ‘top athletes’ (italics completely intentional) we reckoned we needed no distractions on Saturday morning at the ‘off’. There was a great cycling-centred conversation at the kitchen table – the best of places for it – which culminated in the acid test question – would you shave your legs?… Definitely time for bed!
Up early on Saturday to a grey day, but optimism abounded as we headed up the N59 from Maam Cross. Lots of excitement on the airwaves also, as the ballot boxes from the referendum began to be opened. We were all doing the 80k, with the longer distance event having started earlier and we were aiming for 10.30am. Big crowd building at the start line, last minute checks, was I wearing too many or too few clothes? Neither, as it turned out. I nailed it perfectly. And so, saying my final traditional prayer to the pagan ‘God of no punctures’, I set off into the mists.
Truthfully, this is probably the most scenic route on the Irish cycling calendar, but on the day a low sky detracted a little from the beautiful surroundings. Big plus though, NO wind worth talking about. So I decided to look around me as much as I could, albeit it was my first organised event with the magic clip-in shoes, so I was also a bit nervous about somehow taking down a whole group en masse. Happily, I avoided this shame, stayed focused, and the further I went, my confidence grew. So, how to describe the next three hours and 30 minutes, briefly? Let’s see…
Off! Around the bend, narrow road out to Ballyconneely, inlet, seaweed, seals, white Connemara ponies, girl with Predator triathlon jersey who I trailed for a bit, more inlets, Roundstone, roughly 20k down, Galway hooker (relax, boat!) on the bay, gorse, trailing guy with speaking Garmin unit on handlebars, observe lots of people on hybrid bikes, row of yellow jackets snaking off into the mist, skip across the bridge in Cashel, sharp right, on down to 40k feed station, big crowd, feeling strong, decide to keep going, just gulp a few energy gels and some electrolytes, roll up an incline and drop to the main road, waving tourists on bikes with panniers, heading down for Galway on N59 again, sharp left, head across by Lough Inagh, Rhododendrons, Twelve Bens in the mist, light rain, fishermen, great road surface, slight tailwind, flying now, liquids all gone, pass girl with polka dot jersey on a hybrid, she’s flying too, outskirts of Kylemore, donkeys, groups in peletons start to swoosh past, main road, 23k to Clifden, yes!, headwind in face, nearly there, Kylemore abbey on the right, start the climbs, leaders of 140k pass me in group, pass 15k marker at Letterfrack, hope rises, climbs start to hurt, hear cuckoo, slowing now, grind it out, it hurts a bit more, remind myself of the training, head down, every hilltop has another behind it, signs for Sky road off to right, keep the head down, is this the top of the hill, the 5k sign looms, see a marker for Clifden city limits, down and up one last time, coasting downhill, keep the focus, a left, a right, and there it is. That welcoming ‘You’re home’ sign. Made it, again. Bliss…
And so I got my well-earned medal, found my missus, saw my mates come in and we told each other how great we were. Well, it felt true at the time. My skipping the food station had put me marginally in front of the rest of the crew, but we all made it, no punctures, and no accidents either. Off for some very welcome hot showers. And the endorphin rush. Well worth the hardship for the ‘natural high’.
A decent interval later, and back at the house, we told some more war stories, had a few celebratory beers and we decided that it was one of the best organised events we’d been in. We also each concluded that while 140k was a bit out of our reach, we all had something in the tank when we finished. So maybe next year I’ll up my training, shave my legs (!) and go for the ‘long one’. Hope springs eternal, and all that.
Postscript: In a fit of mass hysteria I later signed up for the 182k Ring of Kerry. It’s starting to feel like an addiction…