Pan Celtic Race 2019: Ireland

As the ferry docked about evening rush hour time in Belfast I was keen to get going as soon as possible to get out on the North East Coastal road. I didn’t mess about and dived out the off ramp as soon as possible heading for the Northern Irish hills.

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Docking in Belfast

My Garmin hadn’t even locked on to the fact I’d left Scotland and the way out of the ferry was a bit confusing, I just followed the signs for the Giants causway, can’t be far off I thought. I was playing a game, how long could I be the first rider of the good ship Rab C crew. After Larne I knew the coastal roads well having ridden them by motorcycle to the annual North West 200 road races before. There were several nice towns to aim for, I promised myself a late evening slap up fish and chips by the seaside.

On the initial busy roads out of Belfast as expected Tony came by first and quickly disappeared ahead, this guy is very fast, we should call him Fast Tony πŸ˜‰ why is he not miles ahead. It starts raining again, so it looks like it’s same shit – different country for this trip, head down I just get wet and re-pass Tony who has stopped at a shop.

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Worzel on his holidays

In a nice bay at Carnlough it was fish supper time, I left them cooking my feast and went down the bay to a shop to stock up on supplies. Tony went by while I was eating and Nick some time after, Jon took my recommendation and was ordering his food as I left. While stopped I found a hostel at Ballycastle and booked it. I had to remember I’d been on the road since midnight with no ferry snooze.

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Bays and mountains on the NE Coast

At Cushendall you turn of the main A2 onto some narrow roads, in the distance a wicked steep coastal road. The Welsh Embassy was parked here with Mally laughing wickedly like the evil torturer waiting to watch the pain he had ready for us. It was pretty cool that he was here rather than chasing the leaders who were racing for the ferry to Wales miles ahead.

The Welsh Embassy: A big white camper van used to follow the battle of the Celtic nations invasion. Containing ripe smelling beings and sleep inducing spirit potions, it battered it’s way through walls and bounced off tractor wheels akin to a whale swimming up a small stream.

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Torr Head

The hill was wheel-spin steep on the hairpin bends and opened up to views of the Torr Head, this looked great, better than my pathetic picture, with grassy tracks out there to explore. The road down was fun, and every single racer will remember one corner I bet. Hands up how many locked wheels up going straight on, and I’m sure a few kissed the hedge. Then Ireland showed it could certainly match Scotland for deluges, just when things were almost dry, a cold evening.

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Here we go again

The rolling Torr Head coast road had three killer steep climbs, congratulations to Mally for inserting such a brutal section without it being flagged by the riders, you barsteward. I’m proud and battled the first two, but the third at 25% threatened to deliver a Boonen, and possibly his twin brother, I was beat. Walking up a climb, words cannot describe how alien this is to me. At the top I had highlighted some potential bivy huts, old war time listening stations, they did look fair game and reasonably clean. (Jon stopped here tonight, kudos to him for that)

Pulling up at the Ballycastle hostel, Nicks bike was outside, the owner left me wet and freezing outside while he took ages sorting him out which pissed me off as I had pre-booked. Maybe the fact he paid over twice my rate had something do do with it. He was in the building next door, we never met that night. Once again it was a fight to get warm and try and dry kit, my socks and shoes had to go outside the window, even I could not stand the smell.

Only 66 miles covered from the ferry, but it had been a long day since that start in Glasgow and had gone pretty well all told. I saw that Fast Tony had made his target of Bushmills 15 miles ahead.

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Rugged coastline around the Giants Causeway

Day 6: No breakfast, just snacks I’m off again at 5am, how will today unfold, I feel good, especially at the prospect of a dry day. Having visited the Causeway before I took a few coastline pictures and moved on, I cursed the poor weather, it would have been cool to Bivy on the coast here.

Heading South and at last no head wind. On some crappy back roads I find Nick blocking the way, he had left about 15 mins before me and was struggling with a puncture repair. I waited to check he would sort it out, well who wouldn’t it’s good manners. I set off alone for that weirdest of tourist traps, Dark Hedges. If anything shows the power of television for tourism this is it. I’d been here before when it was quiet, now there were tourist signs, the road closed for traffic, don’t be surprised if before long they build a visitor centre.

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Not looking so fancy without some moody sunlight or photo shopping

I go on in search of breakfast and have to settle for a well stocked small town garage for snacks, Nick arrives shortly after and we sit on the forecourt stuffing our faces and enjoying our coffee.

Over the course of the morning I was reminded that this was the Twelfth of July in Northern Ireland. Going down hill to a bridge there appeared to be a fire. I expected some horrific scene from casualty, it was in fact a huge pile of burning tyres in the middle of the road. I could feel the heat on passing the flames over the sticky melted tarmac. In other areas the towns were busy with marchers holding huge banners walking down the roads, I was unsure what to do, do I follow in respect or pass and get beaten to death. That was soon answered as a boy racer went by at speed, I followed without the haste.

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Not your average navigation hazard

There is a belief that the bonfires commemorate the lighting of fires on the hills of counties Antrim and Down to help Williamite ships navigate through Belfast Lough at night. … Bonfires in Northern Ireland traditionally mark the night before the Twelfth.

Next up was Lough Neagh, I was fascinated by this vast area of water that barely gets a mention. Most of the big lakes are famous for something, if not just tourism, this one seems to fly under the radar. I expected at least some waterside tourism, a nice place to stop, good cafes, nope! What I found was a scary imposing body of dark water that would look at home on a horror film setting. They missed a trick not inventing some mythical beast living in it’s depths, this is farming country, nothing more.

I want somewhere nice to stop for a picnic and later at Craigavon a cycle path round some nice leisure lakes hits the spot. On a bench in the sun at last I eat my picnic and watch the word go by. Checking the tracker I see that Tony and suprise suprise Jason had stopped in a McDonalds only 1 mile ahead. I imagined them looking back at me on the tracker waiting for me to come into view. Nick was now some way back and having mentioned he might not have time off work to finish, I didn’t expect to see him again.

Approaching Newry I’m not sure what to expect, a big name I recognised from news reports of the troubles I expected this to be busy. The streets are quiet but it’s clear that people are dumping cars everywhere and migrating with banners on foot to an area just off route, very fortunate for us.

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Riding out of Newry approaching the border

The route drops on to a waterside cycle path which turns into an elevated track between two bodies of water with wonderful views of the mountains to come. Crossing the unmarked border into Eire I wonder what would be the first sign I was in the South, non British numberplates, a sign in Km. No its a big sign protesting about bloody Brexit and the effect it would have right here, then on the back of a road sign, the graffiti IRA.

It’s a steady drag upwards and getting pretty warm now, these are the Cooley Mountains with spectacular views of the Irish sea and Dundalk below. The road down is pretty special, it’s dead straight, no turnings and about 5 miles at 6%. If ever there was a road built for a top speed attempt on a high geared bike this is it.

A garage pops up on the coast, perfect time to raid my first delhi, the disappointment to find it had finished serving hit hard. Buying some hard gum sweets was not a good idea, back on the road and my chewing stops with a crack, a broken tooth! A cap split in two and fallen off revealing sharp edges that will continue to cut my tongue and lacerate inside my cheek for days. Calamity number two; my body is failing me.

I was worried that hot food would be hard to find going into the evening on the quiet route, and then Ardee appeared like magic. Packed with fast food joints but also with people, I spotted a quiet Chinese and stopped to get some chips. Mrs Doyle accosted me outside, “you’ll no be wanting to buy chips there, you should go over there” Go on, Go on, Go on, I almost had to beat her off to go and order. The chips were great.

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There was a castle there somewhere

9 pm and I’m feeling good, well fed and set up for the night. It looks like Tony has stopped already and Jamie is chasing me down. Approaching the crazy route round the New Grange monument in twilight it’s a shame that is hidden from view and locked up as tight as a drum. I considered breaking in for a look, I mean older than the pyramids, that’s bonkers. It was obvious around here with the proximity to Dublin that finding a casual shelter to bivy in would not be easy, security was high. Later crossing some high ground I look back to see a huge dark sports stadium in the middle of nowhere, perfect. Nothing undercover but a wall to hide from the cold wind, I bed down on some gravel, if it rains at least I shouldn’t drown. 194 miles in 18 hrs it’s been a long day and I feel back in the game.

Day 7: Today it’s a 4 am start. One thing about waking up cold in a bivy bag, you pack up and get moving pretty quickly, guess I’ll be first on the road today. I pass Jamie asleep on a bridge at the side of the road as I head South. Five hours on the road I get to the M7 and a retail park off route I had highlighted as a stop. Once again a McD is the perfect place to wash away the grime of a hobo night out and regain some warmth. My weariness from little sleep makes this a long stop as I also go shopping for today’s food stuff. The Wicklow mountains are ahead and I’m not sure how it will be for supplies out there.

Leaving the loop (in red) Simon on his way up the ranking

It’s a long steady climb up to the mountains as the area thins out and becomes moors like. The sun is out and its getting very warm as I pass through the 1000 mile point on the trip. Here the route crosses over starting a loop and I wonder if I will see anyone during the crossover.

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The sun is out at just the right time, a stunning view of Lough Tay, and wahay there is an ice cream van. It has to be a 99 stop and enjoy the view, here captured by my new American friend. Yes his words, ” so now we are like friends can I ask you an embarrassing question, How do you get reverse on a stick shift rental car” Good deed done, seems he has been pushing it out of parking spaces for two days.

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Let’s shred

There’s a fast road down from here but the wicked Celtic route-wizard turned us off onto a gravel descent. Pretty rough it was great, a “respect” from two mountainbikers pushing their bikes up made me smile. Stopping in time and climbing over the gate at the bottom, not so good.

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Going down on 28mm slicks

Soon afterwards I was dotwatched, as one of the riders from the TransAtlanticway Race had tracked me down. Arran Bolger rode along to Enniskerry but chose to head back to Dublin rather than start the long drag back up to the tops. Now it was full speed to Glendalough and the second checkpoint.

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The crazy Clarke brothers, legends

Winding up for some speed on the narrow roads, a car coming the other way is blasting its horn and I’m more worried about staying out of the ditch that checking out who’s in it. Five minutes later the Clarke brothers from the TransAtlanticWay race return, Gregg and Ant. They are going mental having found me and start forcing Ice cream and sweets on me, well I’m not going to refuse. It was a fun meeting and sums up the great bond these events create in it’s riders, cheers lads.

It’s a great ride onward to a very busy Glendalough, the weekend crowds are out, I’d hate to have to get food here today. The checkpoint is a hostel that comes after a worrying trip out of the village thinking I’d missed it. The whole PanCeltic team are here and it’s great to hear how it’s going, they are busy, but Mally still manages to get me some cooked food. They look and sound shagged and I can fully appreciate how little sleep they are managing on, the glamorous life of manning a 24 hr checkpoint on a race.

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Checkpoint 2, that’s the view I needed.

From this write up it might seem like I was carefully checking out the race and trying to make up places; that wasn’t the case. The ferries from Ireland defined the race at this stage, from the moment I landed in Belfast I knew which ferry I could make to get to Wales, that was all that counted. I couldn’t go fast enough to make the one before it (tonight) so it was always going to be the first one tomorrow morning. You don’t have to be the first rider in the queue for the ferry, you need to be the best rested one.

I summed up the options, ride to Wexford now and get some good sleep was prime. It was a hot Saturday night at the seaside, every bed would be taken, if not expensive. With 110 hard miles in my legs, here I was in a hostel with a team dorm available. I took the option of showering and trying to sleep in the heat of the afternoon, and continuing in the cool night. Another benefit would be the busy gravel tourist route round the Lough would be so much more relaxed not playing dodge the random walkers. I left my bike in a room and took shelter, only briefly seeing Jamie arrive.

How could I be sure of my timing to know which ferry I would be on? Over the course of the past year I had noticed myself slowing down on the road, some of it physical and some of it due to supermarket trips instead of quick garage cash blowouts. My average speed based on elapsed time including stops was 10mph. Yes just 10 mph, not easy to admit, but sure makes the maths easy. Divide the distance by 10, add in the sleep time you want and it’s pretty predictable where you will be at roughly what time. Factoring in changes for terrain and weather it always rounded out pretty well.

With the auto stop removed on my Garmin (come on, you should be doing that people, moving speed is worthless in this game) I can check how much the stops eat into my average time by hitting the lap button when I return to the bike and start moving again. here’s a screenshot:

On ths sample the average speed would probably be about 12 to 14 mph while riding. Without auto pause you can then just watch all your hard won speed [relative term πŸ˜‰ ] disappear in front of your eyes while you stop. This looks like a typical day: 1. Get going, find breakfast and stop. 2. Morning session until another food stop. 3. Going again. So overall not very fast, remember the lap is until the end of the stop.

Oh yes back to the race, well relaxed tour to the ferry all being well. But first I have to get to my bike, it is now covered with about thirty other bikes in the room I left it, doh, the hostel has a big touring crowd in. It’s just getting dark at 10.30 as I start off and Ali Hutton is keen to ride along. Ali has caught up by a ferry since arriving in Ireland but at the expense of not having any rest today, great riding. I could not refuse some company, trying not to feel like I was a chaperone. We both shared our tales of woe so far, she had been having quite and adventure too. Riding round the lake on the gravel was great at this hour, I was insanely jealous of the twilight swimmers, it was still warm but starting to drop fast as we climbed up out of the valley.

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Late night dippers at Glendalough

As night rides go it was pretty busy, a mass of abusive drunks wandering down the road in the middle of nowhere was confusing. Some fun narrow descents in the dark livened it up. The bright lights of Arklow looked great on the coast. After 7 hours on the road I found the carnage of riders bodies in the ferry terminal. With stories of sleeping on the beach and outside the terminal doors, and Ali now awake for 24 hours, I was feeling like I had made a good choice.

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Luxury but only open from 4am

So after all that the whole of the good ship Rab C were now reunited. Jon, Tony, Nick and Jamie. Brilliantly Ali and Simon Bloye from the ferry behind us had caught us up. Now I had my race head on, I did everything possible to make sure once we docked I was off into Wales first. While the others slept I went back to the now open petrol station and stocked up on chicken pieces and filled water bottles. The final Welsh section of the route was pre-loaded on the GPS, lessons learned from ferry one.

Wheel for Ireland
The Ireland Portion

On board I sat down for a quick breakfast with the lads then went off to a daytime cabin for shower and sleep. Yes a cabin, cunningly booked while at the checkpoint, one last blast of luxury, here my plan started to unravel: At the hostel the power sockets were so worn that my phone never charged. Riding at night the dynamo powered the lights, Garmin being drained, while I drained my cache battery to charge my phone. Re-charging on the boat was not possible as it only had Euro sockets, so I was starting the next leg with my device power levels low. My personal power levels were good, I even got to see another tour stage on TV in bed and three hours good sleep.

Continued in Wales – the race to the finish

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